How to Prepare for Verbal Ability and Reading Comprehension for the CAT (2014)

The Online CAT: From a VA/RC Perspective

Welcome to the world of online CAT! 

The advent of the online version of the Common Admission Test (CAT) 2009 onwards, has brought with it a whole lot of opinions and views about

•what has changed in the examination and

•what should be the ideal preparation pattern.

Therefore, one objective in this revised edition of this widely read book is to look at the issues that an aspirant needs to consider while preparing for the online CAT. We would like to discuss this issue in the following parts:

1.What has changed ?

A comprehensive analysis of what are the critical dimensions of the changes that have taken place in the CAT in its online avatar. Here, a picture has been presented regarding what these changes mean for the aspirant, both in respect of positive and negative factors, taking into account the following:

(a)Changes in the test-taking experience

(b)Changes in the exam pattern.  

2.What does all this mean for the Preparation Process? How has it changed and how has it remained constant?

While doing so I have taken the help of a varied experiential sample of test-takers across India and also my own personal experience of taking (and may I add dominating) the CAT. Given below are some of the implications of the online version of the CAT in the context of the Verbal Ability and Reading Comprehension section (which this book is all about)


The ‘Experience’ of Taking the Test

1. Cleaner and More Efficient

Compared to the paper-and-pen based CAT, the online version is much cleaner as regards the clarity of questions, their visibility, and the overall feel of the question-solving experience. Consequently, the efficiency (of the thought processes) is much higher, leading to a much superior test-solving experience.

2. Space Management on the Table

In the paper-and-pen version, the aspirants had to typically manage the test paper, admit card, watch, pencils (at least 2), eraser, sharpener along with the answer sheet on the table. To add to their woes, the paper-and-pen versions of the exam were mostly conducted in schools. Very often the aspirants had to contend with the additional challenge of managing all this paraphernalia on a school boy’s small table. In addition, if luck did not run your way and you were made to sit in a classroom meant for juniors (between classes 3 to 6), you really had a challenge.

Most of these problems have disappeared in the new version. The fact that computer terminals in most colleges and universities are of standard shape and size eliminates the imbalance created due to non-uniformity of examination equipment. Besides, while writing the online version of the CAT, all you need to manage on the table are the mouse, the key board, a pencil and a sheet of paper for rough work; no watches, erasers, sharpeners test paper and answer sheet are there to bother you. No turning of pages in the Reading Comprehension section for the passages and the questions. What a relief!!!!

3. Moving Questions in the Test

Unlike the paper-and-pen version where test-takers could scan the whole question paper in one look, in the online CAT, aspirants have to move one question at a time. This have both its advantages and disadvantages in terms of the overall test experience. The obvious disadvantage that most aspirants face is the fact that since you could not really see the whole paper in one look, you could not make a judgment about the balance, the difficulty level or the topic-wise question distribution in the paper. Although we are referring to the Verbal Ability and Reading Comprehension (VA/RC) section here, this is also true for all the sections in the exam.

Ironically, the biggest advantage for the examinee in terms of the online CAT is exactly the same i.e. since you could not see the entire paper at one go, the only option while taking the test is to look at the questions one by one. The option of clicking and going to the next question and thus seeing all of them is there but it would mean an unnecessary waste of time. This is a huge advantage because of three main reasons mentioned below:

Higher focus while Solving an Individual Question: As the aspirant does not know the exact number of questions from various areas and cannot estimate the difficulty level of the paper, he/she is left with no choice but to focus on one question (visible on the screen) at a time. The result is that the aspirant easily achieves the all-important ‘tunnel vision’ while solving a question. Consequently, the aspirant is able to zero in on the problem at hand with clarity and concentration in the online test than conventional paper-and-pen based exam.

When the aspirant solves a question on computer screen, the experience of the previous question tends to get erased from his mind. This helps him to put his entire attention to solving the present question. This is not the case in the paper-and-pencil based test where the aspirant tends to carry the negative experience of a badly-solved question to the next question.

Thus, the specific advantage of the online version of test is that “forgetting” a bad experience is relatively easy. The moment an aspirant navigates from one question to the other, he forgets the previous question so much so that remembering a question that was just two questions back is close to impossible. Hence, negative emotions from a previous bad experience do not linger on.

