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Bertie Wooster and Madeline Bassett

  As the CAT approaches, find out the best way to prepare for the Verbal section of the CAT, which is one of the most frequently asked questions. You’ll see it is certainly not rocket science!  

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The famous quote from the Austrian-born British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein can be interpreted in myriad ways.
Briefly, language is the medium of our thought—we think in a language. So our thinking skills are decided by our proficiency in the language we think in. The understandable components of this proficiency are: vocabulary, grammar, and logic or reasoning. On the one hand, our thinking is limited to the number of words that we know—or our vocabulary.On the other hand, the complexity of our thought and expression are decided by the complexity of the linguistic structures that we have mastered—or our awareness of grammar. And finally, our reasoning skills will decide the clarity of our thought and expression. In short, these are the deciding elements of “communication skills”.
Thus, our intellectual horizons — what we comprehend and think about—are limited by the limits of our language!
Management and management education place far less importance on technical skills than on what we generally call soft skills. And, among the soft skills, Communication Skills occupy the prime position. And in today’s interconnected global village, English is the lingua franca of the business world, both nationally and internationally —it has acquired the status of a global language. Therefore, in the present context, the corporate world requires leaders who can communicate with ease to global audiences. And so, it is no wonder that the CAT tests your proficiency in English!

CAT and VA -RC
In recent years, especially since the CAT went online in 2009, we have seen a limited variety of questions in the Verbal Ability and Reading Comprehension (VA-RC) section of the CAT. Question types are limited to Reading Comprehension,Summary Questions,Out-of-context sentence questions, and (the all-time-favourite of the test writers) Paragraph Jumbles.  VA-RC has remained a 34-question section for quite a few years now. At the time of going to press, the IIMs haven’t declared any change in the pattern  of CAT2018.
RC questions dominate the VA-RC Section, with 24 questions in the MCQ format, with negative marks. It is interesting to note that the share of RC questions in the Verbal section of the CAT has never fallen below 50% of the total, barring just one year in the last four decades or so. In the past few years, there have usually been five passages with 6 or 3 questions each. The 10 VA questions—summary, odd sentence, and paragraph jumbles —are TITA or Type In The Answer questions.
Summary questions and odd sentence questions pose no special problems in the TITA format. Paragraph Jumbles, however, provide no options. You have to first form the correct sequence of the sentences and then enter it in the space provided for the answer. The process becomes time-consuming and risky. However, the plus point is that TITA questions bear no negative marks. Grammar and Vocabulary questions were conspicuously absent in the recent CATs. However, they may come back anytime, as they form an integral part of the MCQ format of competitive aptitude tests.

How do I prepare for the Verbal Section?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions about competitive examinations including the CAT, and perhaps the least explained too.
Largely, students are adequately clear about how they should study or prepare for the Quantitative, Data Interpretation, Logical Reasoning, and General Awareness sections of competitive examinations. But they seem to be at sea when it comes to the VA-RC section! This lack of clarity leads them to merely solving more and more questions and taking more and more tests, and hoping for the best. However, preparing for VA-RC needs to be as structured as it is for other sections.

Lack of concepts
The confusion about choosing a preparation strategy stems mainly from the fact there seem to be no clear-cut concepts or principles to follow! In search of concepts, students turn to Wren and Martin for Grammar, Norman Lewis or others for Vocabulary, and literature on question types and techniques for Reading Comprehension. But these seem to be of little help in the simulated tests; they clearly don’t help in scoring.
This article will now take you through a step-by-step guide on how to prepare for Verbal, rather than just plunge headlong into solving hundreds of questions of each type, and then hoping for the best in the exam!

