One thing that is common to any aspirant’s preparatory journey is taking mock tests. Many of the serious aspirants end up appearing for anywhere between 25-75 mocks in a season. While there is no particular number of mocks that ensures success, the quality of analysis of a mock can make a significant difference to the outcome of one’s score. As highly as it is rated by CAT toppers and institutes alike, when it comes to analysing a mock, many aspirants are clueless/resort to weak techniques to analyze a mock and end up defeating the purpose of the entire activity.
To understand why it would be important to analyse a mock test properly, one has to simply look at the responsibility/remuneration that is given to a freshly minted MBA grad from a good b-school. Companies value the way you can solve their problems in an organized manner, looking at variables that are beyond the scope of a lay person and that process starts from the day you begin preparing for the test. If you cannot analyse yourself, chances are low that you will be able to give a thorough analysis of a product/brand/operations/workforce, thereby holding back your dream of doing an MBA from a premium b-school.
The commonly known, universally followed quick-fix method is the solve the paper without any time limit -> go through the solutions -> make a note of the key findings -> understand your strengths and weaknesses -> take the next mock
As much as there is merit and simplicity to this process, there could be times when you are not able to figure out how to improve in spite of following all these steps religiously. We will try to explore why and figure out a process that would be a bit more insightful. To start with, a lot of aspirants do not have clarity as to why they should take a mock in the first place and end up getting confused because they have too much on their plate. Let’s look at the commonly made errors when it comes to mock-taking:
Lack of objective/Misplaced objective
The main objective behind enrolling yourself for a mock test series should be to understand the intricacies of the test taking process through real life scenario simulation, understanding your prep status with regards to your strengths and weaknesses and trying out means to get into a better shape with each passing mock. The common misconceptions involved in mock taking are:
- My percentile in mocks has a direct bearing on my performance in CAT: Mock percentiles are more of a marketing gimmick than anything else. Yes, you get to know where you stand with regards to the rest of the competition but then again, the conditions are not standardized, leading to quite a few variations with regard to place (home vs. in a badly proctored environment), time (leisurely over 170 mins vs. shorter duration owing to commitments/lack of time) and seriousness (there are quite a few casual mock takers who believe in upping their performance come CAT) at the very least. This results in either a false sense of security or a feeling of worthlessness and disappointment thus shifting the focus from getting better at preparation and understanding your strengths to that of competing with the others. Even straight 100%iles across mocks would mean nothing when you go for the real test except maybe, an ounce of confidence (or overconfidence in some cases)
- I am not seeing instant results in the mocks and so, should stop taking mocks for some time: Again, there are no quick-fixes when it comes to conceptual knowledge. It takes some time to get used to a concept and apply it in a real test taking scenario. You cannot force it on your brain to accelerate that process if that is not your learning style. So, it is advisable to stick to your learning process and not worry about the result much (unless of course there is a significant gap between your classroom solving ability and your mock performances in which case, you need to question your faculty or an expert who can advise on the basis of your profile, aptitude, etc.)
- Wildly fluctuating scores are just a part of normal prep and these are phases every aspirant goes through: Now this depends on your definition of ‘wildly fluctuating’. For example, a fluctuation between a 95%ile and a 99%ile can be termed as normal as it would be impacted due to either an unbalanced paper, testing conditions, number of takers and so on but a fluctuation between a 90%ile and a 70%ile would point towards a major issue: either you are heavily dependent on being ‘in the zone’ while taking the test and cannot tolerate minor fluctuations (bad scenario to be in and has to be rectified before the actual test) or the fact that you are a bit reliant on the guessing game when it comes to boosting your attempts or that there is a conceptual gap and whenever these questions surface, you tend to lose it a bit. So, as a benchmark, a + 5%ile fluctuation is okay and needs no special attention as such but anything consistently greater than that could mean there is something amiss. (Why percentiles, you may ask especially after the first point: absolute percentage is not really an indicator of a change in your performance, because the difficulty levels of mocks keep on fluctuating and so, you would rely a bit on your percentile to understand a trend)
If you have either of the above mentioned issues, you need to straighten your objective first and then go about taking mocks and analyzing them.
The problem with the current process
While preparing a mock, a lot of thought is put into ascertaining the difficulty level of a mock. There cannot be all easy questions and there cannot be all difficult questions. The difficulty level can be increased in two ways:
1. by making a conceptually deep question which is beyond the repertoire of a normal CAT aspirant or
2. by putting too much information in a question, leading to a disproportionate amount of time required to solve the question
In case of the latter, even if you solve it without the time constraint and succeed, it does not necessarily mean that you should solve the same question if it appears in another test. Many aspirants, under the pretext of analyzing a mock, spend hours together on solving the unsolved questions. If you ask yourself the question ‘What have I gained through this exercise?’, there won’t be a concrete answer that you could tell yourself. At most, you can say that you understood that your score could have increased by an x amount without understanding either your mental state during the test or the way forward. If eliminating silly mistakes is your only takeaway post analysis of a mock, it is not really an insight.
