How can I crack the Verbal Section?

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Cracking the Verbal Section

The short answer is this check-list:
1. Don’t Prepare for Verbal like you would for Quants!
2. Read, Read, Read!!!
3. Evaluate the Answer Options Critically
4. Don’t Worry About Grammar and Vocabulary
5. Approach LR Systematically

I’ve elaborated on each of these points, and give you an idea on how you can prepare for the Verbal Section with just as much clarity as the Quants Section.
Note: This is a long post, as it gives an overall strategy for the verbal section.

Don’t Prepare for Verbal like you would for Quants!

Students have always, and will always struggle with preparing for Verbal Ability. This section isn’t so neatly classified into some thirty topics that you need to learn the theory for and practice to get faster. As a result, one feels that preparing for Quants is always more structured. For example, let’s take a Quants Topic like Number Theory.

A student would first learn the basic ideas in the topic like HCF, LCM, Prime Factorisation, Factorials, Base (n) math etc. Then, they would explore different patterns and templates that test these ideas. Finally, they would practice solving questions in these templates until they get faster and gain the confidence to tackle any question in Number Theory. This process repeats for all other topics like Geometry, Speed-Time-Distance, etc.

To a large extent, preparing for Data Interpretation, the other important segment in the Quants Section, is also straightforward – just get faster at calculating, get better at approximating, and get used to different types of tables and graphs, and you’re through.

But applying this process to the Verbal Section is almost impossible. A reasonable student might think – well, for DI, I need to calculate faster, so for Reading Comprehension, doesn’t it mean I have to read faster?


Speed reading is an easy way to fall into traps that examiners plant in RCs. Students spend a lot of time learning how to “skim” through the passage, when really, this offers no significant advantage in the CAT. So DI is not equal to RC.

Then the problem of the Paragraph Logic Questions – Sentence Rearrangement, Paragraph Completion, Sentence Elimination and Critical Reasoning. There is no theory for solving these questions that you can master – no hundreds of questions that you can solve to gain speed and confidence in different templates because each question is fundamentally different. You can’t “crack” the system of finding the right sequence of sentences in a para-jumble question by merely solving hundreds of Sentence Rearrangement Questions.

Does this mean that one shouldn’t practice questions for the Verbal Section?

Of course not. But the payoffs are much less significant than for Quants. You cannot prepare for the Verbal Segment like you would for Quants. So how should you prepare? This leads us to the next item in our checklist…

Read, Read, Read!!!

The CAT Verbal Section is all about testing Reading Ability. Fully one third of the Section is Reading Comprehension, with a total of 16 questions on this pattern alone. Apart from the 16 other questions from Logical Reasoning (more on this later), the other question patterns also focus on testing Reading Ability. But what is this Reading Ability?

Simply put, it is the measure of how well a candidate can relate to the ideas presented in the paragraph. That’s all. It doesn’t test how fast you finished reading the passage. It doesn’t test how deep your vocabulary is. It just wants to test whether you understood all the ideas in the passage or paragraph.

Have you ever had the experience of reading a bunch of sentences, extremely conscious and aware of the fact that you are reading, but have the words make no sense whatsoever? This happens for two reasons:

One, when the passage is on some abstract topic like metaphysics, and a lot of fancy words that never arise in common parlance appear just to frustrate us:
“An ontological catalogue is an attempt to list the fundamental constituents of reality. The question of whether or not existence is a predicate has been discussed since the Early Modern period, not least in relation to the ontological argument for the existence of God.”

I can safely say that not being able to get this is not going to stop you from getting a 99% in Verbal (I have no idea what this means, and I managed this percentile!)

Two, when we aren’t alert about what we’re reading, because we’re tired and reading takes up a lot of energy, or because we don’t have a habit of reading. Difficulty in the CAT is in the questions and closeness in the answer options, not in the passage. You will never find a passage in the CAT that is boring or difficult to read. So it is always the second problem that stands as a hurdle to cracking the CAT.

The exam has gotten longer, and you now have to read a lot more. Not being a habitual reader can be FATAL for your CAT attempt. Think about it this way: an athlete competing in a 100m race will have run many kilometres to get his stamina up before the event. The CAT is the same. You need to build your stamina for reading so that it doesn’t tire you out. The best way for the athlete is to run – the best way for us is to Read, Read and Read!

