In Conversation with Ms. Naomi Satam

Naomi Satam graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai in 2019 with a major in Economics. In 2020, she cracked the UPSC Examination in her first attempt, securing an All India Rank of 162. Currently, as an officer trainee of the Indian Police Service, she’s undergoing training at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy for administrative services.

Q1. Could you tell us a little about yourself? What are you doing currently?

My name is Naomi Satam and I graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai in 2019 with a major in Economics. After that, I gave the UPSC examinations and cleared it in my first attempt, securing an All India Rank of 162 and got into the Indian police service. 

Currently, I am in Mussoorie in ‘LBSNAA’ – Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy for Administrative Services. This is where civil servants are trained with a three months preparatory training programme.  After this, I will be going to Hyderabad, to the national police academy where the rest of our training will take place.

Q2). Could you tell us about your time at Xavier’s? What were your subjects and extracurricular activities? What were your key takeaways after graduating from Xavier’s?

My journey at St. Xaviers started right after my 10th grade. I was a state board student and made the cut-off. My subjects for graduation were AIC [ancient Indian culture], Political Science and Economics. I majored in Economics with a balance of extracurricular activities. I was a jack of all trades and master of none. I played inter college badminton, was a permanent member of the debate society and participated in all kinds of debates, MUN’s and public speaking events. I was also a part of the Ecocircle – in my first year, I was a student representative. In my second year, I was a part of the sem team and became the chairperson of the Khandala economics seminar in my final year. I spent an inordinate amount of time in the lending library at college. Besides that, I used to teach children in an orphanage in my locality for the Social Involvement Program(SIP). I participated in ‘Malhar’ as a volunteer primarily to meet new people and explore different perspectives. Every Xavierite plays some role in this event. Apart from this, I have participated in every fest, like ‘Zephyrus’, a business management event outside my stream, all for the experience. I think the most important thing that Xaviers taught me is to participate in all kinds of things without any expectations. To try everything and not be afraid to step into the water. It helped me in civil services as well. Mumbai hardly has anyone preparing for the civil services. There was only one person I knew that was taking the examination with me. I had no backup, no one to look up to or ask doubts to. Nonetheless, I could get through it because, in Xaviers, we step into things without knowing what it is. Also, our CIA’s are rigorous and overwhelming which puts you in a zone to take up a lot of pressure and deliver on time. 

Q3. You mentioned that you had taken political science. What was the reason for not majoring in Political Science even though it is considered to help in UPSC preparation and interview? 

Have y’all heard of ‘Aggie’ sir? Agnello Menezes? He is a legendary teacher. I joined Xaviers because I wanted to major in political science since that would have helped me in UPSC but in my second year, I flipped because Aggie sir made us love the subject. Economics was made so realistic that we could apply it in real life while political science has stayed the same over the years. That’s not the subject’s fault, even economics has not changed as much. The problem lies when we don’t think beyond ‘Keynes and Friedman’. Aggie sir made it realistic by making us sell things, study the economies of countries which I loved and so I majored in that.

Q4. Being an Economics major, students usually consider applying for a masters degree or working at a top firm. What was your major drive behind going for the UPSC exams instead of choosing the traditional path? 

I chose UPSC before I chose economics. I joined humanities because I decided in 7th-8th grade that I wanted to be a civil servant. Eventually, I ended up with an economics major. There’s also another side to this. Once you become a civil servant, the government pays for your education at the masters level. It works out well for me eventually * laughs *. It is a very non-conventional way of education, thankfully it worked for me.

Q5) What was your study plan while preparing for UPSC exams? Did you choose to prepare on your own or did you take any external help? When did you start preparing for the same? 

I started my preparation in Bangalore and joined ‘Rau’s Study Circle’ a coaching service where I studied for 9 months. After that, the pandemic hit so I had to come back home. I gave the examination after coming back to Bombay. Since our exams took place during the pandemic and kept getting postponed, half of my study was done at home with no coaching.

Q6. It is usually said that people spend 16 hours a day preparing for the entrance exams, is it true or just a myth?

Initially, I spent 12 hours studying, but by the end of it, more than 16 hours were required. Sometimes even 20 hours were spent on preparation. Prelims you can clear with 12 – 14 hours of regular studying, but the mains are subjective papers. We have 9 papers of 250 marks each and consist of 20 questions. These questions carry 10- 15 marks each which require a lot of practice. Often, people who give repeated attempts have that practice. It was my first attempt and I had 3 months to prepare. I didn’t sleep for more than 4 hours a day and just before the exam, not even that. If you have a 5-year plan where you decide to give prelims one year and go for a new attempt next year, you can take your time. But if you need to clear it in the first attempt, a minimum of 16 hours are needed.

