In response to an RTI query, IIM Ahmedabad has disclosed the cutoff percentiles across various categories for getting a seat in IIMA. Before we analyze further, there are two points to be noted. Firstly, what has been disclosed is the “minimum cutoff percentile”, which means that at least one student with that percentile score was admitted to IIMA in that year. It gives us no information on the “average percentile score” for admitted students belonging to that particular category. Secondly, CAT percentile is only one of the criteria used for admission into IIMs. A response by IIM Bangalore a few years back to an RTI query showed that the CAT percentile has only a 15% weight in the entire admission process (the rest going to 10th and 12th standard board exam scores, college CGPA, performance in interviews and the like). Given these two conditions, we should look at the following analysis with a bit of salt.
First up, here is a graph showing the minimum percentile among admitted students of various categories over the years:
There are a few things that stand out from this graph:
1. The cutoff percentage for general category students has been consistently high. Despite a comprehensive set of factors being used for admissions, if you belong to the general category, a high CAT percentile is a necessary condition to join IIMA
2. Reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) happened in a phased manner. In the first year (2008) only about 5% of the seats were reserved for students from these classes. This has been gradually ramped up to the statutory 27.5%. In the initial years, after reservation for OBCs was imposed, commentators mentioned that their cutoff was not much lower than that for general category students and so there would be no dilution in quality. However, the data above shows that it was a function of the extent of reservation that the cutoffs were similar. If CAT percentile is to be taken as a general statement of an MBA student’s quality, reservation for OBCs has definitely led to dilution.
3. There is massive volatility in cutoffs for SC/STs. It must be noted here that the percentile scores are national – percentiles for students from different categories are not disclosed separately. It seems like the quality of applicants belonging to SC/ST categories has been varying significantly over the years. One year (2008/09) SC/ST students need to be in top 10% of all applicants to gain admission into IIMA. In another (2013) students belonging to ST category need to beat only 40% of all applicants to get in! This is bizarre, and it brings us to..
4. Students from ST category getting admission with 40 percentile in CAT in 2013 is plain absurd. What makes it more absurd is that more than half the students who attempted CAT in 2013 got ZERO or less (remember that CAT has negative marking). Maybe there was a real dearth of applicants from the ST category last year but what this tells us is that someone who got an overall negative score in CAT got admission into IIMA last year. Actually this is beyond bizarre.
5. Time for a personal anecdote. Close to 20 out of the 180 odd people who started at IIM Bangalore with me (2004-06) did not make it to the second year, based on their performance in the first year. About half of those were put on a “slow track programme” and finished their MBA in three years. The other ten did so badly they were asked to repeat the first year in full, without concessions. From what I remember all of them eventually dropped out. A large proportion of these twenty who did not make it past the first year belonged to SC/ST categories. I must also mention here that there was a significant number of students from these categories that did rather well and finished close to the top of the batch.
While it might be seen as an act of nobility to give admission in a premier college to someone with a low score but from a historically underprivileged background, the impact on their careers must also be taken into account. All said and done, the flagship course in IIMs is a rather tough course, and it is not difficult to fall behind. What is the use of giving someone admission only for him to fail and eventually drop out? Would he not have been better off continuing in his pre-MBA job rather than having his career disrupted by admission to a premier institute and subsequent failure?
All this said, it would make sense for someone in an IIM (a professor involved in admissions, perhaps) to do an analysis of correlation of CAT scores with performance at IIMs (I understand that one of the reasons the weight of CAT score was reduced was that one such study revealed CAT score was less of a predictor of IIM performance than high school and undergraduate scores). An analysis such as that might reveal that there is an absolute lower cutoff in terms of performance in CAT such that students scoring lower are extremely unlikely to do well. It might give a case for reassessment of the affirmative action policies.