The Need for Faster Navigation (Less Time Wasted on Unsolvable Questions): Since the examinees do not see the full question paper right at the beginning, they move to the next question quickly. This results in students seeing a higher percentage of questions in the online test than in the paper-and-pencil based exam.

Author’s Note—One of the problems we have noticed in the paper-and-pencil based exam is that most examinees are not able to “see” the entire paper. i.e. the fraction of the English section that they were able to process was a fraction of the entire test paper. As a result they used to miss out on a large number of questions which they should have attempted as they wasted their time in question types/ Reading Comprehension (RC) passages that they should not have attempted!

Part of this time mismanagement also occurred due to the fact that they did not have the clock ticking on the screen in front of them. Therefore, there was a tendency of losing track of how much time they had spent in attempting to solve a question. A good percentage of the time the aspirants used to spend in the English section (and especially the reading comprehension) was spent in trying to solve a question/passage where they eventually had a low accuracy rate.

All this has changed for better in the online version of the examination. There is a greater imperative to move to the next question due to the twin facts that you do not see the entire paper as you move from one question to the other, and that the ticking clock is present on the screen in front of your eyes all the time . As a result you are aware of the exact amount of time you spend on a particular question/passage. The net result is that test-takers move faster from one question to the next and the faster navigation directly converts into a higher percentage of the total attemptable questions being attempted than in the paper-and-pen version of the examination. Thus time management improves drastically for the examinee.

We believe this is one of the main reasons why a lot of students who were trying to compare the two versions of the CAT said that the online version was easier. Since the amount of time spent in questions which they were eventually not able to solve, reduced drastically, they got a feeling that they were solving questions all the time as opposed to the paper-and-pencil version where aspirants used to have an overall negative experience of the test (as they would end up spending a lot of time in attempting “unsolvable” questions).

Advantage for Reading Comprehension: In the online examination, the passages are relatively smaller than passages of previous years and only three questions are given per passage. Online test gives much superior solving experience to the aspirants because questions are visible together with the passage. In the pen-and-paper based examination, the Reading Comprehension involved a lot of turning of pages to see the questions. Also the number of questions per passage has been reduced to three, which is a significant change. But it also demands accuracy on part of the student as the number of questions has also been reduced.

4. Mark/Unmark button and the review Button

A very important feature in the online version is the introduction of the review button. In the paper-and- pencil version, it was extremely difficult to track the number of your attempts and especially so in the context of questions that you were unsure about and/or questions which you wanted to come back to. There was simply no way in which you could keep a track of those and as a result there was effectively “no second chance” at a question.

This too changed in the online CAT. For every question, apart from the facility to answer it, you also had a MARK button, which would give you easy access to the question at the end of the paper. When you have completed the paper (reached the last question in the paper), you also got access to a review screen that  in one visual showed you all the questions you have solved as well as all the questions you have marked with the MARK button. So going back to a specific question in the paper was just the click of the mouse away.

5. Highlighting

One apprehension aspirants have with respect to solving Reading Comprehension on the computer is due to the habit of underlining various parts/sentence of the passage while reading. The online software used in CAT has a highlighting option which allows this to happen. Not only is that, highlighting a much better way of relocating information in the passage than underlining.

To sum up, the net effect of the online CAT was a superior test-taking experience—something that gives you a chance to be more in control of your test—and thus aim for a higher score assuming that the same set of questions would have been asked in the paper-and-pencil version.


Having seen the specific changes that have occurred in terms of the test-taking experience, let us now examine another crucial aspect.

Changes in Exam Pattern: Obviously for the purpose of this book, the analysis will pertain to the Verbal Ability and Reading Comprehension portion only. In order to read a similar analysis with respect to the other sections namely, Quantitative Aptitude and Data Interpretation, you can refer to my books on those subjects (also published by Tata McGraw Hill). The major changes in the pattern of the Verbal Ability and Reading Comprehension paper can be summarised through the following points:

1.Introduction of a two-section paper from 2011

2.More balanced portion coverage

3.Reduction in number of questions

4.Uniform pattern in all papers

5.Higher percentage cutoffs

6.Higher penalty for mistakes

1. Introduction of a two-section paper from 2011:

As you must be aware, the CAT 2011 introduced a new pattern shift by reducing the number of sections from 3 to 2. Before CAT 2011, there used to be three sections containing 20 questions each in the CAT exam- namely:

Section 1: Quantitative Aptitude,

Section 2: Verbal Ability & Reading Comprehension,

Section 3: Data Interpretation & Logical reasoning.

