New Delhi: Before sharpening pencils, buying new notebooks and enrolling in classes, there’s the alphabet soup of exams to consider. Want an MBA? First take the CAT, the XAT, the MAT, or the SNAP, NMAT, CET, FMS or MFC, depending on where you want to go. Interested in engineering? There’s the IIT-JEE, AIEEE, CEE and the Bitsat. Medicine? First crack the PMT or AIIMS. Hospitality and hotel management? Try the NCHMCT.

And to help ace the plethora of tests for every imaginable field, there is a range of testprep coaching options as vast as the number of exams. How to wade through the muck and figure out what will help?

Serious study: A class in session at Bansal Classes Pvt. Ltd coaching centre in Kota, Rajasthan. Photograph: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint

Ask that question to test-prep veterans, and they usually offer similar advice.

First, students say, brand is important. If you can afford to shell out course fees that can top Rs30,000, stick with a big name, says one economics student who went with a smaller coaching centre in Dehradun and failed to crack the CAT when she took it last year. “The exams weren’t good, the practice wasn’t good," she says. If the materials aren’t up to par, she says, then it’s a waste of time.

Companies such as Career Launcher India Ltd, PT Education, etc., offer coaching in everything from business and law to fashion and hospitality entrance exams. In engineering, some options are Vidyamandir Classes Education Pvt. Ltd, FIITJEE Ltd, Brilliant Tutorials Pvt. Ltd, and Narayana Educational Institutions. In medicine, Aakash Institute is a good bet.

The national brand and footprint is particularly important for exams, such as the CAT, that are scored relative to how everyone else does. If a larger pool of students is taking a mock exam, each score will be more in line with what to expect in the actual test.

Beyond brand, students say, ask around about individual instructors. “Instructors really varied, and some were very useless," says Nakul Duggal, an IIM Lucknow 2008 graduate who went to coaching courses by both PT education and IMS Learning Resources Pvt. Ltd when he was studying for the CAT. “They all really seemed the same," he says, so if “a student says one teacher at one branch is very good," you’re better off going with that one.

When to start studying depends on what exam you are taking and how much time you have. For engineering exams, the longer choice might be the better one. “It’s easier on you to spread it over two years rather than a few months," says Siddharth Reddy, who is finishing an engineering degree in Delhi. “You have school along with it." For business school exams, anything between six months and one year is probably good. And for exams such as the entrance to the National Institute of Fashion Technology, or Nift, six months or less is enough, says one recent Nift applicant. Taking coaching for exams such as Nift’s isn’t as important as keeping up with news in your domain (which they test for) and taking practice exams.

The mock exam, students say, is the single most important piece of studying. “Coaching providers make you take a big number of tests," says Reddy, when explaining what’s useful about signing up for preparatory courses. “On your own, you don’t take as many."

In other words, what does it take to crack any of these exams? Practice, practice and more practice. “Self-study is much more important than joining a class, and giving mock tests is the most important thing," says Duggal. But classes, too, have their benefits: “This way you can see how hard everyone else is studying," he says, “and you start studying more."

My Reads Logout