CAT can now be taken through the year - What does this mean?

Now, it is more or less official. The CAT exam is set to be conducted through the year. If not from 2011, this is set to happen from 2012 onwards. This is a significant shift from the CAT, and coming close on the heels of the shift to computer-based exam, this changes the CAT market substantially.

Why have the IIMs done it?

The IIMs have tried to make three transitions over the past 3-4 years - paper-based to computer-based, once a year to round the year and to try and create a separate entity to run the exam. All three suggest that the IIMs want to make this a broader standardized test, rather than being purely viewed as an entrance exam for the IIMs. Historically, more than 100 universities have used the CAT, but many among these have used multiple exams (CAT, GMAT, GRE, JMET, etc) for selecting students.

The IIMs are eying a larger share of this market and want to remove the timing constraint in taking the CAT exam. Last year, 2 lakhs students took the CAT. If it is made a round-the-year exam, that number could easily go up another 30-40%. Add to this the fact that there would be many students that would be attempting the CAT more than once a year, this is great news for CAT. A large number of professionals find it difficult to plan for the CAT. Now, with more freedom to choose the dates, a large number of these will start writing the exam.

How are things different for test-takers?

Freedom to select dates on which you can take is always a boon. One can account for everything from foreign assignments, exam schedules and superstitions when selecting the correct dates. But, in every competitive exam, any change is likely to be a zero sum game. This change, I believe will be a disadvantage to freshers and a boon to experienced candidates.

Experienced candidates are usually the ones that struggle to plan well in advance, struggle to set aside 10-11 months to prepare for the exam, and generally end up not putting in enough preparation for the CAT. Now, anyone shifting jobs will want to take a 6-week break, prepare for CAT and take it at the earliest (somewhat similar to the GMAT). More importantly, the CAT scores will get de-emphasized even more and profile, experience will matter more.

Scoring 99.94th percentile in a once-a-year CAT might more or less guarantee a seat in one of the top 10 univs, but scoring a corresponding score in a round-the-year CAT will be less of an achievement. This de facto implies that profile, experience, academic background, etc matter more. Indian schools might become similar to the global ones in that, they will start with a CAT cut-off and then shortlist based on profile, rather than shortlist based on CAT scores. This will be disadvantageous for fresh graduates. This will also be disadvantageous for candidates with a standard profile (such as an Engineer with 3 years of experience in Patni/Polaris).

More experienced grads will prepare for this, more of them will prepare better, and for many of them the experience will count for more. So, freshers might not be the happiest bunch due to this change. Having said that, India is probably the only country that allows so many freshers to do an MBA. Globally, students with zero experience doing an MBA is the exception rather than the norm. So, this shift towards selecting more experienced candidates was also always coming, I guess.

How does this change the preparation pattern?

The content does not change at all. One needs to prepare for the same quant, DI and verbal. But, a 12-week intense routine will probably be the preferred route, rather than a 15 month course of low intensity. Till 2000, students used to prepare for less than 4-5 months for the CAT. Only after these coaching institutes realized that getting college students early is very lucrative, did the cycle of preparation slowly expand to 15 months. This is probably an overkill. Students will start opting for the short burst rather than the low-intensity momentum-killing build up. More experienced candidates will want to prepare over a 12-week cycle, more diverse candidates will want to give it a crack. Fresh grads will probably still prefer the 12-month routine, mostly because this will ensure the ground work is done if ever they want to take the CAT 2-3 years down the line. Hopefully, some newer players will emerge in the test-preparation space :)

All in all, this is good news, one can plan for CAT better, the IIMs are set to make more money, and quality of paper should improve further. Who knows, the CAT might begin competing with the GMAT outside the Indian market as well. I am among few people who believe that the quality of the CAT exam is excellent (barring the few errors). If they manage to cut the error-rate, we could have an excellent test on our hands. Probably worth marketing it globally.