February 15, 2022 By Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu

Three college students standing at the jeopardy podiums with UVA's Megan Sullivan on the right

This Student Competes Wednesday in the ‘Jeopardy!’ National College Championship

A lifelong fan of trivia games, third-year classics major Megan Sullivan makes her prime-time television debut at 8 p.m. for a chance to win $250,000.

Megan Sullivan, a third-year classics major at the University of Virginia and a self-described fan of trivia games, has been trying out to be a “Jeopardy!” contestant since she was 12 years old. She finally got her big break in October and flew out to Los Angeles to tape the show several weeks later.

Sullivan is one of 36 college students appearing on this year’s “Jeopardy! National College Championship,” which has several rounds and began airing Jan. 8. The tournament’s first-place finisher will win $250,000.

Per a nondisclosure agreement, Sullivan could not share any spoilers when UVA Today reached out to her. But she did share some tantalizing, behind-the-scenes intel as well as her “Jeopardy!” back story. So read on to learn more about Sullivan and tune in for her prime-time television appearance Wednesday at 8 p.m. on ABC for the special broadcast. If you miss the show, you can stream it the following day on Hulu.

Q. How did you become a contestant on “Jeopardy! National College Championship”?

A. I’ve been trying out for years, four or five times in all. The first time I took the test was when I was 12, and I was so young that my dad had to type the answers as I dictated because I wasn’t fast enough at typing.

This time, I took the “anytime test” [which means you can take it any time] for college students on jeopardy.com in October 2020. In January, they invited me to take a proctored test over Zoom to ensure that I wasn’t cheating, which I also performed well on, so I advanced to the next stage, a mock game over Zoom where I competed against other applicants and shared some anecdotes like I would on the show. I felt good about my performance since I’d played well in the mock game and practiced my anecdotes in advance, but I didn’t get a call back for months, so I assumed I hadn’t been chosen.

Then around June, I got a call out of the blue from a contestant coordinator to confirm that I was still eligible and willing to be on “Jeopardy!” since I hadn’t been chosen yet, but I was in the final contestant pool. It was super exciting, but I tried not to get my hopes up. I got the actual call in October (the day before I turned 21!) to inform me that I was chosen for the “Jeopardy! National College Championship,” and that they’d fly me out to Los Angeles in just five weeks.

Related Story

Megan Sullivan will appear on the tournament Wednesday evening in a special broadcast at 8 p.m. on ABC. She appears in this promotional video around the 14-second mark.

Q. How did you prepare for the show?

A. I basically dropped all my responsibilities to study. I watched multiple episodes of “Jeopardy!” each day (and practiced my buzzer stance and clear speaking while watching), memorized lists of things like state capitals and presidents, read up on wagering strategy and especially focused on the categories that I felt weak at.

I even practiced trivial things like watching games with all the lights on and wearing formal shoes to mimic the stage experience or saying big bets aloud so that I wouldn’t freeze up on the show if I had to do that.

Q. What are the rules of the buzzer and did you get practice rounds to get your rhythm going?

A. The buzzer is one of the most important and underrated parts of gameplay. You could know every single answer, but not win a dollar if you don’t have buzzer skills. I figured that since I’d been chosen for the show, I and all the other contestants had a decent amount of trivia knowledge, but that none of our buzzer skills were guaranteed, so I should work on those. I bought the “Jeopardy!” community favorite book “Secrets of the Buzzer” for research-based buzzer methods.

My biggest takeaways were to hold the buzzer in a relaxed position at my waist, to buzz with my thumb, to practice visual reaction speed with online tests and to watch the lights that signal to contestants to buzz rather than to buzz by ear.

You can’t buzz in until the host has finished reading the entire clue or else you’ll be locked out for a quarter of a second, so you need to be incredibly precise with your timing. We got practice rounds before taping, but I wish they’d been longer – I was glad to have practiced buzzing so much at home so that it wasn’t novel to me.

Q How did you become a fan of the show? Did you watch it with family growing up? Something else?

A. My first exposure to trivia games was in elementary school. I’d transferred schools quite unwillingly for a magnet program, and one thing that sweetened the transition was a “Jeopardy!”-style game called “It’s Comprehensive,” run by my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Weiner. Everyone in his class got to play a different role in the game, like tallying the score or presenting comedic commercials, but I got to play as a contestant. I still remember years later how proud I was when I nearly swept a category on state nicknames, and that joy of learning got me to pursue more trivia games.

