Auditioning for Jeopardy, Part 2
Hello, readers! In this post, I will continue my saga of explaining how to audition for Jeopardy. The first post explained how the online test works, and what to expect when you get asked to audition. Onwards!
(Warning: This post is huge.)
Phase 3 – the in-person audition
This is the juicy part of the process that everyone wants to know most about. So first, I will dash your hopes by telling you the following:
- You do not get to meet Alex Trebek
- You do not get to play the game using a full-sized trivia board
- You do not get to meet Alex Trebek
- You will not win any money at the audition
- You do not get to meet Alex Trebek
At most, you will be shown a video of him. But more on that later.
Before the audition
Both times that I auditioned, I was told to show up in the lower lobby of a ritzy hotel, which had lots of conference rooms. The room that I needed had an easel next to it with a placard bearing the Jeopardy logo. The following things were available to contestants before the audition I had in 2011:
- An information sheet to fill out
- A page listing the numbers 1 to 50, with a blank line beside each number
- A pen branded with the Jeopardy logo (the one souvenir you get of the entire experience)
- A thin cardboard sheet you can use as a makeshift surface for writing
One thing to note about the auditions: they happen 3 times a day (it says so on the placard on the easel) and it seems that they visit each city for about a week. Each audition itself contains between 20 and 30 people. Let’s do some rough math:
6 audition cities X 5 days per city X 3 auditions per day X 25 people per audition = 2250 people auditioned total
This number is very rough, but it does correspond with some of the statistics that the Jeopardy reps throw at you (more on those later), and it should give you an idea of how many people show up.
And show up they will. I came to my audition about 45 minutes before the official start time and wasn’t the first person there. You can use the time before the audition to fill in your information sheet with your vital info (sample question: “are you currently running for political office?”), and in fact, I highly recommend that you do so, because once the Jeopardy representatives arrive, things shift into gear.
In the audition room
Once they arrive they ask you to line up and then they check your name off their attendance sheet. After this they take a Polaroid picture of you to include in your contestant file – this helps them keep names and faces together long after the audition is over. After the photo, you’re then ushered into the audition room.
In my case, it was a standard-issue meeting room with tables, chairs, and a projector screen at the front, with one crucial difference: The front tables were covered in Jeopardy testing paraphernalia, including a laptop and a series of fake buzzers.
At this point, the Jeopardy representatives welcome you, and then the heart of the experience starts. First is a brief video with Alex Trebek (This is the only time you’ll see him!) and the video clue crew congratulating you on getting this far and explaining how the in-person test works – this is what the blank numbered sheet is for. Then you move on to the test itself
The in-person paper test is very similar to the online test in that it has 50 questions in a variety of categories. As with the online test, spelling mistakes don’t matter, and you don’t have to write down your answers in the form of a question. You can even write your answer in next to the wrong number and it won’t count against you. The only stipulation is that you must write down a person’s full name as the answer if there is more than one famous person with the same surname (i.e., which Hepburn do you mean? Katherine or Audrey?).
The test questions are shown on the projection screen at the front of the room, and read aloud on an accompanying audio track. Each question lasts for about 10 seconds before moving on to the next one.
After the test is complete, the papers are collected into a package along with the information sheet, your photo, and your “five interesting facts” sheet that you were asked to complete before the audition. Once the package is complete, the representatives leave the room and mark each test.
However, before they start marking, the reps state that you must not share information about the test questions with anyone who was not part of the audition. This makes a lot of sense, because it appears that they recycle the test questions from audition to audition, so if you end up telling others what the test questions are, you’re 1) inflating the test scores, and 2) giving a leg up to your future potential adversaries.
However, they understand that you just can’t keep completely silent about the questions, so while the tests are being marked (which takes approximately 20 minutes), they encourage you to talk with the rest of the people in the room about the questions, just so you can get them out of your system.
I myself will keep the Jeopardy Vow and not discuss which questions were asked. However, I will say that there was one huge, obvious, flamingly-easy question that I should have gotten correct but didn’t.
