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Playing favourites

Manu Kaushik     October 9, 2010

Come November, and it'll be a familiar tour de force for teeming MBA aspirants. Over 2.5 lakh candidates are likely to queue up for the Common Admission Test (CAT) for entry into the hallowed Indian Institutes of Management (IIMS) and only about 2,200 will eventually make the cut.

Indeed, the number of CAT applicants has surged over the past decade - from about one lakh in 2000 to 2.41 lakh in 2009 - and the number of seats at the IIMs, too, has almost doubled in the period. (Several other B-schools too select candidates based on CAT.) But amidst the churn, there has been an air of predictability about the eventual outcome - people with an engineering or technical background continue to crowd out candidates from other streams. For example, out of a 180-student batch in 2000 at IIM Ahmedabad, 54, or 30 per cent, were non-engineers. In 2010, the percentage fell to just 5.6 per cent in a class of 390 students.

The IIMs concede they would prefer a diversified batch and say they have taken proactive steps such as changing the test patterns and reducing the cut-off marks in the quantitative sections for nonengineers. Says Himanshu Rai, CAT convener and a professor at IIM Lucknow, "It's a socio-cultural issue. Parents force bright students to join science or engineering courses. We have to live with this skewed ratio and it's not going to change in a hurry."

But some experts argue that the CAT structure itself is inherently flawed - the degree of difficulty of the quantitative section, in particular, is above Class XII levels, creating a strong bias in favour of engineers. Says Sanjeev Bikhchandani, MD and CEO of Info Edge India, which runs sites such as and an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad, "When I wrote the CAT 20 years ago, the degree of difficulty of the quantitative sections was that of the tenth standard... So the good students from humanities also got in, resulting in greater diversity of the class. Today, the degree of difficulty of the quantitative section in some cases is above Class XII." CAT in 2009 changed completely from what it used to be a decade earlier.

Although the number of sections - verbal, quantitative and logical, and data interpretation - continue to remain the same, the number of questions came down to 60 in 2009 from 165 in 2000, leaving not enough options for candidates to pick and choose. The level of difficulty across all the sections has also gone up significantly over the last few years. The solution then could be to model the CAT on the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), which most foreign B-schools and some Indian colleges like the Indian School of Business consider for admissions.

It appears to be a more balanced test with equal emphasis on verbal and quantitative skills. In GMAT, there are 78 questions with 41 in the verbal section and 37 in the quantitative section. Besides, two essays also carry a significant weightage. Which, perhaps, explains why global B-schools have a more diversified batch.

The Harvard Business School (HBS) and the Stanford Graduate School of Business (SGSB), which accept GMAT scores, actually have more students from the humanities than engineering. For example, the Class of 2012 at HBS has 43 per cent students from a humanities and social sciences background compared to 33 per cent from an engineering and technical background. SGSB's Class of 2011 has almost the same percentage of students from a humanities background and 36 per cent from engineering and mathematics background.

"We have been examining whether CAT is the right test to get students with managerial skills or are we just eliminating the brighter students," says Asish Bhattacharyya, Professor, Finance and Control, IIM Calcutta. Info Edge's Bikhchandani offers a solution. He believes the IIMS could retain the CAT in its current form, but the cut-offs for admissions to the IIMs could be drastically lowered to about the 92nd percentile (from 99.9 now).

"Benchmarking studies have shown that a student who gets a high score of 720 in the GMAT will typically get around 92nd percentile in the CAT," says Bikhchandani. In other words, a 92nd percentile in the CAT is adequate quantitative and verbal proficiency. Beyond that, Bikhchandani argues, the IIMs should look at other factors such as leadership, communication, expository writing, motivation and people skills, among others. But are the IIMs listening?

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