William Scott enters finals of ‘Jeopardy! College Championship’

Tufts student William Scott poses for a picture with Alex Trebek on the set for the Jeopardy College Championship. Courtesy Jeopardy Productions, Inc.

For many trivia buffs, getting on “Jeopardy!” (1984–) is a dream. Very few people are selected to be the ones clicking the buzzer, giving answers in the forms of questions and devising strategies to bet money on the Daily Double. Over the past week, first-year and Tufts Quiz Bowl member William Scott has been living this dream, having been featured as a contestant in the annual “Jeopardy! College Championship.”

In a nail-biting semifinal round that aired on Monday night, Scott beat Rebecca Rosenthal, a sophomore at Swarthmore College, by a margin of just $1 to become the first contestant to enter this year’s finals. After entering the semifinals as one of four wildcard contestants, Scott will now compete against two other finalists.

“I have always liked trivia, geography, and impressing people by knowing things, so [being on the show] has always been a dream in the back of my mind,” Scott said. 

In describing the development of his fascination with trivia and his desire to be on the show, Scott said that he has loved trivia since he was a child and was inspired by a fellow student who was involved in the quiz bowl team in his high school.

“[My friend] actually appeared on the show herself a few years ago, which is when I realized, ‘Okay, this is something I could do,'” he said.

Scott began preparations to be on “Jeopardy!” the summer before he arrived at Tufts, which he noted was not an easy task. According to Scott, the process to get on “Jeopardy!” is one that requires both knowledge and luck. The application starts with a 50-question online test which is taken by thousands of college students in October. Applicants will have 15 seconds to respond to each clue, according to the show’s website.

Following this, of those who pass, about 300 applicants are randomly selected for an audition via a lottery, according to Scott.

“Even if you ace the test which is very difficult to do… you would still only have a 1-in-10 chance of getting an audition. I got lucky there, I guess,” he said.

At this point, the pool of applicants selected for the audition would be narrowed down further. Scott said that they were asked to take another test in-person and undergo a personality interview.

“The [in-person] test isn’t really that big a deal here,” Scott said. “It’s not super transparent, but from what I know … they’re looking for people that look good on TV.”

After this second-round vetting process, the producers narrowed the selected applicants to 15 who would be on the show. Scott said that he was lucky to be one of these 15 and to have received this opportunity.

Scott said that after he knew he was going to be on the show, he divided his preparation into content, buzzing in and strategy. He also mentioned that he began to watch the show more closely and practiced answering questions while using a pen to simulate the buzzer.

“In terms of content … it’s so hard because they can ask you about anything,” Scott said. “But ‘Jeopardy!’ has some pet categories … that have to do with word play, state nicknames or bestselling novels. By studying a list of state nicknames or reading reviews of some recent bestselling novels … I wanted to get myself in the door for some of these common topics.”

“Learning all of history or all of the movies ever made is a daunting task, so I put most of my time into buzzing and strategy, getting myself in sync with what the show’s contestants were doing, so I would be ready when I got there,” he said.

Scott also mentioned that he spent a lot of time deciding how to bet and how to make decisions about whether to go for a win or a wildcard spot. For example, he detailed drills that he devised that helped him simulate show scenarios.

“I would pretend that the two other players in the show had a certain amount of money and figured out what I would do accordingly,” he said.

In discussing his actual experience with recording for the show, which was filmed in March, Scott shared the numerous factors that affect the filming process, from how the clues are presented, how host Alex Trebek  presents the questions, to how the actual competition progresses.

“The recording is not super clean,” Scott said. “Alex [Trebek] stumbles on certain things and you have to do voiceovers, and sometimes the clues are wrong, so [the producers] are judging to see how the clues are presented.”

Scott described the entire process as a nerve-wracking one. Beyond just knowing the answers, he said that the challenge lies in timing the buzzes immediately after Trebek asks the question, betting the right amount of money and conquering his nerves.

“Even well after I knew about being on the show, the reality of it all didn’t set in until I was there,” Scott said. “It’s just all the nerves that hit you when you’re up there especially from the audience. They were rooting for me more than I was rooting for me.”

Another rewarding experience for Scott was meeting and interacting with Trebek, although the recordings are the only times the participants get to interact with the long-time “Jeopardy!” host.

Alex has all sorts of interesting commentary about the game,” Scott said.  “He may say things like ‘I was really rooting for you on that Daily Double,’ or ‘You may get a wildcard spot.'”

Though Scott’s time on “Jeopardy!” will come to an end after the finals air on April 20, he will continue fueling his passion for trivia. For example, he participated at the 2018 Intercollegiate Championship Tournament on April 14, where the Tufts Quiz Bowl team placed 14th. Scott also predicted that his involvement with “Jeopardy!” will not end here, as he is sure that he will be working with other students at Tufts who may wish to apply to be on the show in the future.

“There’s no more ‘Jeopardy!’ anymore, but you know, trivia never sleeps,” he said.