What are the advantages of being a regular reader?
One, you aren’t intimidated by the passage itself. So what if it’s on economics or politics – you’ve read articles on these topics before, and aren’t scared to tackle these ideas in the exam. I know of students who got back to me the day after CAT 2014 (3rd session, the same one that I wrote the CAT in), and told me they hadn’t read a couple of passages because of the topic. Ironically, these passages were the easier ones to handle. If only they were comfortable with different topics, they would have been able to knock off 5 to 6 more questions in RC!

Two, you have the stamina to keep going. To get a 99.5% in Verbal, you will need to get around 36 to 42 questions correct. This leaves very little wriggle room for leaving questions. If you have a good reading habit, you won’t have to fight so much with the passages, and may even end up enjoying the chance to sit back and read (trust me, this does happen in the CAT; the passages are usually pleasant to read). Instead of getting sapped by RC, you come out of it with energy and the momentum to demolish the Verbal Section.

Three, because your reading habit gives you an eye for detail, and because you aren’t relying on some gimmick like speed reading, questions that appear ambiguous and unsolvable to other candidates have clear solutions in your mind. A reading habit can give you clarity in the ideas presented, which in turn helps you evaluate the options critically. This is the next stop in our checklist:

Evaluate the Answer Options Critically

I can illustrate this best with an example. Read this short paragraph, and answer the single question that follows:

New actors with more versatile weapons have turned nuclear doctrine into guesswork. Even during the cold war, despite all that game theory and brainpower, the Soviet Union and America frequently misread what the other was up to. India and Pakistan, with little experience and less contact, have virtually nothing to guide them in a crisis but mistrust and paranoia. If weapons proliferate in the Middle East, as Iran and then Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt join Israel in the ranks of nuclear powers, each will have to manage a bewildering four-dimensional stand-off.

Which of the following statements best reflects the views of the writer?
A. As more countries acquire nuclear weapons, there is an increasing possibility of nuclear war.
B. There is no value to nuclear doctrine as it rarely helps predict what a rival country will do.
C. There is increasing uncertainty about nuclear face-offs as more countries get the bomb.
D. Unlike the Cold-War which involved two parties, future nuclear stand offs may be complicated by the involvement of multiple parties.

This is not an easy question to solve, so take a few minutes to think about it. Scroll down for the answer when you’ve though it through. No peeking!!

The question asks for the statement that “best” reflects the views of the writer. Even if it didn’t have such a superlative as “best” you need to evaluate the answer options: it is not enough for an option to be correct, it needs to be “more correct” than all the other options.

In the paragraph, the following ideas reflect the essence of what the writer is trying to say:
“New actors … have turned nuclear doctrine into guesswork.”

Thus what strategists used to know about nuclear doctrine, whatever it might be, like mutually assured destruction or other theories to do with nuclear weapons (none of which we need to have a clue about), has become guesswork because of new actors entering the playing field. What they used to know as part of accepted theory has become no better than guessing and hoping for the best.

The comparison between the conflict between US and the Soviet Union on the one hand, and India and Pakistan on the other hand reflects the writer’s chief concern: With all the brain power and theory, the US or the Soviet Union could not predict what the other would do. India and Pakistan, which have less experience and more mistrust between them, are less likely to predict what the other would do – even worse, nobody else knows what they would do in a crisis. This relates back to the original idea of uncertainty and guesswork because of new actors.

Finally, in the last sentence: “each will have to manage a bewildering four-dimensional stand-off”; here the focus is on the powerful adjective ‘bewildering’ which means confusing and hard to understand – all this information points to the writer’s fundamental objective: to argue that the new players have made the game harder to understand. This should be captured in our answer option. Let’s go through the options:

In this question, the option that can be eliminated first is Option ‘A’. While it seems reasonable enough, the paragraph is not about the dangers of war, it is about increasing uncertainty.

Option ‘B’ can also be eliminated. There seems to be some evidence for this in the paragraph, as the writer mentions that the US and Soviet Union, even with their brains and game theory, could not predict what the rival was up to. However, the Option comes on very strongly, by saying that Nuclear Doctrine has NO value. This is not the essence of what the paragraph is trying to say. It is not an argument against the value of nuclear doctrine.

Options ‘C’ and ‘D’ are the toughest to evaluate vis-à-vis each other. This is when asking yourself why one option is better than the other becomes very useful. Both options talk about an increase in the number of countries which have the nuclear bomb. Both options also state that there is uncertainty because of this.