In the new pattern the number of sections was reduced to 2 sections containing 30 questions each. Namely:

Section 1: Quantitative Aptitude & Data Interpretation

Section 2: Verbal Ability & Logical reasoning.

In a lot of ways, this does not really change your process of preparation. This is because, even though on the surface the number of sections was changed- the actual number of questions under each category of questioning remained the same. In other words, while the three section CAT used to have 20 questions on Quantitative Aptitude, 20 questions on Verbal Ability and Reading Comprehension, 10-12 questions on Data Interpretation and 8-10 questions on Logical Reasoning the new two section examination has 20 questions on Quantitative Aptitude and 10 questions on Data Interpretation merged together under one section, while the 20 questions on Verbal Ability and Reading Comprehension and the 10 questions on Logical reasoning were merged together under the other section.So to prepare for the verbal section , the approach for  solving and preparation remains the same as before.

2. More Balanced Portion Coverage

As per the scheme followed in this book, the English portion can be divided into 6 major parts.

The underlying constant that used to exist in the paper-and-pencil version (through the entire decade prior to the first online CAT) was the prominence of Reading Comprehension and presence of, may be, 2–3 VA question types like para jumbles, sentence correction, last sentence of paragraph ,critical reasoning, correct usage, etc.

In each of the years from 1999 to 2008, the English section required you to get a net score of approximately 30–40% of the total marks in order to score a high 90 percentile in this section.

The table below shows the break-up in terms of % weightage given to the question types in 2009 CAT:


Weightage (as a % of total marks)

Reading Comprehension


Para Jumbles


Last Sentence of Paragraph


Fill in the Blanks


Sentence Correction


Correct Usage [Phrasal Verbs]


The following table shows a number of question-wise break-up in the different areas:


Number of Questions

Reading Comprehension


Para Jumbles


Last Sentence of Paragraph


Fill in the Blanks


Sentence Correction


Correct Usage [Phrasal Verbs]


3. Reduction in Number of Questions

The second major change in the English section is the reduction of questions to 20—from 55 questions in the late nineties to 50 between 2000 and 2003, to 30 and then 25 in the last years of the paper-and-pencil version. The number of questions has further gone down to 20 in the online version. Naturally, this reduced the amount of choice the aspirant had for leaving out a question.

For instance in CAT 2003 out of 50 questions, you needed to solve 15 to get to the cut off. This meant that at 100% accuracy, you could afford to leave 35 questions. This scenario has now changed drastically as is evident from the table below.


Number of questions in VA & RC

Number of Marks

Cut off at (approx. Number of Marks)

Number of Questions You Could Leave @ 100% Accuracy

Number of Questions You Could Leave @ 90% Accuracy

CAT 1999














CAT 2005






CAT 2006–08






Online CAT






As you can see, there is very little elbowroom available now in the online version to leave out questions and expect a good percentile score.

•The expectation in the future is that students taking the CAT would have to really use their English skills and attempt as many questions as possible in order to get a top percentile in the test.

4. Uniformity

The third major factor in terms of paper pattern was the uniformity of the test paper. The English section on all days was more or less of the same level, although there are reports of questions being more difficult in the later days of the examination but that is more a question of perception of the level and is open to debate.

An issue that is being discussed widely on the internet is fairness. A lot of voices rose against the CAT committee and the online version of the exam questioning the fairness of the testing process.

The Key Criticism

In the context of multiple papers with varying difficulty levels, how would the IIMs judge fairly between students who solved a high percentage of the questions in an easy test versus students who were able to solve a lower number of questions in a more difficult paper? The answer to this is really simple. Since the population size of each paper was significantly large, the IIMs could easily define individual percentiles in each test and ensure fairness to all.

The key point to be noted here is that there are infinite statistical ways through which processes like this can be made fair to everyone. As a future CAT aspirant, however, what you need to worry about is preparing diligently and facing the exam with a positive attitude. Control what you can and do not worry about things that are outside your control.