After the tests are marked, the representatives come back in and begin the longest part of the audition: The mock games. They call up 3 participants at a time and have them take part in a fake Jeopardy game complete with a game board (a series of categories projected onto the screen at the front) and buzzers. What they’re looking for here are good presentation skills – confidence, enthusiasm, and a clear voice are what count.
Here they also divulge how the buzzers work and how to buzz in at the right time. As it turns out, when each question is being read aloud, it’s bordered by a series of grey squares. Once the question has been read aloud, the squares change colour from grey to yellow, and you’re allowed to buzz in. They use this timing method on the show, but edit the squares out before it goes on air.
The key is to buzz in quickly, but not too quickly; if you buzz in too early, your buzzer gets locked out for half a second, which is a large enough interval for someone else to scoop the question out from under you. In fact, Ken Jennings has admitted that good buzzer technique was a large part of his success.
Each mock game lasts for about 5 minutes. After the question period is done, the representatives chat with each participant in turn about where they’re from, what they do, their hobbies, and what they would do with their winnings. They also ask about one of the things listed on the “five facts” sheet that they collected earlier. Once this is done, a new batch of 3 participants heads up to the front of the room.
In the 2011 audition, most people said that if they won, they would travel the world. Others said that they would buy a cottage and renovate it from the ground up. One man said that he would use his winnings to help pay for adopting a child with his wife.
I don’t know how much originality counts here, but when it was my turn, I said that I wanted to go on a “culinary tour” of the world and eat things like truffles from the Piedmont region, real Wagyu steak from Japan, and so forth – I tried to make my travel plans sound as distinctive as I could.
After they cycle through all of the participants in turn, the audition is over. Just like that, two enjoyable but anxious hours have passed, and you emerge as a new person: The Jeopardy Hopeful.
Phase 4 – the wait
And now comes the longest part: the waiting game. Remember how I mentioned in Phase 1 that they don’t tell you how well you did on the online test, and that the only way you know you’ve done well is if you get called to audition?
Well, this is 10 times more nerve-wracking, because when you leave the audition room, no one tells you how you did on the written-down version of the test, or how well you did on the in-person mock game. After you leave the audition, Jeopardy reserves the right to call you at any time within the next 18 months to appear on the show.
You heard me right. And even then, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be on the show because they stock the contestant pool with more people than they need to last a single season. So for the next year and a half, you just have to twiddle your thumbs.
Things to keep in mind
Throughout both posts, I’ve mentioned various dates and milestones in the audition process. Now we’ll take the time to add them up:
- Online test – late January to early February
- Audition confirmation email – early May
- In-person audition – late June
- Waiting to see if you get on the show – the next 18 months
If you do all the math (again), you’ll realize that this entire audition process from beginning to end lasts for almost exactly 2 years. While this 2-year cycle is happening, you can’t audition for the show again – meaning that, at most, you can audition only once every 2 years (and this assumes that you make it from the online portion to the in-person portion each time).
At my audition, one of the Jeopardy representatives stated that a previous Tournament of Champions winner had to audition 9 times before he got on the show. In fact, the odds of getting on the show are astronomically small and improve only through persistence. According to one of the Jeopardy representatives, every time they start a contestant search:
- 100,000 people do the online test,
- 2,000 to 3,000 people are selected for an in-person audition, and only
- 300-400 people actually get on the show per season.
To put this into perspective, Harvard has a 6% acceptance rate. Getting into Harvard is easier then showing up on Jeopardy.
I’ve also heard that if you do make it on the show, they won’t pay for your flight to the studio or your hotel booking. Since I’m in Toronto and the show is filmed in California, this would cost at least several hundred dollars.
Furthermore, if you get on the show and don’t become champion, you won’t win the full value of the money you earned during the trivia portion of the game: if you get second place, you get $2000, and if you finish last, you get only $1000. So: The entire audition process is long and fraught with waiting, and your payoff at the end is uncertain.
Why am I doing this again? Oh, right – the chance to appear on national TV and possibly become the living embodiment of an old Weird Al song:
In short, getting on Jeopardy is harder than most people realize. However, if I ever do get on the show, it will be really satisfying. Now, the only problem is making sure that Alex Trebek has enough cybernetic body part replacements to last him until I show up.