This week we will discuss the Verbal Ability Section of the CAT (Common Admission Test). Over the years the CAT has established itself as the most sought after, yet the most difficult entrance test for MBA in India. The perception that the CAT is difficult is entrenched among the candidates. And this perception – whether right or wrong – is largely attributable to the Section on Quantitative Ability. IIM aspirants, especially non-engineers, approach the CAT rightfully with loads of material in mathematics discussing the fundamentals, solved problems, shortcuts, strategies and simulated tests.

As the preparation progresses one soon realizes that though quant is the backbone of the CAT, the decisive part of the CAT is neither Quant nor DI but the Verbal Ability section. The Verbal Ability Section of the CAT tests these areas: Reading Comprehension, English Usage (Grammar), Vocabulary, and Reasoning. Somehow, most of the students feel inadequate in all four. The rush starts – for the fundamentals, shortcuts, and strategies in Verbal. And there are none. Solved examples and simulated tests are available for the asking – but the confidence is somehow elusive.

“Truly successful decision making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.” These words of Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) encapsulate the elusive Verbal Ability that all the entrance exams test. The deliberate thinking is to be cultivated by reading well, analysing, and training through solving problems, and taking tests. When choosing your answer, the fine balance between deliberate thinking and instinctive thinking need to be achieved. The CAT, unlike the GMAT, sometimes, compounds the problem. The choices, at times, rely more on wordplay than reasoning. Questions are, sometimes, meant to trick rather than test.

In the Verbal Ability Section of the CAT, your instincts do play a large role. An instinct that is not spoiled by conceit or coaching institutes go a long way in getting to the right answers in the CAT. However, one can take concrete steps to systematically address the inadequacy one may feel in the Verbal Section. Cultivate the reading habit so that you are comfortable with processing abstract ideas. Improve your Vocabulary the same way. Learn a lot of grammar. Take several tests. And in the process take care not to fall prey to mere ‘deliberate thinking’.

Almost 50% of the Verbal Section every year in the CAT is Reading Comprehension questions. Over the years, Reading Comprehension has become compact and difficult. The long 2400 word long passages with 10 or 12 questions gave way to shorter 900 word long passages with as few as three questions per passage. Readability decreased and options became analytical. If one concentrates on the Reading comprehension part, the Verbal Section in the CAT is more than taken care of.

Vocabulary and Grammar questions do not change much except in the format these questions are asked. A little bit of reasoning as well is involved in these questions. Proficiency in the language is more helpful than training and preparation. But prepare you must.

The miscellaneous reasoning questions like, Critical Reasoning questions (Fact, Inference, Judgment, Conclusions, and Assumptions etc.), Paragraph completion, Paragraph Jumbles and others appear off and on. The structure of the Verbal Section except for Reading Comprehension is not predictable. However, the areas tested remain the same: Reading Comprehension, English Usage, Vocabulary, and Reasoning.

CAT Verbal has (like the CAT itself) has become quite compact. From 100 questions in two sections, the number of questions gradually reduced to 25 questions in one section from 2000 to 2006, though 2008 CAT had 40 questions. And then around 34-35 questions in Verbal Section with almost half the section devoted to RC, as experienced in its online avatar.

In order to prepare effectively for the Verbal section, you must be ready to put in a lot of work, without looking for that elusive ‘confidence’ that may arise with efforts. It is all right if you do not feel confident in Verbal (No one can), but you must keep studying and keep taking tests. The guidance from an expert faculty can help. Above all do not allow your instinct to be corrupted – either by over analysis or by an attitude, casual or conceited.