5. Higher Percentage Cutoffs

In the online version, aspirants wasted less time in questions which they thought were unsolvable and moved on to those they could solve. The result — most students were able to raise their scores in this section significantly.

Consequently sectional cut offs which used to be in the range of 30% of the net marks rose to around 40 – 45% of the marks.

6. Higher Penalty for Mistakes

In the online version, the number of errors have been penalised heavily with higher penalty for more errors progressively.


Let us look at this aspect in two broad parts:

1.What are the changes that need to happen in the preparation processes for the online CAT vis-a-vis the preparation process for the traditional paper-and-pencil version?

2.What are the things and issues that remain constant in the preparation process?

Changes in Preparation Process

For the first question, the specific things come to my mind.

1. More Balanced Portion Coverage Needed

As explained above, in the paper-and-pencil version, the best approach for English preparation was to do 2–3 question types well knowing that the rest would take care of itself. In fact, the elbowroom was so much that you could crack the entire language section without touching RC.

However, in the new online version, since the weightage of distribution of questions is much more even, this approach is no longer going to work. Also, since the elbowroom has reduced drastically, you need to be much more thorough with your preparations of each question type.

Hence, the need to cover all aspects of the portion well and not ignore any particular portion is perhaps the first and the biggest change that needs to be done in the preparation process.

2. Need to cover the basics well, namely, speedily solving LOD 1 questions and the ability to think through LOD 2 and LOD 3 questions

In the early years (1980s and upto the late 1990s), the CAT used to be essentially a speed test (including the English section). There were times when the paper used to consist of upto 225+ questions to be solved in 120 minutes. Questions used to be one-liners and could be solved easily. The key differentiation used to be the speed at which the aspirants could solve questions. However, from late 1990s onwards, the English section of the CAT had become a real test of English language intelligence. Questions ceased to be easy unless you had a very high degree of understanding and intelligence.

The online CAT in its first year tended to be a mix of both these extremes. Papers consisted of between 4–6 LOD 1 topped up by LOD 2 and LOD 3 questions. So while most aspirants found 4–6 very easy questions in each paper, they also had to really use their English ability to cross 10–12 correct attempts. In the future, as the IIMs improve the quality of the database of questions, one can expect the quality of the questions to improve drastically and hence the LOD 2 and LOD 3 questions contained in this book would be an extremely important resource to solve for maximizing your score in this section in the exam.

For the future CAT aspirant and the readers of our books the advice is short and simple. Cover both the flanks—solve the easier LOD 1 questions and improve your English language intelligence to cover the higher end questions of LOD 2 and LOD 3 level.

3. The Need to take Computer Based Tests in Order to be Able to Think on the Computer

Thinking and solving questions from the computer screen is a slightly different experience than solving from a physical book. Thus students and aspirants are advised to experience this change by going for online solving experience. It is in this context that we have tied up with to give our readers a feel of the online problem solving experience. However, in spite of these seemingly big external changes, my personal opinion is that the changes are mostly external in nature.

Issues that Remain Constant

The essence of preparation of the English section remains the same in a lot many fundamental ways. Some of these that come readily to mind are:

1. The need to develop mental structures for the CAT

English preparation has always been associated with the development of the language and analytical thinking processes and thought structures for specific situationsThe smart CAT aspirant is able to create the analytical thoughts in his mind to situations that he would encounter in the exam.

The whole battle for English preparation in the CAT essentially has been the battle to develop the ability to process information at varying levels of the language—and analyse it. Remember, this exam (and all other good aptitude exams) test you for your ability to apply logic in real life situations. Thus, the imperative remains to be able to recognize and comprehend various writing patterns, structures and styles.

Besides, the need to create exposure to diverse reading so as to be able to analyse a passage/paragraph/sentence in a superior manner than an average test-taker remains as strong as ever. Hence, the imperative to form “thought algorithms” for standard and diverse forms of writing in the English language and also a thought process for the techniques associated with each question type remains as strong as ever.

2. The need for thoroughness in your preparation

This is again something that does not change.

To sum up, the CAT still remains a test of your intelligence and analytical skills and an aspirant should focus on this aspect. This book provides plenty of practice and exposure to various chapters and aspects of the examination pattern that will eventually hone your skills in this aspect.