Ask yourself this: “Why is one option better than the other?”
Option ‘D’ goes a little further than Option ‘C’. It states that unlike the Cold-War which had two parties, the involvement of many countries complicates the issue further. Is this comparison the essence of the paragraph? Is this why the writer gave us the example of the conflict between US and Soviet Union?

The answer is an emphatic NO! The reason the example was given was to highlight the greater uncertainty given the lack of experience of India and Pakistan. The US and Soviet Union, with all their experience, already contended with an uncertain scenario, hence parties today with less experience will have to contend with even greater uncertainty. Option ‘D’ seems to indicate that the Cold-War did not have its share of uncertainty, which is not true.

Option ‘C’ states the essence of the paragraph neatly: There is greater uncertainty because more countries have nuclear weapons. This is the best answer option. By evaluating the answer options critically, we can argue with ourselves and convince ourselves why one option is better than all the others. This becomes easier with practice, but the greater advantage comes when one has a good reading habit.

Don’t Worry About Grammar and Vocabulary

I did warn you that this was going to be a large post! :)

Having a masterful command over the English Language and a commendable knowledge of words is no trivial thing. But it is not a determining factor for the CAT. Historically, the CAT has not tested vocabulary the way the GRE tests it, and memorising word after word is worse than a waste of time – it can jeopardise your preparation by making you think the Verbal Segment is tedious to prepare for. When the CAT did test vocabulary, it was always context-based and covered only simple every-day words like “lay” and “lie”, and had very little to do with knowledge of obscure words.

A piece of good news for candidates who have no patience for word lists (like me) is that the CAT did not carry a single vocab-based question in 2014. Even if this trend reverses, it is very unlikely that the CAT will reward those who memorised meanings of words, and penalise those that did not.

This same rule applies for Grammar. You do not need to memorise all kinds of Grammatical Rules and be a savant in English. The three questions that tested English were laughably simple to handle, and could have been solved by anyone with a reasonable reading habit.

In a nut-shell, all the vocabulary and grammar that you need to know can be picked up by reading as much as possible. By this, I mean reading from a reasonable source, not Mumbai Times or some local gossip magazine that does not review its English! Learning formal grammar will not hurt, if only to give you confidence in some “theory”, but most of what you need to know can be picked up if you just: Read, Read and Read!!!

Approach LR Systematically

Try as you might, you are never going to be completely free from surprises in the CAT for Logical Reasoning. Of four puzzles, one will definitely be properly hard, two of middling difficulty, and one puzzle that most candidates can solve. Preparing for LR can be even harder than the rest of Verbal, but I find that taking enough mock CATs, and getting exposed to different types of puzzles is a huge advantage. Even if you are unable to solve a puzzle within the time limit, review the solution afterwards so you know what the “crack” in logic was that you should have made.

As for cracking LR, the single most important factor is to approach the puzzle systematically. If you have a grid puzzle that asks for who drives a Red Car and lives in Bangalore and works as a doctor (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, visit and solve a few puzzles), DO NOT TRY TO SOLVE THE PUZZLE BY GUESSING! Fill in the grid, and crack the puzzle the way it was meant to be cracked. Not only will practicing it this way help you find the links much faster in the actual exam, having a habit of guessing can be very dangerous in the CAT. You will be tempted, invariably, to guess and see if the grid works out, but this will not work 9 times out of 10 (and you will never be the one candidate for whom it works!), and you will just end up wasting precious time that could have been spent cracking the puzzle or dumping it for another one.

Some Points to Take Away

Remember, for cracking the Verbal Section (by cracking I mean getting a 99.5%) you need to attempt between 36 and 42 questions, depending on the difficulty of the paper. The easier it is, the more questions you need to knock off. And remember, you need to have an accuracy of more than 90%. Anything less and it’s no better than guesswork. This means you can leave between 8 to 14 questions – that is, very little free room to play with. You cannot go into the CAT saying: “Well, I am a quant strong person, and LR has been friendly to me. I will just do one passage, and skip three.” This means that there is immense pressure on you to crack the very hard LR puzzle too, which, let’s face it, is very hard to crack!

Not to mention the Sentence Elimination and Critical Reasoning questions which can also be very tough to crack. Have a balanced approach, and pick your questions wisely to get into that sweet range. More students habitually crack the Quants Section than the Verbal, which is why going all-out on the Verbal Section can be very rewarding!

The writer handles Verbal Classes for 2IIM, and scored 99.71% in the Verbal Section for CAT 2014.