After elementary, I played for Robinson Secondary School’s very competitive “Quiz Bowl” team and got to attend state and national competitions several times. I loved the niche academic jokes we made on the team and noticing my progress in the areas I chose to specialize in, like literature and art history. I sometimes spent more time studying for “Quiz Bowl” than my classes because I wanted to make my team proud and perform well at tournaments.

“Jeopardy!” was the next logical step in my quiz career.

Q. What were you feeling in the opening moments standing behind a “Jeopardy!” lectern?

A. It was too overwhelming to think about being on prime-time TV or about all my friends and family who would watch me at home, so I thought about my friends in the audience instead, who were rooting for me and who I might compete with the next day if I played well enough. I was incredibly nervous, but glad that I’d practiced my buzzer stance and introduction at home so that I didn’t forget what to do, and I was glad that I had so much trivia experience. I’ve stepped up to a buzzer more times than I can remember, though nothing was as high-pressure as this. I tried to remember how much fun I’d had at past “Quiz Bowl” tournaments and to relax.

On some level, it didn’t feel real, though. It still doesn’t sometimes. The most unnerving thing has been seeing my face in commercials and on random people’s Twitters.

Q. What was host Mayim Bialik like?

A. She was so nice! There was a judging dispute during my game, so we had an extra-long break between rounds while they resolved the matter, which I didn’t mind since I was so nervous that my leg wouldn’t stop shaking. The contestant coordinators were kind enough to bring us chairs (on my request) while we waited, and Mayim came over to sit with us and chat, even though she didn’t have to. She said that she liked the sabres logo on my UVA sweatshirt, which I concur with; any logo with swords is very cool.

Q. What surprised you the most as a participant?

A. The buzzer button is blue. I’m so used to red buzzer buttons that it was almost unnerving.

I was also surprised at how much Sony [which produces the show] did for us contestants, since we’re in a prime-time tournament as opposed to regular syndicated “Jeopardy!” Our flights and very nice hotel were paid for, and I was ridiculously excited that they bought each of us two college sweatshirts (that stuff’s expensive!).

However, it was no vacation – we spent around 10 hours in the freezing studio each day, usually going mad with nerves, so I think we earned all the perks.

Mayim Bialik on the left and Megan Sullivan on the right with a screen in the middle that reads Jeopardy! National College Championship
Megan Sullivan said “Jeopardy!” host Mayim Bialik admired the crossed sabres on her UVA sweatshirt. (Photos Contributed by ABC/Casey Durkin)

Q. Are there any behind-the-scenes details about the show you can share with our readers?

A. Because of COVID regulations, we couldn’t all be on the “Jeopardy!” set at once, so people who weren’t filming on the first day of quarterfinals went to the “Wheel of Fortune” stage and watched a livestream of the games. Tragically, they did not let us spin the wheel, but I had a great time chatting with my fellow contestants and watching the games.

There’s a game in the “Jeopardy!” community where you try to blindly guess the Final Jeopardy! response from only the category before the clue is read, so when we were on the “Wheel” stage, I offered $20 fresh from my wallet if anyone could get a correct blind guess. I never had to pay up, but we had a fun time debating our blind guesses. It was awesome to get to watch tons of “Jeopardy!” episodes with people who all loved the show so much and who were very good at it.

Q. Did anything at UVA prepare you to be a contestant?

A. There’s a certain clue which I was very proud of getting because of its relevance to UVA, but I can’t say more about it until the episode has aired.

Q. Where will you be and whom will you be with when you tune in for your appearance?

A. The UVA Classics Department has helped me reserve a big theater for a viewing party, and I’ll be inviting my friends, professors, classmates, fellow classicists and people from Brown Residential College. My parents are going to have their own viewing party up in Northern Virginia.

Q. Is there anything you would like to share with our readers?

A. I give my compliments to the hairstylists, makeup artists and wardrobe stylists, who were so kind to me and who, I think, did a great job styling me. They had fascinating stories to tell about working behind the scenes in Hollywood that really distracted me from my nerves and they were great about letting me have control over my appearance.

Everyone behind the scenes on “Jeopardy!” was so kind and helpful, which made for an amazing experience.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications