Applying for University Challenge

Various people have asked me how you go about getting on University Challenge, so here goes:

University Challenge is filmed by Lifted Entertainment (part of ITV Studios) in Media City, Salford, and bought by BBC2. Around Christmas, the production team writes to every Student Union or Oxbridge college President inviting them to submit a team. How the team is picked is often thus up to the Student Union themselves. About a third of them lose the form or don't bother with it. Another third of the Presidents pick themselves and three of their mates. The final third organise a selection quiz which they advertise round their university, and the four best entrants are picked. Of course, the final of these is the best and fairest, so hassle your SU to make sure they get round to doing one!

To be eligible you are not allowed to have appeared on the show before (though one infamous exception managed to get round this rule, as well as a few who were on in Bamber Gascoigne's day!). After the controversy of the 2009 series, the production team restated the eligibility rule to say that "students taking part must be registered at their university or college for the duration of the recording of the series." Because the series is often filmed several months before the series begins it is often the case that by the time the shows are aired some contestants have already left university.

In addition, the production team sometimes also write to a contact that they have in the university or college, such as the captain of a recent team, as they are simply keen that someone take on the task of finding a good team to apply. If you haven't received a form or need another then write to [email protected].

Whichever team is chosen by the university fills in the application form, which consists of a few personal details, a photo of each of you, and about 30 general knowledge questions which you answer together without getting your phones out to look the answers up! A couple of months later you'll get an interview (most teams get an interview) in a nearby city. They'll talk to you ask a few questions like 'Why do you want to go on TV?'. I was even asked 'If you had to describe yourself as a food dish, what would it be and why?' Through all this bit they just want to see you won't crack under pressure, so just be bubbly and charming. Finally you'll do a written general knowledge test individually, which they have recorded on a CD.

The trivia bit is by far the most important bit, and a few weeks later they'll choose the top 28 of the 100+ who entered. The first round is filmed in Manchester in February or March, and later rounds in about April.

There is nothing to stop an institution entering two independent teams, and some universities routinely do it, but I have to say that I wouldn't recommend it, as it might not look too organised; with hundreds of applicants they'll be looking for any excuse to bin a team. Having said that, there have been times when one of the teams has got on (obviously there's no way both would ever get on at the same time).

Preparing for the show

If you've been lucky enough to be selected then the next question I'm always asked is how you prepare for the show. The short answer is that you can't; you've either been preparing for it for the previous ten years by having a real interest in reading and learning or it's probably too late. But in fact you can do a lot to help your chances. I wouldn't try to cram on areas you know nothing about, just stick to your own specialist areas, as if you're the only scientist then your teammates will be looking to you to cover anything about science. A number of universities also try to organise practice quizzes on the buzzer; Stephen Pearson who selects and coaches the perennially successful Manchester teams organises matches between the new team and members of past teams, which really hones your buzzer technique and improves rapid recall. In particular if you're at an Oxford and Cambridge college then get in touch with the local university Quiz Society which can help by providing questions and buzzers, or of course start a quiz society at your university to help do the same. See my page on questions for tips on obtaining question sets.