An MBA was always on the cards for Aastha Narula, an incoming candidate at IIM Kozhikode. But what she had learnt on the way, from Day 0 to her final “convert” email, were lessons that were greater than all of her CAT preparations put together. Her 4 Attempts on the CAT is a tale of mental health, successes, and failures - each one with its trials and tribulations.
We often seem to only look at the success reels of one’s life- the job promotions, the LinkedIn CAT convert posts. But seldom do we hear about someone’s struggles, the hellfire they walked through to rise from the ashes, to become victorious.
This is the story of someone who not only cracked the CAT but conquered it. These are the extraneous lessons that life taught Aastha alongside her CAT preparation.
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Attempt 1 (2015) - The Beginning
I began my tryst with the MBA in 2015, during the penultimate year of my undergraduate. TIME classes were the refuge for most of my final year.
After facing repeated rejection in the aptitude tests of various companies visiting campus, I felt demotivated and my focus shifted- for the time being, let’s forget the B-Schools- cracking every test became my immediate goal.
But with less than a month to go for CAT after my placement, my mock tests remained almost untouched and a 98+ percentile seemed like an impossible dream - and I was right. I scored a mere 84%ile.
I took it in my stride, and I moved forward- No calls!
I joined a major financial firm, Fidelity International soon after graduation.
While writing code, fixing issues and SQL queries - actions that bore little significance to my interests or my career path in general - an insoluble dilemma struck me – to go for an MBA in the first year of job or get some experience and then take my second attempt?
But honestly, there is no right answer to this one.
I remember reading expert advice that said an ideal work experience required for a CAT applicant would be 2-3 years.
Basically- there’s speculation and this undue expectation that states that in magically, while in the second year of the job, you need to hit the bull’s eye and crack CAT in that so-called “right time in your career”.
But since nothing less than a 99 is even worth the effort, is that even fair?
My advice to the aspirants would be to just stay focused and keep trying until you are satisfied that you have achieved your best score. Reattempts do build mental pressure, but you and only you know your true potential. So, this decision is purely subjective, no matter what your neighbourhood aunty thinks about it.
Myself, I took some time to settle in my new job and with new responsibilities at hand. I didn’t even realize that CAT registration had closed down for 2016.
Attempt 2 (2017) - The Loss
This time around, I was ready. February of 2017, I had set my target on CAT 2017 and was ready to take back what was rightfully mine – a seat at a prestigious B-school.
I worked super hard, took mocks and gave it my all. But fate took a sick, twisted route that year, and I fought another battle that November - my brother, then 23, was critically ill. I lost him 5 days after my exam.
To say how shattered I was is an understatement. Writing the CAT was a mere formality for me, and a 70th percentile didn’t bother me at all.
Attempt 3 (2018) - The Inner Battles
I spent the next several months sick with grief. Everything I ate, lacked taste, and instantly came back up. Every room felt frozen. The lights seemed too bright, the noises too loud. I couldn’t understand what I should do, what I could do, whether I should put myself back on the same wavelength as the rest of the world, or even try- because there was this overwhelming feeling of being out of phase and fading away, powerless and lost. In my hurt, I felt that trying to write the CAT would not possible any time soon. MBA seemed a selfish dream now, I felt guilty about wanting something so materialistic and meaningless, almost everything after losing my brother. All I wanted was my family members to be safe and healthy.
But somehow, I gathered myself and grew the courage to write it, to do it for my brother. And this was the very strength, the very feeling that gave me the energy to work doubly hard this time.
That’s how I decided to disappear- disappear from the world and focus on the MBA. I joined CAT classes again and immersed myself in books- I would study 5-6 hours on weekdays and almost 10 hours on weekends. This was my way of giving it back to my brother who always wanted me to succeed.
Office. Study. Eat. Study. Sleep. Panic. Repeat - this schedule pretty much sums my next 10 months.
The D-day arrived. God knows I was nervous- I had studied for this exam like my life depended on it. But when the VARC section opened up, I froze- I went completely blank.
Nausea. Palpitation. Shortness of breath.
I was looking out for anything, literally anything that could make me feel less trapped and less nervous, to give me a semblance of control. But it was too late. I tried and I managed to pick myself up in the DILR section, but the damage was already done- coupled with a relatively tough QA section meant the end of the dream this time around too.
It was when I just couldn’t cope with that loss anymore that my sister pushed me to give GMAT a shot. Again, I found another thing to set my mind to- I studied with all my heart.
I prepared for over 5 months, planned a leave schedule from office, time-framed my mocks, booked my evenings and weekends for studies. My mock’s score was hovering around 740. It was all perfect. Finally, the D-day arrived!
As I sat receiving my instructions, my confidence plummeted, and the anxiety shot up again- both my mind and heart were racing.
Thoughts of self-doubt and uncertain future competed for my attention, all but drowning out the real voices. Imagine, this utter chaos didn’t let me find a number less than -1.
It finally hit me- it wasn’t that my preparation wasn’t enough, or that I wasn’t trying my best. It was something more, and I needed help. I had a feeling that something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what. And because I didn’t know what, I didn’t know how to ask for help.
But my sister could link dots between my childhood and what was happening now. I saw a psychologist and was diagnosed with general anxiety. My inability to perform wasn’t due to lack of preparation, I understood, but the fact that I truly did have something I needed to work on- my mental health. Comprehending and accepting this was one of the most liberating feelings, and forgiving myself was the first step.
What did I learn though? Not as much necessarily from my mistakes in the papers themselves- but I learnt that when pressure, expectations and stress take hold of your inner peace and stillness, MOCKS don’t come to your rescue. Your mental health and fortitude are what will get you through.
Attempt 4 (2019) - The Conquering
With a more steadfast mind and a less panicked outlook, I took the CAT in 2019 without working as hard, but more importantly, by not putting myself through as much pressure. And guess what- I scored my best score.
The thing is, the world only sees the most dramatic event rather than all that preceded it. But, you know that it's the work that you did long ago- when it seemed that you weren't making any progress- that makes the jump today possible.
And I did jump! IIM Kozhikode it is!
In our society, nothing is black-and-white, except for winning and losing, and maybe that’s why people gravitate so much to that. Winning takes precedence overall. There’s no ‘grey’ area. No ‘almost’. But I believe there is always a ‘grey’ area—The journey.
And I think my greatest victory was each day of the year when I gave it everything I had. When I missed the office parties to do an extra worksheet or when I skipped a breakfast get together to finish off the TIME assignment. When I chose to mug up the words to enhance my vocab over a nap in the office bus or when I missed my best friend’s birthday party to stay sober and attend the class the next morning. That’s what I’m most proud of. I almost won each time!
Wishing you a grey journey as colourful as mine!
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