Q7. While preparing for the UPSC exams, did you do anything on the side like take up an internship or job?

No, I was living alone so my spare time was spent doing tasks that my mother helped me with when I stayed at home. Since I am a runner, I used to run regularly. Somewhere around 10-12 kilometres a day which was a fitness habit and stress buster for me.

Q8.  It is important to keep up with current affairs while preparing for the UPSC exams. However there is a lot of information that a student needs to keep up with. How did you manage this process? What strategies do you use and which apps/newspapers did you regularly read or check? What is the time frame a student has to look at for news?

You are right, it is very important to keep up with current affairs and it’s essential to make your own notes. I used this app called ‘Evernote’ – with a green elephant logo – to jot down all my notes.  It’s a very helpful app, not only for UPSC but for any aptitude test. I used to read the newspaper and take notes on the side. What you can do is make folders, just like physical files. I used that to segregate my syllabus and whenever I found news that fit a theme or a topic, I used to put it in that particular folder. Revision was easy since information was ready and in one place whenever I needed it. Exactly like in Sherlock where they have a mind palace, my notes were my mind palace where I could locate things. That was a strategy of some sort. It was time-consuming, but it was productive to consume time initially. Time spent in the initial days helped me later while revising. I didn’t have to put so much effort to skim through resources and papers, I had it all in a digital format. I had it all in my phone, so if I was at a guest’s place or travelling and had nothing to do, I could glimpse through it on my phone. 

One and a half years is a recommended time frame for news, but I have been reading the news since I was in school. You have to be generally aware of the news, you can’t just know one and a half years worth of news. A habit of reading inculcated earlier helps.

Q9. Which books and reference material did you refer to while preparing for the exams? Which ones do you recommend to students currently aiming to give the UPSC exams?

So there are certain standard books that everyone uses. There is ‘Laxmikant’ for political science, ‘Ramesh Singh’ for economics, ‘Singhania’ for culture and ‘Spectrum’ for history. Besides that, I used the internet for various resources. It’s a very wide array of subjects. We have defence, environment, national security, disaster management for which we don’t have books and use the internet extensively. The toppers usually upload their notes online. They do a lot of handwork by compiling stuff and providing resources. If you’re a first-timer and don’t want to put in the effort or don’t have the time, you can refer to toppers notes. There are institutes that provide free notes. The first thing to do is to read the NCERT’s starting from 8th standard for all subjects after which you move to these core reference materials.

Q10. Were there any roadblocks that you faced while  preparing for the exam? When preparation got too overwhelming, what were your strategies to cope with the same? 

Yes, UPSC is a marathon. Unlike our CIA’s where you get  one month’s notice and you finish it off in the last five days, for UPSC you have to study for over a year. I had a whole timeline set on how I am going to finish my syllabus. Then the pandemic hit and the exams got postponed. My schedule went haywire. This happened again for the second time – The exam got postponed so I had to switch gears and alter my study plans. That was a big roadblock. We were in lockdown so I had to study from home, my parents were working from home – so there was no separate place for me to study, it was a noisy house. When my sister was preparing for NEET, it was very chaotic. If I had to read out loud, I used to record things. If I am reading something, I used to make a record of it and then I used to go out for a run listening to the record which helped me revise and also gave me an opportunity to leave the house since I just wanted to leave the house most of the time. That was something that I did as a way of relaxation and also spoke to friends (Xavierites) who were my classmates. We used to Zoom call once in a while and chit chat about stupid stuff which calmed me down. My friends helped me alot. That’s how I dealt with stress.

Q11. What was your plan for the days right before the exam? Did you stop preparing for a couple of days before the same or how was it? Did you follow any particular strategy while appearing for the exam on the examination day which helped you tremendously? 

