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Blog: The University Challenge Experience

Last week, our University Challenge team received the unfortunate news that they hadn’t made it to the recorded stages of the show.

In the words of one of the producers, the standard had been "exceptionally high" this year and with around 120 teams applying across the UK, it was always going to be a tight contest. We caught up with team captain Marcel Armour who gave us the low-down on the team’s journey and experience.

Forming the team

Every year the production team for BBC’s University Challenge sends out a pack of questions to every university in the UK. Here at Royal Holloway, the process of choosing a team is picked up by ‘Give It A Go’ and begins with an online quiz with 20 questions open to all students, with the follow up round (a written test) held a week or so later. The questions test a range of knowledge covering many areas, and are designed to find the very best students here at Royal Holloway.

The highest scorers of these rounds are invited to the final internal round, involving the Events & Give It A Go Coordinator Alison Baker playing the role of quiz master. Candidates are asked a mix of questions on an individual and group basis, with some answers being scribbled on whiteboards and some group questions asked head-to-head with candidates required to buzz in (well, dinging the bell), whilst avoiding the desire to ding too prematurely with the slight embarrassment of an incorrect answer. All of this in a time-pressured environment; after all, Jeremy Paxman wouldn’t wait forever would he?!

Following this, a team of four + one reserve is put together to make up the official team and represent Royal Holloway at a national level. The team pulls together the best performing students from all previous rounds and also considers representative factors like gender, race and course. This year's team consisted of Jon Foster (Masters in Shakespeare), Nick Hatton (PhD in politics), Dom Kearney (English) and myself, Marcel Armour (PhD in cybersecurity), with our reserve member Micka Clayton (PhD in music and psychology).

Judgement Day

As a team, we were invited to London to be interviewed by the producers of the show as well as having a written group written test. I can’t say the journey there was completely nerve-free, but we tried our best to take it all within our stride! The test was actually quite scary - there were 20 questions recorded with a few seconds gap, to which we wrote our answers out individually. In the interest of efficiency, the team from Trinity Laban were there too. The questions were extra hard, for example: "the number 1000 in ternary is what in hexadecimal?" and "name any of the three landlocked African countries closest in area to the UK."

Our brains well and truly frazzled, we then had an interview with the producers. I don't know whether it was really an interview or just a chat... but we did get to ask some questions at the end. We also had that annoying journey home, where you suddenly start thinking of answers you couldn’t remember when you were in the room. But we did what we could when we were in there and for that we can be proud. If you are interested in taking part next year, you should start memorising useless trivia - sorry, important facts. Apparently, Wikipedia is the secret to success.

Unfortunately despite our efforts, the Royal Holloway team didn't make it through this year. But as they say, it's the friends that we make on the way that matter. And the Royal Holloway University Challenge team will be taking their expertise to a pub quiz near you sometime soon!

Marcel Armour // Royal Holloway University Challenge Team Captain