What is tested?
Only when you know what is tested in each section and each question type will you know how to prepare for it. But it doesn’t mean that this clarity is all that is needed. Practice is essential. Sometimes, our practice is limited to making more and more errors, repeatedly, question after question!  But this is not practice! The right kind of practice is getting something right, and repeating that process carefully and persistently.
So first, let us understand the test. The broad areas tested in the VA-RC section of competitive exams are:

  • Reading Comprehension
  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary

It is essential to solve enough number of questions from each of these areas during your practice. However, it is far more important to realise that these areas are not watertight compartments or different topics.  Verbal Ability is essentially a single domain. It is only to make training and practising easier that VA has been divided into these question types. The underlying test in all these areas is your general proficiency in the language. Hence, it is futile to try to improve your verbal aptitude by concentrating on one area while ignoring or underplaying the others. But don’t lose heart; we will bring in a ‘method to this madness’.
So, you can spend enough time to solve questions in each of these areas to improve your underlying aptitude to solve these questions, but verbal needs to be approached in its totality as well. Hence, it is also necessary to pay attention to vocabulary items that you encounter while solving a reading comprehension passage, to the complex grammatical structures in a reasoning passage, or work out the line of reasoning that helps you arrive at a particular answer in a comprehension passage, etc, as you solve questions of these types. At least part of the preparation must be undertaken this way.

Result oriented approach to RC
Reading Comprehension tests just what it says: Your reading skills and comprehension.
To develop reading skills and to improve comprehension of what you read, you have to READ! Good readers—those who have the reading habit—are always more comfortable with RC. So you must devote some time to reading regularly. Remember the acronym “DEAR”—Drop Everything And Read! Earmark 15 minutes or so every day before going to sleep,and read a few pages from a good book, and watch how the habit develops!
If you are not a good reader, is the game lost? Certainly not. Since RC is meant to test your comprehension skills, make sure that you practise the art or skill of comprehension. First, make sure that you have understood the passage. Next, make sure that you have understood the question (stem).Then, make sure that you have understood each option. Now you are equipped to answer the question.
Factors like passive reading, vocabulary constraints, and lack of awareness of linguistic structures may affect your comprehension. In that case, in the practice mode, you must try to overcome each of the constraints there and then. Read again, or several times. Refer to the dictionary and learn the unfamiliar words in the context, analyse the sentence by breaking complex structures into understandable components.  Only when your comprehension is adequate at all levels are you really equipped to analyse (reason) and answer the questions. This is the right process. It may take longer than you want it to,but it is essential that you spend that time. This is the right kind of Practice. And speed is a result of practice and skill. Otherwise, it’s meaningless.
Solve one passage per day for complete comprehension. Accuracy will naturally follow. Repeat every day till the CAT. Your speed will improve over time.

Analytical approach to Reasoning questions
There are three question types that have been part of CAT for the past 3 years.

Paragraph Jumbles
They test your reading skills and comprehension skills first, and then your ability to logically combine the sentences into a coherent paragraph. In other words,this is your ability to think in a structured way and organise according to that structure.
Putting five sentences together to form a paragraph isn’t rocket science. But why do we go wrong? As mature graduate students, why do we fail to put five sentences together in a meaningful way? Time-constraint is a factor, yes, but that is for tests. Do we go wrong during practice? If we do, what is the reason?  I’m sure that none of you have ever experienced vocabulary or other constraints in these questions. You make mistakes only because you do not read carefully enough.
The Parajumble question type is inherently time-consuming.  You may work fast, but it still demands a certain amount of time. Be ready to spend that time and read carefully many times—as many times as required to see the connection between sentences. You will be surprised to discover how easy these questions are!
Try it out. Take one Parajumble question and spend time on it—read the sentences several times. Try to discover a mandatory pair of sentences and build the paragraph around it. Spend a reasonable amount of time on the question. I can guarantee that you will be surprised by the consistency of your success. Experience the process and repeat. That will be the correct way to practice. The question thenis: How much do you practice?
Paragraph jumbles are low IQ, low practice questions. They demand a reasonable amount of time, active reading, and intense application of the mind while solving. By solving innumerable jumbled paragraphs during practice, you will become an expert in Parajumbles. There is no expertise required, other than native intelligence (which you don’t possess anyway). Anyone who applies their mind to the given sentences and spends sufficient time arranging the sentences can get the sequence right. Practice will enhance your confidence in dealing with these questions, rather than accuracy. The moment you lose attention, you make a mistake.

