The Journey to Jeremy: How to get on University Challenge

or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wikipedia Binge.


Disclaimer: this is not actually a step by step guide of how to get on University Challenge. My apologies. Please don't throw any buzzers at me. Or Paxman. He'll be upset.

Instead, this is for people who've seen University Challenge, and thought either 'I could never do that' or 'I'd like to do that'. I've been quizzing for a year, and my miraculous transformation from 'really shit' to 'less shit college team captain' presumably qualifies me to tell you how to become a quizzing superstar.

…Not really. But the actual quizzing superstars don't end up like that out of the blue, and there's a lot to quizzing beyond starters for ten.

Where do I start?

Start with watching University Challenge episodes. Pause whenever the answer is something you've never heard of, and tab Wikipedia. You'll find yourself going on occasional Wiki-binges about echinoderms or that time Liechtenstein went to a war with 80 soldiers and came back with 81. Then, get mildly (very) tipsy and go to a pub quiz.

Image may contain: Person, People, Human

Balloons optional. Pints compulsory.

Watch this Youtube video. Trust me, if you get past the first minute you won't be able to stop.

The quiz community at Cambridge is full of amazing, eclectic people studying so many different things, and you'll meet quiz teams from other universities, too.

You might make more than friends, as well; a recent president of QuizSoc met her boyfriend through the society. 'His first memory of me is of me beating him to a question on Swan Lake.'

Image may contain: Person, Performer, Leisure Activities, Human, Dance Pose, Dance, Ballet, Ballerina

Coincidentally, this pose is the exact pose you pull when you first-line a question on Swan Lake.

Relax: you don't have to know everything

Everyone has their own fields of expertise. If you're a history student, it's unlikely you'll ever be able to answer most questions on biochemistry. And that's fine. That's why you have a team, and why your team's constitution is really important. You need, between you, to cover the field. If you're all brilliant humanities students, and a question starts with some gobbledygook about bosons, you're probably screwed.

There's always going to be some eclectic savants around, buzzing madly as soon as the French New Wave comes up, or scowling as you flub your bonus set on Icelandic whaling practices. Ignore them. Looking super smug and impressive when a question on your speciality comes up is a tiny part of UC. Most questions you won't be nearly so sure about. You have to get good at (educated) guessing – okay, no fucking clue who wrote that, but who's an American poet from the right time period? Many a tournament has been won by well-chosen guesses.

Also, some topics recur in quiz. I've seen enough bonus sets on Things Fall Apart, or on emulsions, to make me lose all remote interest in either of them. Which is a shame, because the book's great, and so is mayonnaise.

(Or is mayonnaise a colloid? Shit.)

Image may contain: Sandwich, Mayonnaise, Food

Actually, I think an emulsion is a type of colloid…possibly?

Remember: hapax legomenon

This phrase went viral after Ted Loveday of Caius guessed it at almost supernatural speed – but you might not have caught what it means: it's a word found only once in an author's work.

Somewhat like a hapax legomenon, you are allowed to be on the show only once. This means two things. First, while it's great to make the show, it's not so great to realise that you'd have done a lot better if you'd had another year of practice. And second, don't put all your eggs in the UC basket. If you compete and still have year/s left at university, the intra- and inter-university tournaments are amazing fun, often more challenging than UC (yes, seriously!) and give more attention to the topics that UC rarely brings up.

Don't make UC the be-all and end-all, in case you go out with 20 points in the first round and have to spend the televised episode hiding under the JCR couch.

Image may contain: Pet, Mammal, Kitten, Cat, Animal

'Is it done yet? Can I come out?'

'But I suck'

I still find quiz really hard. I'm still at the lower levels of the game in Cambridge, and it can be a blow to the ego. But it's a blow you need in order to learn new stuff. And then you start to get this amazing feeling, like everything is connected, from that documentary you sleepily watched on a plane to the art installation you glanced at a few years ago.

~ everything ~

Cambridge is plagued by impostor syndrome, which is partly driven by feeling everyone knows more than you. Well, if you happen to be like me, whose idiot year 8 self decided to stop doing history and geography to instead do music (you utter fucking space cadet, when has that term on bhangra ever come in useful) then it may be that on some stuff, most people actually do know more than you. Quiz is the best way possible to fix that. Plus, you'll have your disappointment mitigated by realising you actually do know other things. (I have a strangely extensive knowledge of poisons, it turns out.)

So don't be disheartened if you think you suck. Nobody was born with a complete tactical understanding of the Peloponnesian war. It comes with practice and experience.

If you want to start that experience, there's a UC screening at the Union Bar on Mondays, followed by some round-robin quizzing; check out QuizSoc's FB page to find out more.