There are three stages in the exam, prelims, mains and the interview. For the prelims, it’s only revision, whatever you do throughout the year you need to revise it. It’s of no use if you have read it but can’t recall it. Before prelims, I was revising notes that I had taken for almost every topic. For mains, there is too much writing. It’s a 3 hour paper and we have to attempt 20 questions wherein each question requires 3 sides to be filled. You have to write like a storm. Before the mains, I was giving a lot of test series, two tests a day. You have two papers a day. There’s one in the morning followed by a break and then another one of three hours in the afternoon. By the end of the day, you are dead tired. To get used to it, I used to solve a lot of tests. Before the interview, you need to be up with the current affairs and need to keep giving mock interviews. I used to ask my friends and parents to take my mock interviews – made them ask interview questions. For me, saree was a big issue because I had not worn a saree before. This interview was the first time I wore a saree. I used to wear a saree and walk around in the house so that I wouldn’t fall while entering the interview room. Depending on the stage of the exam, the mode of preparation is different.        

Q12.  What were your preparation strategies for the interview? Are there any specific tips you would like to give aspiring students? 

The preparation strategy is like a textbook strategy, you need to know everything about yourself – your name, what does it mean, your family background, where do you originally come from, what do your parents do, where you live (state, city). They can practically ask you anything.

You need to be up to date with your current affairs very well which is required for all stages of the exams. You also need to know your options well. Since my option was Political Science, I needed to know everything revolving around the subject as they can ask about that. Apart from this, just some basic stuff like hobbies, interests and achievements. It’s also necessary for you to give a lot of mocks and since mine was during the COVID time, I gave online mocks where we had a panel of 5 interviewers. It helps you gain confidence. Also, to an extent, it’s alright to not know a particular current affairs news, however if you don’t know a particular thing about yourself, there is negative marking. The interview mainly focuses on General Awareness about your surroundings and how confident you are.

Q13. Who was your key role model and the one who always supported and encouraged you to prepare well for the exam?

Yes, I did have a role model and her name is Prachiti Madrik, also a Xavierite who was majoring in Economics and Psychology.  She was also preparing for UPSC. We stayed in touch constantly. We  used to keep tabs on what each of us was doing and also helped each other with the notes. She was technically my support system in a way. 

My parents are both in the private sector and they didn’t really know how it was to study for a civil service exam. They both are working so were not aware about how much it takes to prepare for such an exam. But prachiti knew it all since she was also preparing for the same. Her presence helped me a lot. We still have discussions, chit chat and thanks to Xavier’s for that!

Q14. What is your end goal after becoming an officer? How does the allocation of the civil officers work, like between IAS and IFS? (If you can choose: Which one do you prefer and what is your reason for the same and end goal of choosing that one?)

Yes, I am planning to give it another attempt. I got IPS now and need to get just a slightly better score to get into IAS but I’ll finish the training first. The training is really good for IPS. There is no one particular end goal, but I have always been a person who wants to make an impact, to leave a mark behind. There are a lot of IAS officers who have done things for which they are known even today. My icon is T.N. Seshan, the Chief Election Commissioner of India. He completely reformed the election system. During his time there was a lot of gunda gardi, booth capturing, bribery etc. India being a democratic country, elections hold a lot of value. T.N. Seshan completely revamped the system. From Xavier’s, we have Ashok Kamte who was murdered in the 26/11 attack. These are some people I look upto even though they aren’t alive. I want to be remembered for my work. My core areas are rural development and education – these are really close to my heart and I want to do something in these particular areas and leave behind a mark in any way possible.

Q15. Incase of UPSC hadn’t not fallen into place, did you have any back up plans? If yes, what were they? 

No, I didn’t have any backup plans. The only reason behind that was – I didn’t want to leave myself with any kind of comfort, because if you have a backup plan you have that comfort of depending on something. For example if I don’t make it, I have something to fall back on. I didn’t want that to happen. I wouldn’t say it’s a good strategy (not having a backup plan) because not everybody succeeds and if you don’t, you end up in a very bad place. I was lucky not to end up there but if I hadn’t succeeded in this attempt, I definitely would have given 2-3 more attempts. There are other things to do as well – I would have done my M.A. and gone into research since it is something I am passionate about. In Xaviers, was in the Sem team. Apart from that, I wrote papers for each and every journal – be it history, sociology or psychology. I wrote papers for the subjects I didn’t even study. This is just a plan I am thinking about right now, but at that time I had no option other than excelling at the UPSC examination. 

Q16. Only if you wish to answer the following questions, Where are you from and do you consider yourself coming from a privileged background? Do you think privilege plays an important role while preparing for any entrance exams especially for one like UPSC?

