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The Road Less Travelled: an English Literature grad’s guide to getting into IIM Ahmedabad

We at T.U.M like to think we have a way with words. But we’ve now found someone who comes from the world of the Bard, crossing paths with us at B Schools.

Ipshita is a Literature graduate from St. Xaviers, Mumbai. But how does a student of words and a lover of poetry land up as a PGP1 student at IIM Ahmedabad?

Well, as Robin Williams says in Dead Poets Society, “words and ideas can change the world". Read her story, and her way of cracking the CAT below!

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May 8th, 2020 - It was around 1 PM when I heard that the IIMA results were out. I was having a particularly busy day at work- or, rather, at my tiny plywood desk in Mumbai where I was working from home. My internet was being particularly fussy that day, so it was a while before I logged into the college website and hit enter. The words ‘Congratulations’ flashed across my screen. 

A few years ago I would never have thought I’d end up doing an MBA, much less one from the most prestigious institute in the country. I read the lines on the screen again, and then once more, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

So, how did it all start?

Two years ago I graduated with a degree in Literature from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. I had an internship in hand and only a vague sense of where I was headed. Throughout my college years I was convinced that I wanted to pursue a Masters in Literature, but after working for a while as a marketing professional (or in the “real world”, as my parents so loved to call it), I decided to stay in the corporate route. Then I weighed all the options I had for the near future, which looked something like this:

A. Do a Masters abroad, which fulfilled both my wish to pursue higher education and continue in my field of work

B. Continue at my job for a few more years, a tempting option since I was confident of the field I had chosen

C. Start something of my own, a secret passion I have always wanted to pursue

I decided to take up a fourth option that allowed me to combine a bit of all three- an MBA from a top B-school in India. While I was sure about the field I had chosen, I was equally certain about furthering my education in the near future, and doing an MBA here would give me the business acumen and skills needed to climb up the corporate ladder, something that would be a deep-dive with a Literature background alone. Choosing to do it abroad would mean waiting a few more years before I had adequate work experience. Plus, doing it from a prestigious institution would allow me the freedom and liberty I’ll need whenever I venture down the entrepreneurial track.

So, I decided to attempt the black box that was the CAT examination.

The CAT journey

I started preparing for CAT in April 2019, eight months before the exam date. It was far from a straightforward journey. Being from such a diverse background, it was difficult to find useful resources that were tailored for someone like me, and I struggled to connect with someone whose footsteps I could follow. This forced me to set my own expectations and forge my own path, something I have come to deeply value in retrospect. 

I began giving mocks pretty early on- around once per week- to get comfortable with the exam format. This went on for about 5-6 months. Maintaining your motivation for such a long period is never easy, and there were times when I nearly gave up or decided to try my luck elsewhere. After what seemed like an impossibly long struggle, November rolled around and it was finally time to give the exam.

The three-headed beast

The exam itself is divided into three sections. It took a lot of introspection and many rounds of trial-and-error to figure out a strategy that suited me. Here’s my take on what worked for me:

VARC - Being a voracious reader, and having done my undergrad in Literature, the VARC section was a breeze. I was getting a 98-99%ile right from the first AIMCAT, so I only relied on mocks to prepare for it. This also helped me familiarise myself with the format of the exam and build the reflexes needed to solve questions quickly.

DILR - Given the unique format of this section, it is often what makes or breaks the exam for many people. The sets (of four questions each) are arranged in such a way that all questions are logically tied to each other, so cracking one question makes it easy to crack the remaining three. The first few minutes here are critical- a good trick is to spend this time scanning through all the sets and figuring out the order in which you’ll tackle them. Since maths was not my strong suit, I often chose to do the LR ones first.

QA - The most daunting section for me. I had studied maths until the 12th so most of the concepts were familiar, but the difficulty level of questions was far beyond what I had experienced. A senior from IIMA handed down Arun Sharma’s Quants book, which I found  to be incredibly helpful, especially for a non-engineer. Towards the end I was almost exclusively studying from it. There’s really no other stratagem here except to practice, and practice a lot. 

The IIM Ahmedabad interview

Undergrad - 3.5/4.0 CGPA

Cat %ile - 97.3%

Work ex - ZebPay (8 months), Nykaa (6 months)

I studied a lot for the interview stage- reading the newspaper daily, brushing up on important stats, revising my acads- but nothing could fully prepare me for it. While interviewees do have some agency in deciding the direction of the interview, a lot of it is unavoidable and can lead you in a direction you were not expecting. My single biggest advice would be to become thorough with every single word written in your resume, even something as small as a hobby. Most of the questions will stem from it, and not knowing something about the industry you work in or the subject you studied can reflect very badly on you. 

Another thing I found is the interviewers will often try to test your resilience in a stressful situation. Most IIM courses are incredibly nerve-racking, and the interview stage is a good way to test how well you can cope with pressure. So stay calm, don’t fumble over your words, and answer confidently. 

Final words of advice

CAT is a very special exam. Comprehension paras can be unthinkingly easy and yet have all seemingly correct options. Reasoning can go from cryptic computations to pure, brute-force logic. While some maths questions can boggle even the nerdiest of IITans, others barely even require the use of a formula. Unpredictability is part-and-parcel of the CAT experience. Although coming from a diverse background has its challenges, it has certainly never been a disadvantage- not unless you allow it to be. My final advice? Have a little faith in yourself and don’t be afraid to take on unfamiliar challenges. You might just end up at the best B-school this country has to offer.


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Interested in learning about how to approach the CAT? Check out our Strategise the CAT series here!

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