Back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, students had a very simple way of knowing whether they had aced CAT. If you get a call letter from one or more of the 4 (or 6) IIMs, you can take it that you had done well, else you would not know whether you had got 98th percentile or 42nd percentile. One could happily assume one had just missed out and continue with life.
Thanks to increased transparency, one now gets a percentile score, and a detailed description of the short-listing process. And in most of the cases, the shortlisting process has been spectacularly absurd. Most of the B-Schools give enormous weightage to undergrad scores, 10th standard marks and 12th standard marks. IIM Indore apparently gives 30%, 35% and 35% to these three.
India probably has more than 30 different boards, so how does 85% in one compare with 90% in another. The year-on-year fluctuations alone are huge. Back in the mid-90s, the cut-off for entering into BITS Pilani used to be a good indicator for how easy/tough that year CBSE boards were. In 1996 one would have secured admission into BITS with a score of 457/458 in CBSE class XII exams; in 1997 the corresponding number for 471/472. That is nearly 3% score inflation in one year there. Yours truly was among those who got a gloriously inflated score in 1997, which has helped me in all these admission criteria ever since. A year earlier and my score would have most certainly been lower than the 90% benchmark that gives one extra points.
In Tamil Nadu, it is difficult to score less than 92-93% in the class XII board exams if you are a serious candidate. So, a 93% here probably translates to a 80-85% level in CBSE exams. I am sure there are plenty of other states that follow score inflation as official policy.
As far as undergraduation goes, a CGPA of 8.5 (of 2000 vintage, just to be clear) in Computer Science at IIT Madras is worth way more than a 10 in most other departments. Back in the late 90’s, only the top 50 JEE ranks could secure admissions into IITM Computer Science (the department had only 20 seats), and finishing as a median performer (theoretical CGPA of 7.0, practical CGPA of 8.4-8.5) in this group of 20 would be many notches above most other things. I was never even in the same league as these 20-odd guys, but I could tell by merely interacting with them that most were at least a notch or two ahead of all other IIT junta.
A CGPA is a relative metric, necessarily conveying a notion of rank rather than of score. So, comparing CGPA’s across years/departments/colleges is fraught with risk.
So, this fetish for transparency has led these IIMs to frame daft shortlisting frameworks. The biggest gripe I have with the IIMs is that they know of all these nuances, they know that marks across boards are not comparable, they know that even marks across different departments in the same college mean different things. This is why they used to trust their own processes more. This is why we have CAT. The fact that they are willing to run roughshod over this CAT score is inexplicable.
Some of the IIMs take the CAT score on a percentile basis. This tells us that they see the difference between 99.9th percentile and 98.9th percentile as same as that of between 98.9th percentile and 97.9th percentile. And this is daft. There are few ideas that are more stupid than this. In one way, they are communicating that they now care far less about their entry processes than they did before. This might not matter that much for the big boys – IIMs A, B and C (though they might lose out to global universities). Because they will continue to get first picks. But this dont-care attitude is still unfathomable.
The admissions committees understand Indian realities very well. They realize that there will be huge variances. They are smart enough to understand the unrealiability of the metrics they generate. As opposed to this sludge composite metric, they have a CAT score that conveys way more than it did 10 years ago.
Why have very smart people chosen to prioritize vague, unrealiable metrics over a refined metric they have created? This will probably be one of the great unanswered questions of the selection process. It defies reason.
Given a choice, I would take the late 90’s process any day. At least one would not have this feeling that the process was frightfully unfair. We could all assume that they had their reasons, and that would be it.