Time: 24 hours before the paper
This is when you should be looking at your books for the last time. It doesn't matter how much you're going to study on the last day - none of it is going to go into your head, and you are going to retain none of it. In fact, the more you study, the more you tend to forget. This is because before big exams such as the CAT, there's absolutely no substitute for being calm and relaxed. If you utilize every last minute cramming, you lose out on something very important – your peace of mind! Things you can do one day before the CAT are to get everything you need for the exam in order, such as your admit card, pencils and erasers, and to try and go to your exam centre to familiarize yourself with the route. People DO go to the wrong centres on CAT day. It happened to me this year, but because I was lucky enough to get there early, I got to the other (correct) centre on time. Apart from that, although it sounds clichéd, try watching a movie, especially a comedy. It helps tremendously. Try and get at least 7 hours of sleep.
Time: 3 hours before the paper
Eat a light breakfast, check all of your stuff, and plan to reach the centre at least an hour before the paper starts. You never know what may go wrong during the journey to the paper, and this is one day when you don't want to take any chances. Carry a chocolate bar with you – it helps to pass time in case you get there early, and also makes you a little more alert before the paper. Don't forget to carry a water bottle either.
Time: 15 minutes before the paper
This is when you'll be allowed into the exam hall. Locate your seat and start filling in all of the necessary forms (attendance sheet(s) mainly) and the OMR sheet. You will have plenty of time to do this, but there's no sense in slacking now and wasting valuable time later on. Don't forget to keep your admit card with you. Check and recheck your OMR sheet – if you screw this up, there's no point in sitting there for the next two and a half hours!
Time: Start of the paper
This is when you are allowed to open your question papers. This is NOT when you start writing your paper. The difference between doing well on your CAT and doing badly lies in the first 2-3 minutes. Please don't start off with the first question blindly. READ all of the instructions on the question paper very carefully. Familiarize yourself with the pattern of the CAT that year. Set yourself a target number of questions (depending on your speed) that you want to attempt. Then look through the sections and mark the questions that you think you can attempt, and the ones you definitely can't. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this step. The KEY to giving a good CAT lies in proper selection of questions. It is essential that you spend at least 2 minutes selecting questions you wish to attempt and those you wish to avoid. At this point of time you should also allocate how much time you want to spend on each section.
Time: 3 minutes into the paper
This is when you should take a deep breath and start attempting your paper. Now, there are several strategies that I used during the mock tests and in the actual CAT paper, for attempting questions. These strategies may not work for everyone, and it is very important to keep experimenting with your own strategies until you zero in on one or two which you are confident about. Most importantly, choose flexible strategies. You don't know which section is going to be intimidating during your CAT paper. Some of the strategies I would recommend are:
- Always have a default section which you think you are best at. This is the section with which you will start giving your paper, all things being equal. Only if in your assessment your default section is significantly tougher than the other sections, you should switch to another section.
- Always have a backup section, which you need to shift to in case your default section is very tough. This happened to me this year. My default section was Quantitative Ability, but on my initial reading I found it to be a little tricky. I immediately started off with Data Interpretation, and came back to Quantitative Ability later on. By then, because I had finished the rest of the paper and was not under much pressure, QA did not seem as tough as it initially did.
- Have a filler section for when you need to take a break from the other sections. Your filler section could be any of the three, as QA and DI are caselet based anyway, and VA has grammar and RC. The idea behind a filler section is to release pressure. We often panic during CAT thinking of the sections in which we have not attempted any questions at all. However, a filler section is a section in which, after every 25-30 minute spell attempting another section, you pick up an RC or a caselet from and solve. It is a tremendous confidence-booster when, after finishing with two sections and flipping to the third, you find that you have already solved 7-8 questions in that section. You should utilize the mocks that you give in identifying which of the three sections is your default section, and also your backup and filler sections.
- Try and get an idea of how tough a section is, relative to the other sections. VA sections have been extremely tough for the last couple of years, so there is no sense in wasting time solving every question in order to clear the cut-off. Be confident that the cut-off would be low, and solve only enough questions for you to be confident that you would clear it. On the other hand, since DI sections have been easier, they are worth spending a little extra time on, so that you clear your cut-off and score well overall.
- In Verbal Ability, avoid attempting more than two Reading Comprehensions one after another. The reason is that your concentration starts flagging after the first couple of passages, and you invariably make careless errors in the third and fourth passages you attempt, if you are attempting them in succession. Instead, mix it up by doing a little grammar or even another section in between passages, to keep your mind fresh.
- In most Data Interpretation caselets and most Reading Comprehension passages, there will be 1-2 questions easier than the others. Make sure you attempt them at the very least, even if you don't attempt the rest of the question. Conversely, there is no rule that states that every caselet or passage has to be attempted completely (i.e. all questions answered), so don't waste time doing difficult questions.
- Avoid doing Quantitative Ability for long stretches of time, as your concentration starts flagging. Mix up Quantitative Ability with some grammar or some DI caselets.
- Keep checking your OMR sheet to ensure that you have shaded the correct circles for the questions that you have answered. Every year some people do badly because they shade in their OMR sheets incorrectly.
- Never ever make solving a question a matter of personal pride. Time is your most valuable commodity during the two and a half hours. If you can't see how to solve a question, leave it immediately. Think of it as a question you could have solved if you had the time, but chose not to. Spending copious amounts of time on a question breaks your rhythm and comes with absolutely no benefit.
- Finally, don't panic. It sounds easy, but it takes practice. This is where your mocks come into the picture. Give enough mocks to get used to exam-like situations. A calm, relaxed mind is paramount. A good way to take a breather and calm yourself down during the paper is to take a minute off to sip some water and re-gather your thoughts.
Time: 2 minutes before the end of the paper
Check your OMR sheet again, and gather all of your things. Prepare to hand in the paper, and then continue solving it. No sense in giving the invigilator the chance to not take your paper by delaying handing it in.