Once in a while during his CAT preparations, every MBA aspirant goes through a phase I call the ‘RC Madness’. Propelled by the battle cries of ‘start reading’, ‘increase your RC speed’, ‘build your vocabulary’, ‘read newspapers’ etc. he tries one thing after another to gain that elusive accuracy in reading comprehension passages. Things become worse if he joins a coaching institute; his classmates at his coaching are completely convinced that ‘RC ke bina to kucch nahin ho sakta’ and his English trainer, who never cracked CAT himself or went to an IIM, keeps feeding him with ideas to attempt the RC passages. The trainer also keeps pressurizing him to become a good reader. The trainer believes that he is right about the reading part. The better reader the student becomes, the better he will be at RC passages.
Are better readers better at RC passages?
As they do every year, last year also, the premier coaching institutes published the answers to the CAT 2006, within a day after the exam. The answers for verbal sections were given by top English faculties at each of these CAT prep institutes. Most of these top faculties were good readers and excellent in every aspect of the language. Also, they solved the CAT paper not under pressure situation in the examination hall but at leisure in their respective offices. They must have read every RC passage more than 10 times, a luxury the students taking the CAT paper didn’t have. And yet, when the IIMs released their answer keys in January, 2007, most of the RC answers given by these institutes were wrong! (The same thing had happened for CAT 2005 paper where many answers given by these institutes were incorrect). Subsequently, all of them removed their answer keys from the websites. So here is the question once again- Do better readers, like these English faculties, prove themselves better at RC passages?
The jury is still out on that question. But to me, this is NOT the question that a student should be asking. The correct question to ask is ‘how do I achieve cut-offs in verbal section of CAT?’ Is this question not same as ‘how do I score well in RC passages?’ Not really.
The worst thing about the verbal section is that a student can attempt most of the given questions. This is not same as Quant or DI sections where he can attempt only a limited number of questions. Why is it a bad thing? Because, a student wastes time reading and doing many extra questions in which his accuracy will be poor rather than selecting some relatively easier questions and spending more time on them.
Let’s do some mathematics- In CAT 2006, there were 25 questions of 4 marks each. To achieve 96 percentile in the verbal section (the cut offs are at 93 percentile) you needed to score 37 marks. Let’s make it 40 marks. To achieve 40 marks you needed to attempt 10 questions at 100 percent accuracy. If you got one question wrong out of these 10, you would have still achieved your cut off. In essence, if you attempted 12 questions, you could afford to get 2 of them wrong. Attempting 12 questions meant attempting 50% of the section only. There were 15 RC questions, 5 sentence completion questions, and 5 inference, judgment questions. Technically speaking, if you spent your time only on sentence completion and inference questions, you had ample time to find the right answers to these questions. Since these 10 questions would have barely taken 20 seconds to read, nearly all of the time could have been spent in solving them. Which means that you could have avoided the RC completely! But is it a sane advice? No. My real point is that if a student has CHOSEN one RC passage (completely ignoring the two others) from the three given, he would have 15 questions at his disposal and he would have had ample time to attempt these questions with a good accuracy. Therefore, in this article, I hereby present the first point of my RC technique-
· CHOOSE YOUR RC PASSAGE: This is the most important point in the verbal section. Don’t attempt every RC passage. Verbal section is like any other section- you need to select questions that you are going to answer. Remember that it takes 10 minutes on average to answer an RC passage completely. Attempting a tough RC passage consumes more time than you take for an average RC passage, makes you unsure of your answers, leaves you unsettled and nervous about the paper. It even tires you out mentally and increases the panic situation. The best strategy is to give a brief glance to each RC passage, and then select the ones you are going to attempt. Make a firm resolve that you will NOT look at the passages that you have excluded. How do you select a passage? I have only one criterion- I select passages that are easier to read. Different people will find different passages easier to read depending on their backgrounds.
In CAT 2006, had you attempted only one RC passage and ignored the two others completely, you would have 15 questions at your disposal and you would have 50 minutes to solve them. You would have had more time to think in every question and it would have increased your accuracy remarkably. Even a 75% percent accuracy in these 15 questions would have fetched you the cut offs.
· START SLOOOWWWLYYY: Most students start with an RC passage with a timer in their heads. Therefore, they try to hit the ground running. They want to finish the first paragraph as soon as they can, then move on to the second paragraph and finish it quickly… and so on. In the process, they lose track of the main idea of the passage, tone of the author, the structure of the passage etc. By the time they reach halfway through the passage, they lose track of the argument and get confused. These students do not understand that the most important part of a passage is the first paragraph. The first paragraph introduces the topic and the main idea of the passage, and very often states the author’s position on it. Start with the first paragraph SLOWLY! Do not move on to the second paragraph until you have understood the first one completely.
· FORM AN OPINION AND TAKE A STAND: Do you realize how passively you absorb every line of a passage that was written by some highly opinionated jerk? Do you ever question whether the author of the passage is talking sense or feeding you crap? You become a punching bag whom someone is hitting with his ideas. For a change, why not start questioning the content of the passage? Why not start forming opinions about every paragraph in the passage and start taking sides? Trying to judge every paragraph will have the following effect:
□ In order to form an opinion, you will be forced to read the contents of a passage very minutely. You will become aware of the logical points the author is trying to put across to convince you.
□ You will be forced to paraphrase every paragraph and summarize what the author is trying to say.
□ You will become a highly active reader, become interested in the passage and be able to maintain your focus throughout the passage.
· CONNECT THE DOTS: While moving from one paragraph to another, be VERY aware of the logical flow of the passage. Be conscious about how the passage is structured. At any point in the passage, you should be able to say, ‘the author started from X, then moved to Y, then discussed Z to prove his point, then discussed some points against Z…’ and connect every part of the passage with the previous parts. Practice this technique again and again until it becomes a habit with you.
· GO BACK TO THE PASSAGE TO ANSWER EVERY QUESTION: Many errors in RC passages happen because a student facing crunch of time marks answers relying on his memory of the passage. He marks the options which he thinks are ‘similar’ to something he read in the passage. Don’t do it. The person who made the test is counting on you to do that and he has deliberately put similar sounding options in the questions. Go back to the passage and check out every option. Yes. EVERY option. Let’s say that you are somewhat shaky about option b and even after checking the passage feel that it is probably right. But if you keep checking out the options you might find that option d is better than option b. So check every thing out. Be a suspicious bastard.
In the end, realize that practicing these techniques will save you more time during your CAT exam than will any other technique. Ignore those ‘skim and scan’ cries coming from your English instructor. He never cleared the CAT exam. I did. In 2005, I cracked every test paper I took; held all India ranks in top 10 throughout my mocks, cracked CAT, IIFT, and GMAT. And my marks were always the highest in the verbal section.
It was because I never listened to my English instructor. The best advice I got was from a fellow test taker- “RC is similar to cheating. All the information is given in the passage. You just have to copy it from there.”
And I kept cheating. I kept reading the passage completely.