Directions: The five sentences (labeled 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) given in this question, when properly sequenced, form a coherent paragraph. Decide on the proper order for the sentences and key in this sequence of five numbers as your answer.

  • For example, amongst the latter, the oldest non-clonal organism is a Bristlecone Pine in the White Mountains of California, which germinated around 3049 BC, several centuries before the earliest Egyptian pyramids, but a mere blip in geological time.
  • The biosphere can do this because it processes vast amounts of material with rapid turnover.
  • Microbes typically reproduce in tens of minutes to days, while large multicellular organisms last only a few thousand years at most before they become dead fodder for microbial degradation.
  • In doing so, individual organisms live and die almost instantly on geological timescales.
  • The biosphere is less than a billionth of the mass of the Earth and yet manages to greatly influence the chemistry of the surface environment.

Answer & Explanation: These sentences can be organized into two sets: 5-2 and 4-3-1. 5 and 2 are linked by the use of the word ‘biosphere’ in both, and ‘this’ in 2, which can be inferred to refer to ‘greatly influence the chemistry …’ in 5. 4 brings up the issue about the time scale of individual organisms’ lives and deaths. 3 mentions some examples of this, ranging over a large time scale. ‘The latter’ in 1 clearly refers to the organisms that live a few thousand years mentioned in 3; 1 also links back to 4 by bringing up geological time scales again. 4 is not a standalone sentence, so only 5 can begin the sequence. Hence, the correct answer is 5-2-4-3-1.

Odd Sentence
These questions take the familiar Parajumbles questions a step further. The question consists of five sentences. Four out of these five sentences form part of a paragraph, and one sentence is out-of-context or does not belong to that paragraph.  You need to identify the out–of-context sentence. 
The question type is similar to the odd-man-out questions. Earlier, in the odd-man-out questions, aptitude tests gave a set of words or short phrases. Sentences, instead of words or phrases, made the question appear as if it was a completely new type of question. Hence, it became baffling and difficult for some students.
In order to solve these questions correctly, use the same methodology as in the odd-man-out questions. The key lies in discovering what is common about the other words (in this case, sentences), and thus, the word that is the odd man.
Odd sentence questions are comparatively far easier than the odd-man-out questions, because there are various reasons that bind single words together in the odd man out questions — from sound and spelling to classifications, limited only by the test-writer’s imagination. But, when one is given four sentences, analysing and discovering what is common need not be a nerve-wracking exercise. You only have to understand the theme that is pursued in the sentences. The odd sentence will not relate to this theme.  And that becomes your answer. It definitely takes some analysis to discover this theme as the sentences are jumbled. That makes the question type time-consuming rather than difficult. So be patient and read carefully to identify the theme. The answer choice, then, is not very difficult to identify.
First, read all the sentences very carefully for familiarity.  In Verbal, it is always a good idea to make the text familiar before trying to actually solve the question.
Once you are familiar with the sentences, try to identify a ‘dangler’ sentence. A dangler sentence is one which needs some other sentence for it to make sense. For example, consider a sentence like, “The bill for this big thinking, though, is enormous.” This sentence depends on another sentence to derive its meaning, in which ‘this big thinking’ will be clearly defined.
So, begin with a dangler sentence and discover its pair – we call this a ‘mandatory pair’. Pause and think what these two sentences are talking about, and you will get an idea about the theme of the paragraph. Try to relate the other sentences to this theme. The odd sentence will be obvious. The questions sometimes appear difficult only because, generally all the sentences are on the same topic; hence, they appear related. But once you identify the specific theme of the paragraph, you can easily identify the sentence that is not related to this theme. Try it out.

Directions: Five sentences related to a topic are given below. Four of them can be put together to form a meaningful and coherent short paragraph. Identify the odd one out. Choose its number as your answer and key it in.
  • The electron is a basic particle of all matter: the lightest particle with electric charge, stable and ubiquitous.
  • When atoms are close to one another, the positively charged nucleus of one can attract the negatively charged electrons of a neighbor, causing the two atoms to move a little closer.
  • The well-known rule about electric charges is that opposites attract and like charges repel.
  • As a result, groups of atoms are mutually ensnared and clump together forming molecules and ultimately bulk matter.
  • There are both types within atoms: the negatively charged electrons are at the periphery and the positive nuclear core is in the center.