The ideal process
The broad steps indeed remain the same. First of all, you take a mock with some objective in mind (changing order of attempt, splitting sections, leaving certain question types for the end, using the view question paper option to understand the difficulty level of the paper before you start and so on). Taking mocks just for the sake of scoring a high percentile does not make much sense considering the scenarios we saw above. Not to say that you neglect percentiles altogether but then there is a big difference between considering your score and percentile as the principal outcome of a mock and focusing on other, more pertinent issues while keeping an eye on your relative performance as well. Mock-taking is for self-improvement, and not for showing off your competitive edge. A small change in outlook would make a big difference to the end result.
Next step would involve glancing through the missed questions once the results are out. While it is ok not to completely solve all the questions, you can keep a sheet handy and put a reason next to the question as to why didn’t you attempt it in the original test:
(a) because you did not know the concept/are not particularly fond of the topic
(b) because you thought that it would be too time consuming
(c) because even after spending a few minutes on the question, you were not able to figure out the way to proceed
(d) because you were not able to go through the question during the test due to mismanagement of time
(e) fear of getting negatives
While going through the question during analysis, it is okay if you don’t solve the entire thing. Even if you are confident of having made a headway, you can let go of the question. Once you have done this, you can decide again whether you would stick to your original option behind the reason of leaving the question or would like to change it.
You can check the solution now. The possible cases are:
(Click on the image for an enlarged view)
This is a broad overview of your intent during a mock. If you analyze all the questions using this framework, you can understand your overall level of preparation and the way forward while attempting the next mock.
With regard to the incorrect answers, you will encounter the following scenarios:
(a) Silly mistakes: In spite of cracking the logic and going all the way, you ended up getting entangled in the paper setter’s trap, because of reading the question incorrectly or comprehending it wrongly or because of a calculation mistake. It is a crime to make such mistakes and you should find the reason and fix it as soon as is possible. This is more critical in case you are attempting fewer questions and so, cannot afford to make such errors due to lack of concentration, minor lapses or pure carelessness (qualities unbecoming of a manager) while taking a mock
(b) Conceptual errors: You might have read a concept somewhere and have imbibed the same in your system to be plugged in next time you see a question. Paper-setters thrive on this naivety of aspirants and play around oh-so-slightly with words. There is a lot of difference between 4 different cards put into 8 different boxes, 4 identical cards put into 8 different boxes, 4 identical cards put into 8 identical boxes and 4 different cards put into 8 identical boxes. If one blindly applies the ‘number of non-negative solutions to an equation’ concept in each of these cases, it would be incorrect. The better thing would be to make sure that you understand a concept fully along with all the relevant wordplay before considering it ready-to-use. To master this, listening carefully, treating each concept with some degree of respect and reading carefully between the lines are very important. Question your mentor as frequently as possible and try exploring connections yourself when you are solving questions. Discarding a question after you have figured out one solution is something a good candidate would never do
(c) Inappropriate shortcuts: A lot of aspirants get impressed by shortcuts and reverse-engineering techniques propagated by seasoned takers and past/present toppers (fake and unverified claimers in many cases) and try to replicate the same. These techniques are a result of years of hard work and dedicated preparation and crystal clear understanding of concepts. Just because it looks easy doesn’t mean that it is easy. Many aspirants fall into the trap of blindly going for these techniques without understanding the hidden connections and end up getting a lot of incorrect answers (which gives a false security with regard to the number of attempts during a test). If you are unaware of the depth of a concept, shortcuts won’t help. As a corollary, many aspirants prefer solving questions in their head simply because it is glamorous. This is dangerous and can lead to a lot of silly mistakes especially if you lack the retentive power to do so. Most of the time, it is better to swallow your ego and do it the conventional way unless you have mastered the art
(d) Guessing: Many aspirants resort to ‘intelligent guessing’ while taking a mock to boost their attempts. Intelligent guessing, in itself is a very good idea (generalizing scenarios as equilateral triangles, integers, squares and so on). But many let go of the ‘intelligent’ part of it and mark options that they ‘feel’ are closer to what they have got. If there is no mention of the word ‘approximate’ in the question, it is a sure shot indicator that you have made some blunder while calculating the answer. In these cases, you can either check your calculation and figure out the right answer or again, swallow the humility pill and refrain from marking the ‘closest’ option.
The incorrect answers are a big revelation as to how your understanding of your strength is slightly misplaced and the minor factors that you need to focus on while attempting the test.
Regarding the correct answers, it is sufficient to sit with your rough sheet while analyzing the mock and cross checking your method with that of the given solution. If there is a shorter alternate solution, you can make a note of it and try to understand the underlying concept. As remembering everything one solves is humanly impossible, I recommend my students to maintain a Powerpoint presentation that has to be filled with questions/solutions/traps that they have found to be interesting and worth retaining.
I have tried to touch the major aspects of mock analysis in this post. There could be variations to this and you can customize it according to your needs.