Yes, I was born and brought up in Mumbai. I come from a privileged background, though we are not a family of rich people. My parents invested in my education. My grandfather was a first-generation migrant who came to Mumbai from Sindhudurg, our native place and he was a clerk (people who bring tea in banks). He educated my father who is a Chartered Accountant now. Rather than spending on a luxurious house or a luxurious car, my father spent on my education. I have supportive parents which is also why I came to Xavier’s. Being a part of Xavier’s itself is a privilege because you have the best of facilities and exposure. There are many individuals here at the centre who might be smarter than me but don’t know how to speak basic English since they didn’t have that much exposure to Information Technology like I did. In UPSC, it’s the whole nation competing – people from rural backgrounds, those who have to travel 2 days to reach the exam center. That way, I consider that I was privileged, having a lot of good fortune. It isn’t one person’s effort, it’s the support of the entire family and the whole society that’s involved in you becoming successful. However, I don’t think privilege plays a major role. To some extent, it does. But a more important role is played by determination and motivation. There are parents spending lakhs of rupees on coaching yet the kids don’t crack the examination, whereas there are people from rural backgrounds who are not able to afford these coaching. They refer to online resource material and make it. If privilege played a major role, we would see children of civil servants becoming civil servants but that isn’t the case. Most of us here are not from civil service backgrounds. It’s more about how much effort we put in. We shouldn’t be in a comfort zone like the ones with privileged backgrounds are in. Even if they are not able to clear any examination, they have their parents to look after. People coming here don’t have that kind of comfort. It’s the hard work and perseverance that play a more crucial role here.  

Q17. What are the 3 things you like most about India currently? What are the three main changes that you would like to see in the country in the coming years? 

The first thing I love about India is its diversity, there’s no other country as diverse as ours and that makes us the origin of a plethora of ideas. This is something that will help us survive, unlike other countries who think of only one way of solving problems. Second would be our culture – we have a rich culture. We are modernized yet we are in touch with our values. For example, before going for an exam, we still touch our parents’, we have the dahi shakkar for good luck. Though we wear jeans to college, we have a god pendant around our neck or we would wear Kurtis for some festivals etc. These are some signs of cultural retention in our country. Thirdly, I love the nature of India – the beaches, mountains we have. I adore the snow-clad Himalayas from my windows. We see all kinds of landforms in our country and all kinds of weather like snowstorms, rains, heat – a nature’s bounty in India which is very rare. 

To talk about the changes, I would like to transform the education system since pedagogy is not as effective as it should be. People are still into rote learning which is not helping us. We don’t get to be innovative which isn’t good for the age we live in so I feel the pedagogy needs to change. Secondly, I think we need to reduce inequalities to a great extent. After the pandemic the gaps have widened and that needs to be resolved. The Government can give us schemes, like the PDS, but ultimately it’s the man who has to help another man. We need to extend hands to our neighbors and we saw that during the pandemic. Many people went out on the streets helping others. I feel Xavier’s inculcates the help culture in you through SIP, field trips – where we are taught to care about the ones less privileged than us. We should end this entitlement mindset of “if I have something, I am going to use it for myself.” Moreover, we should be entrepreneurial rather than hunting for jobs. Jobs are going to be hard to come by. India’s youth has a lot of talent. Given the right kind of support, we can all be creative. 

Q18. What is one main issue that you’re passionate about concerning the country? 

Education can change a lot of things. There are two things to take care of, one is access and the second is quality. You can’t ask students to just memorize a textbook. We need to teach them how to be creative and ignite interactive skills. Present educational situation can be connected to the Pink Floyd song – Breaking the Wall. We are manufacturing bricks. We are giving everyone the same textbooks and asking them to simply rote-learn and produce an answer. We don’t want to be bricked in the wall, we need to be innovative. The system should be able to recognize every child’s talents and channelize them in the right direction. That’s what my aim is to do in the rural areas for underprivileged students.

Q19. Any advice for the students that are aspiring to give the UPSC examinations in the following years?

For the students, I want to say that UPSC is an interesting career option that one should consider. There are a lot of benefits of being an IAS officer. It’s a prestigious job, you get a lot of exposure. Moreover, if you are a person who wants to leave an impact on the society, civil services is something that gives you an immense amount of power to do that. If you want to do something for your country, you should opt for the UPSC exams. For people already preparing, good job! The preparation itself changes you a lot – you become more mature and start understanding the society better. You just need to keep pushing, that’s all. I feel Xavieirite’s have that determination. If they just put in enough effort, they can achieve success. Always seek any kind of help you need and remember that it’s always hard work – if you can get it right then sky’s the limit.

In order to access the UPSC interview transcript of Ms. Naomi Satam, click here.  

Credits for Illustration: 

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