Answer & Explanation: Three of the sentences talk about electrons, so it may initially seem as if the paragraph is about them. However, on reading all five sentences, we can see that the topic of the paragraph is in fact how electric charges within the atom lead to the formation of matter. 3 is the first sentence, as it introduces a basic point about electric charges. ‘Both types’ in 5 links it to 3. 2 talks about how the electric charges cause atoms to move closer together, and 4 concludes this point. Thus, it can be seen that 3-5-2-4 form a logical sequence, while 1, which is just a general statement about electrons, does not fit into the sequence. Hence 1.

Summary Questions
Précis writing is an art. Précis writing is difficult too. You must have in-depth comprehension of the text to be able to condense text without compromising on the content. So, summary questions test your reading and comprehension skills, and your ability to separate wheat from chaff.
If you have not already identified the key elements in the paragraph before going to the options (luckily, we have options in the CAT), it becomes difficult to identify the scoring option from the nearly correct choices. 
Here are two things to bear in mind while solving summary questions:

  • Read quickly, and familiarise yourself with the text — don’t work with unfamiliar text.
  • Read again actively and identify the key elements in the paragraph — note them mentally. 

Scoring in summary questions is a game of comparison. Compare the options carefully. Note the difference between two options. Remember, however similar two options may appear on the surface, they are never the same. So, don’t be fooled or confused by the similarity. Ignore the similarities. Discover that element, however minor, which makes it different from the other option. After you have identified the difference, ask whether this or that is essential to the précis. Eliminate accordingly. Compare the other options. Eliminate and choose! The writer guarantees that you will make fewer mistakes.

Directions: The passage given below is followed by four alternative summaries. Choose the option that best captures the essence of the passage. Key in the number of the option you choose as your answer.
Children’s literature is sometimes referred to as a genre on the grounds that it is a distinct category of publishing with recognized conventions that set up certain expectations in its readers. One problem with this view is that children’s literature also contains all the genres and subgenres used to classify writing, from ancient and broadly based terms such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry and drama, to recent and much more specific labels such as chick-lit.
  • Children’s literature can be considered as both a genre in itself, as well as a means of classifying other genres of writing.
  • Children’s literature is sometimes considered a genre of writing, but there is a problem with this classification.
  • Children’s literature is considered as a genre; but the problem is that it also contains all other genres of writing.
  • Children’s literature cannot be considered a genre, given that it actually consists of all the genres of writing.


Answer & Explanation: 1 is only a partial summary, as it fails to mention the problem with considering children’s literature as a genre. On the other hand, 2 merely states that there is a problem, but does not say what the problem actually is, so it too can be ruled out. 4 is not a summary, but a possible conclusion based on the points mentioned in the passage. Only 3 is a correct and comprehensive summary. Hence 3.

Verbal is for always!
In conclusion, prioritise your preparation in the following order, in terms of the time spent, practice, and finally the marks scored:

  • Reading Comprehension
  • Reasoning Questions
  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary

The first two areas are the most reliable for scoring. So practice enough to become good in them before the CAT. Solve as many questions as possible in grammar and vocab, and learn the principles of grammar and vocabulary items backwards. But remember, however good you are in both these areas, they do not guarantee scores the way RC and Reasoning questions do.
Finally, do everything possible to improve your language proficiency — whether by working on your reading, grammar, or vocabulary. The geometry that you learn for CAT, unless you are engaged in academic or related careers, may one day become useless in your daily life. But the verbal skills — reading, vocabulary or communication skills — that you acquire now will never cease to be useful in your daily life; they project your image and personality to the world.
We, at Advanc’edge MBA, wish you the very best for your success in the CAT and beyond!  

The author is a management graduate and holds a Masters degree In English literature. He has decades of experience in the corporate as well as the entrance test preparation industry, and is the author of books like, ‘The Pearson Guide to Verbal Ability for the CAT and other MBA Examinations’ and ‘English Usage for the CAT’.