Sunday, January 4, 2015

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Group Discussions - Prepare to Handle Topics


After an initial written exam and before a one-on-one interview most selection procedures today include a stage of group discussion. While prospective employers use this stage as an elimination round, CAT in general allows all of the candidates selected post the written exam to appear in both the group discussion and personal interview round. While it may not be the end of journey if you do not really perform well at this stage, it is a critical place where a candidate could score over his competitors. Hence it is better to prepare for them as well as one can in the time available. Keeping this in mind, I bring to you some guidance on what could you face in your group discussion topics.

Now there are no set criteria or syllabus of what can be a topic for such a discussion. The topics can range from a simple case study to a completely out of world statement like “is is is”. It is obvious that one cannot prepare for all potential topics in advance to be aware of the D’day topic. However, it helps to be aware of what kind of topics one can face and if there is a particular way these topics need to be tackled. Also it helps to practice a few such discussions to build on a thought process. I have broadly categorized the possible GD topics in four areas – Current Affairs, Generics, Abstract and Case Study - and have provided a brief introduction to what these may involve. While giving examples and descriptions, I have also provided broad guidelines on how one can handle such topics, if faced with one during the GD.

Current Affairs Related Topics

These are topics which are derived from an event or person who has been in news recently before the discussion. Recently though may be relative and could mean about 4-6 months for our purpose. The aim is to assess how aware a candidate is about the world and nation and how regularly (s)he keeps updated with news. Such topics also help check if a candidate thinks through anything (s)he hears and analyzes it to form an opinion. These topics mostly would require a candidate to have specific knowledge of background and context into the event or person before an opinion can be formed on the topic. For this year some of the key headlines one should be aware of are – “Success of Mangalyaan (MOM)”, “Coalgate and Its Implications”, “Regime Change at Center”, “WTO and India’s role”, “Fuel Economy and Context behind recent price drops”, “Aircraft Safety Issues”, “Nuclear Liability Issue”, “Religious Conversions”, “Women Security” and many more. The list is endless and these are only sample topics on top of my mind.

If you get such a topic, use the preparation time to put together all the information you have of the topic. Once the information is in your head, think through your views to assess where you stand on the topic and form an opinion on the event. Also put down some timeline about the event and why or how it could have occurred. A background on an even would help you defend your opinion in the group. For such topics, taking a lead to initiate the discussion only helps if you are well aware of the event on which the topic is based. In such a case, summarize the topic very briefly highlighting the key issue that should be discussed based on the topic. Keep the gist short and get to the issue along with your opinion about it. Also ensure that as part of the gist you do not give away too much information for those who have no clue of the event. In case you are the one who does not have a clue, let someone else take a lead and hear out the background for a minute or two and then develop your opinion quickly based on what you can understand. As soon as you are ready, bring your arguments into the discussion. You should try being more general than specific until you are sure. The only thing that could hurt more than speaking less is speaking something very different from the topic.

Generic Issue Based Topics

These topics are generally debatable positions or opinion seekers on common political social or economic issues facing the society. The topics are either argumentative or controversial in nature and seek candidate’s opinion on how such issues could be handled. Sometimes they could be simple fact from daily life and ask for a discussion. You may need a very high-level background on the topic but nothing factual or specific is expected. Some of examples of such topics are– “Benefits and Ills of Quota System”, “Democracy: Boon or Bane”, “Should government be in business of making things”, “Better family configuration: joint or nuclear” etc. Some of these topics could be related to one of the candidates or close to their heart and hence have potential to turn the discussion towards a heated argument. It is always better to avoid such situations and candidates should restrain themselves from making highly generic judgmental statements which could be hurtful to a particular section of the group.

If you are the one starting such a topic, it is best to introduce the topic and put both sides of the topic and high-level arguments for the two schools of thought. Once done, you should gradually move towards making your side of arguments stronger while still sounding impartial and considerate of the other side. If possible, back your arguments with examples from familiar events/happenings, quotes from famous people or some statistics if you remember. I have also seen candidates successfully quoting examples from their family to solidify stance. I don’t recommend lies but then who knows your family ;-)

Abstract Topics

Abstract topics are highly perception based topics which may not mean much in terms of literal statement written on the note. It is very easy to give multiple contexts to such topics and there is no right one among them. Whatever is accepted by the group in general is what the topic means for that discussion. Some of the examples of such topics are – “Uncle Sam is unwelcome”, “is is is”, “Why was TEAM misspelt?” etc. These are the topics where one should attempt to take the lead in the discussion. The initiator has slight advantage as (s) he drives the direction of the discussion. However it also is a challenge for the candidate to make a tangible case out of the topic which could be sustained for discussion.

For abstract topics, try to cut the preparation time, think through your angle and be ready to initiate before anyone gets a chance to be ready with their thought process. It is recommended to not take the most obvious thing that the topic could mean but still be generic. This would help you get the attention of moderator and give you a few moments before others realize their response. The angle you give to the topic should be generally interesting for majority of the group else someone would like to give another turn and succeed in the attempt. You lose your first mover advantage if this happens too quickly. In case you did not get to start, speak up for a couple of times during the discussion and keep on lookout for an opportunity to give the topic a turn. A slight instance of stall where the discussion is actually not going anywhere, bring in a completely new angle which could catch someone’s fancy. Those who weren’t comfortable with earlier angle would be your support. Find out one or two such candidates and look them in eyes when you introduce the new angle. Just be aware that in case the entire group has well adapted to the topic, you may have tough time as everyone would have thought of their arguments and would anyway like to speak them up. Your angle could drown amidst such chaos. If you can relate it to some current affair it may show your knowledge and solidify your position with respect to relevance of the topic towards different direction.

Case Based Topics

These are generally less common for entrance exams but some of the IIMs are known to prefer such topics. These would generally involve a small situation along with some issue faced by a business or organization. It would ask for a solution to be developed as a group. The idea is to scrutinize the candidate’s perspective, logical approach, quick thinking and problem solving attitude. Cases are designed so that they require no prior knowledge of the subject. Most of the information one may need is available in the brief.

For such topics, if is critical to use the preparation time well. Read through the case study in detail and identify the key issue for which solution is asked. Look for the available information and how it relates to the issue and how it hints at a probable solution. Based on all this, develop a suggestive direction of the solution. I have personally observed that for such things it is best to go for a hybrid approach mixing two or three options and implementing the solution in phases. Also if there is someone in the group who has had actual experience with such a situation or has worked in an industry related to the case, try to incorporate that experience into the discussion and derive a solution taking that into account. But yeah do not let the one with experience have the entire limelight.

These were the areas within which I think almost all of the topics you could face in that room would fall. While preparation and practice would definitely help, it is improbable to have seen the same topic in practice. So thinking on feet and systematic argumentation are skills that you need to develop. Staying current with news does help and it is best to be regular with newspapers. It would help you in both – being aware and developing opinion. I also found it helpful to discuss any key event, news or topic that came to mind with friends. For me, we used to go for post-dinner walks in a group and that was when I would bring up some topic for discussion. It helps you analyze how good you are at your arguments and if you can defend you side successfully without being rude or commanding.

Hope these help you get started with your preparations.

There is another post coming up soon on how to handle the soft-skill issues during the group discussion which could help you on actual GD day. These would be based on my experiences on both sides of a GD – candidate and moderator. So if you really do not want to miss on those inputs, subscribe to the mail feed and/or like the Facebook page to stay connected. And in case you think a particular topic-area is missed, do let me know. Also as always pour in your feedback, comments or queries in the comments below.

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