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4 May 2018

Rosie McKeown’s Diary: Life after winning University Challenge

Having attended a comprehensive, I hope my appearance will encourage others in state education to apply to Oxbridge – and to be on the show.

By Rose McKeown

I really begin to feel excited about Monday night’s University Challenge final – in which I and my teammates John-Clark Levin, Matt Hazell and James Devine-Stoneman took home the trophy for St John’s, Cambridge – when I turn up early to the theatre where our viewing will be held, only to find that it’s already crowded.

Fluctuating audience numbers at previous viewings have left me unsure as to what to expect, but what we get is an incredible show of support from the whole college community, especially when the gong announces the end of a tense match against formidable opposition from Merton College, Oxford. At the drinks reception, I’m hugged by friends (one of whom has painted my name on her T-shirt) and strangers alike, and the celebrations continue in the college bar, where my teammates and I read out the funniest and most complimentary tweets. I’m so energised by the evening’s events that I manage to write a paragraph of an essay I’ve been working on before I finally go to bed!


Today is an interesting day – I find myself the focus of intense media interest (though, sadly, no one asks me to be the next Vogue cover star) just as the new term is getting started. I have phone and video interviews, as well as a photoshoot with the Daily Telegraph in the afternoon – but before that I have my German oral exam at midday, so I spend the morning revising. The challenge of language exams is that the material is virtually unlimited – no matter how much you study, there’ll always be one or two words on the paper that you don’t know.

In the evening, the master of St John’s and his wife invite us for some drinks and snacks in their home. They’re loyal fans of the team (despite also having strong ties to Merton College) and are keen to hear about our experiences on the show. I also enjoy the opportunity to socialise with my teammates – it’s fun to spend time together in a more relaxed environment than a TV studio or quiz tournament. Making new friends is one of the best parts of University Challenge – competition is fierce but friendly, and our fellow contestants were some of the nicest people you could hope to meet.


I’m up earlier than the average student for a 7.25am radio interview with BBC Surrey. We chat about how team quiz shows differ from individual ones, though later on I reflect that University Challenge is actually both, which is probably part of what makes the format so appealing. You buzz as an individual, but in doing so you’re affecting the outcome for your whole team. I’ve received a lot of attention for my high number of buzzes in the final, but being a good buzzer isn’t all that matters on the show – we did well because of our spread of subjects, because we practised together and because we trusted each other on the buzzer, even if we weren’t always correct.

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Later, I rush off to a meeting about options for the fourth year of my French and German degree, which still feels remote as I’m currently arranging my third year – a year abroad. I’ve enjoyed medieval French and German romanticism this year, and I’d like to pick papers that allow me to go into more detail about those topics. I’m not sure what my third literature paper will be, but several catch my eye.

Immediately afterwards, I have another interview with a journalist. We eat lunch in the college grounds together.


Today marks the beginning of classes for Easter Term (better known as Exam Term) and my life as a student returns to normality. I have a French supervision to go over the mock exam, then a start-of-term meeting with my director of studies. She’s been a very keen supporter of the team since the start, and we talk about my experiences, and about those of women on the show generally. This is always a topic that attracts some attention, and I’m unwilling to speculate about other women’s reasons for choosing not to appear on the show, but I’d be sad if the only obstacle for some was fear of a negative response on social media. I won’t deny that some comments are unpleasant to read, but most of viewers are supportive, and the experience of being on the show is once-in-a-lifetime. After the excitement of the start of the week, I take advantage of this new-found calm to get on with some work in the evening.


In the morning, I set off to the language faculty with a friend to hand in our coursework essays. Choosing to replace one literature exam with two 4,000-word essays has taken some of the pressure off as exams approach, and it’s been a great way to explore medieval French literature in real depth. My friend insists that we take a selfie with our essays in hand – he runs the Twitter account @cambtweetmml, which aims to give potential students an insight into daily life at Cambridge. We both attended comprehensive schools and are passionate about access, and I really hope that my having appeared on University Challenge will encourage other people in state education to apply to Oxbridge and to be on the show.

I’m a bookworm, so I decide that a trip to Heffers, a favourite local bookshop, would be a suitable victory present to myself. I pick out a book on 1920s literary culture (my favourite period) and a mermaid notebook. The wonderful thing about University Challenge is that it’s a celebration of readers, of people who love information. Good general knowledge is such a gift – it means you can strike up a conversation with anyone. My experiences this week have shown me that there are so many people who love facts as much as I do, and I hope that among them there are a few young girls who’ll find themselves lifting the trophy one day, too. 

Rosie McKeown is reading French and German at St John’s College, Cambridge, and was a member of the winning team on University Challenge

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This article appears in the 02 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right