You’re not fired! Winning ‘Apprentice’ strategy revealed by statistician

A statistician at the University of Sheffield has revealed the best strategy for winning TV show The Apprentice following in-depth analysis of the background and performance of previous contestants.

Researchers studied 159 hopefuls across ten series of the BBC One show, which returns to TV screens this Wednesday (14 October 2015), to find out which factors boost the chances of success and which are likely to get you fired by Lord Sugar.

When it comes to the background of candidates, age is a crucial indicator of success, with both the oldest and youngest candidates more likely to be fired earlier in the process. All ten winners so far have been aged between 24 and 31. Gender and recent job history were not found to have any significant effect on a candidate’s chances.

An interesting shift in the factors deciding the winner is the effect of a candidate’s academic qualifications. For the first six series, when the winner was given a £100,000 a year job as an ‘apprentice’ to Lord Sugar, more academically qualified contestants tended to perform less well, with Lord Sugar perhaps favouring streetwise hustlers in his own image.

Since series seven, however, the prize has been a £250,000 investment in the candidate’s company, and the profile of winners has shifted towards highly qualified graduates with previous entrepreneurial experience.

Repeatedly volunteering to be a team leader is likely to be a poor strategy. In the boardroom, the odds of the team leader being fired are twice as high as the other candidates, and, if you make the final, having been a leader on multiple occasions adds nothing to the chances of winning.

When in the boardroom, the odds of a candidate being fired were increased by 37 per cent if they had previously appeared in the boardroom, the researchers found. However, being on the losing team is not necessarily a bad thing. In the final stages of each show, candidates who had frequently lost tasks but had not been called into the boardroom were typically more successful than regular task winners.

The research, which involved reviewing footage from 102 episodes aired since 2005, has been undertaken by statistician Dr Chris Stride, from the University of Sheffield’s Institute of Work Psychology, and Ffion Thomas from the University of Central Lancashire. The results have been published in Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society and the American Statistical Association.

Discussing the best strategy for success, Dr Chris Stride said: “Having been a team leader, even a successful one, on multiple occasions adds nothing to a candidate’s chances of winning if they survive until the interview stage. So I’d advise candidates not to rush into taking on this role unless they possess very specific skills that would make their team the overwhelming favourites to win.”

Dr Stride added: “Losing tasks but not being called into the boardroom could actually be very beneficial to candidates. This would suggest that both possessing the social skills to get on well with all your teammates (and therefore being less likely to be dragged into the boardroom for personal reasons) - and shining in a task despite being part of a losing team - are taken by Lord Sugar and his advisors as a better indicator of a candidate’s potential than being part of a winning team. So a candidate’s chances need not be hijacked by incompetent and quarrelsome teammates; despite its team-based structure, there appears to be an inherent fairness in The Apprentice.”

Commenting, Royal Statistical Society Executive Director, Hetan Shah, said: “This is a good example of statistics being used in a fun way to analyse real-life situations.

“If you’re a budding apprentice hoping to impress Lord Sugar, statistics might just be as important to your chances of winning as your sales skills.”

Five tips for winning The Apprentice:

1. Don’t volunteer to be a team leader just to look enthusiastic and active – even if you win the task, having been the leader adds nothing to your chance of actually winning the series.

2. Shine when on a losing team as well as when on a winning one – being on the losing team but avoiding being dragged into the boardroom is better than just winning!

3. For the same reasons, get on well with your teammates and team leader to increase your chances of dodging the boardroom when losing.

4. Be aged between 24 and 31 – all ten previous winners have been in this age range.

5. Have good academic qualifications – less qualified contestants used to do well but highly qualified professionals have dominated in recent years.

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

With almost 26,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

In 2014 it was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

The Royal Statistical Society

The Royal Statistical Society (RSS) founded in 1834 is one of the world's most distinguished and renowned statistical societies. It is a learned society for statistics, a professional body for statisticians and a charity which promotes statistics, data and evidence for the public good. Today the Society has 6000 members around the world.

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Hannah Postles
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University of Sheffield
0114 222 1046