CAT score shouldn’t be a sacred threshold | Premchand Palety

Last month, a relative of mine who works as a scientist in the US showed me a small gizmo that supposedly measures intelligence. It had some simple mathematical questions. Every time one operates it, a new set of similar questions pop up.

The response time in solving the problems is taken as an indicator of the level of one’s intelligence.

In about the half-an-hour that I played with it, my score levels improved significantly; not because I became more intelligent by meddling with it, but because my familiarity with the questions increased. Solving similar questions over and over again helped in decreasing my response time. This reminded me of the common admission test (CAT) that MBA aspirants have been taking every year for more than 30 years and which uses similar mechanism in evaluating “intelligence”.

CAT is perhaps the toughest B-school entrance exam (quantitatively speaking) worldwide. Many top-rated Indian B-schools use the CAT percentile as an objective index of a person’s so-called “intelligence”. A cut-off percentile is often declared which acts as a sacred threshold demarcating “winner” from “loser”.

At present, candidates getting even 95 percentile can’t expect to get interview calls from top B-schools such as the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and Management Development Institute (MDI).

Whether the test actually helps B-schools select students with business and leadership aptitude and potential is a moot point. In my view, the CAT score at best should be used as one of the criteria, but not the deciding factor in inviting students for group discussions or interviews.

Coaching institutes make big money by teaching students the “technique” to solve expected questions and making them practice over and over again so that their response time is least in answering questions in the actual test.

Measurement of intellect

CAT could be testing the student’s ability to slog (after all, at least a year’s effort goes into practising answers to expected questions), but its assessment of intelligence is inadequate if we go by Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences. Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard University, did path-breaking research on human intellect. His research has contradicted long-held notions about intelligence, which is based on two fundamental assumptions: that cognition is unitary and that individuals can be adequately described tohave a single quantifiable intelligence. He has identified eight kinds of intelligences that a person can excel in.

Going by this theory, CAT assesses to an extent logical-mathematical intelligence (which is the ability to understand the underlying principles of some kind of a causal system or to manipulate numbers, quantities, and operations).

However, for a manager, inter-personal (understanding other people and effectively dealing with them) and intra-personal intelligence (understanding of one’s own emotions and abilities) is more relevant. CAT also doesn’t evaluate the traits desired in a successful business leader or entrepreneur—such as thinking out of the box. Even the assessment of a student’s mastery over the English language in the test is flawed. Many MBA aspirants spend gruelling hours memorizing difficult words from help books instead of making reading a habit.

New parameters

There is even research done to suggest the inadequacy of CAT. Asha Bhandarkar, a professor of human resources management at MDI, did an elaborate study among students, alumni and recruiters of top B-schools, the findings of which will be published in her forthcoming book Shaping Future Leaders: What B-Schools Don’t Do. Based on her research, she opines that CAT is not adequate to screen for the right kind of students.

According to her, there is a need to re-examine the test and bring in new intelligence parameters so that selection of the right candidates, that is, those with capability to provide business leadership, can take place.

For more than 30 years, while the business scenario has changed significantly, the pattern of CAT paper has not altered much. In the past few years, there have been some changes such as reduction in the number of questions, more emphasis on English, and so on, but there hasn’t been any serious attempt to revamp this test.

Global cue

Till CAT is drastically restructured, maybe we can take a cue from some top B-schools worldwide that don’t go by just the GMAT score in shortlisting students for the final interview. Of course, they have the advantage of fewer applicants, which makes it easier to use multi-method selection processes. Our major obstacle in developing the right selection mechanisms is the huge number of applicants that a top-rated B-school gets.

Filtering students on the basis of the CAT percentile is an easy way out. But we need to change this so that deserving candidates are not denied a fair chance. Our top B-schools, to begin with, can consider giving significant weightage to relevant work experience and not just rely on CAT scores for shortlisting candidates for the interview call.

Premchand Palety is director of Centre for Forecasting & Research (C fore) in New Delhi, from where he keeps a close eye on India’s business schools.