From reading encyclopedias as a kid to playing on her dad’s trivia team throughout college, Grace Jeffrey, Trinity ‘21, is a lifelong trivia lover. She auditioned for Jeopardy! “just for fun,” but she quickly made her way through the audition process. Her episode will air on Thursday, June 3.
Click here to find specific instructions on how to watch this Jeopardy! episode in your area. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Chronicle: How was the auditioning process?
Grace Jeffrey: I auditioned this year, and by this year I mean this academic year so 2020-21. I took the online test in October, and to provide some extra context, the audition process differed from past years this year because of COVID-19. It was entirely virtual versus usually where there is an in-person component of the audition process. And so online I took the general test. Anybody can take this test from their home, from their computer, and that’s how the first round always is.
Jeopardy! has separate tests for the college tournament and the regular adult episodes—Jeffrey took the college test.
GJ: After a few weeks, I got an email saying that I had passed the test. They don’t tell you your actual score, and they don’t tell you the benchmark. It can vary based on the contestant pool, but they sent me an email telling me I passed and to await being contacted for the next step of the process. That was in late October, around Oct. 29. It was the same weekend that my parents came to visit me in the fall because my birthday is Nov. 3, and so they came right before the weekend of my birthday, so I told them that day.
It actually took a pretty long time before I made it to the second step of the audition process. They let you know, but then there was this waiting game. And then in late November right before I was getting ready to come back home, I got an email inviting me to the second round, which would be a Zoom audition, and this was for the college Jeopardy! test.
Traditionally for the second round of Jeopardy! you have to go to the nearest city. They have these second-round audition days, and you go in and take a pencil and paper test, and they score it. But because of COVID-19, they did the in-person test via Zoom. Right before Thanksgiving—it was a couple days after I got home for winter break—I got on my computer on the Zoom. You have your camera on, but you’re taking another online test, and they’re basically monitoring making sure no one cheats or is being fed answers or anything like that. So I did that and they said ‘we’ll let you know.’
This is the part where it got a little strange, and I don’t think this happens to most people. Shortly after I took the college in-person Zoom test, I actually got an email telling me that I passed the in-person adult test, and so I had been put into the pools for both college and adult Jeopardy!
The next day, I was invited to the final step in the audition process, which is of course on Zoom again, but it is a mock audition. So myself and other people who had passed both the first and second tests would go on this Zoom and play a fake version of the game, and that’s the last step in the audition process. They also kind of interview you to get a sense of your personality because at that point it’s not really about what you know anymore because everybody has passed these first two rounds of testing—it’s more about getting to know you as a person, so they can figure out how to cast the show because they don’t want three people who have the same knowledge base or have the same experience. They want it to be more diverse.
I got invited to the mock game for both the college and the adult show. So I did two mock games, one in early December and the other in early January.
I didn’t hear back for a while, so I reached out to them to clarify that ‘I’m graduating college in May, so I imagine that my window of eligibility to be on the college show is pretty small because if you film it after May, I’m not even a college student anymore,’ so I think that’s why they invited me to do the adult show because they haven’t filmed their college tournament yet.
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You can be in the contestant pool indefinitely. Not every person who passes the tests will necessarily be on the show because they might have a higher volume of people who passed the tests than available filming slots.
At the end of February, I got a phone call and they told me that they were booking me for two filming days in March. They asked ‘Can you be here? Do you want to do this?’ and then of course you say yes, so I booked a plane ticket.
It ended up lining up pretty well with the wellness days, and of course I got my trip approved by Duke. An interesting fact is that game show contestants count as essential works in the state of California because they are essential to the film and television production process, so that allowed me to go and bypass the 10 day recommended quarantine for people coming into California from out of the state.
Before I left, I had to get COVID-19 tested, and I had to have the results before I could fly. There’s tons of documents and forms I had to fill out.
I did the audition process—just thought it would be fun—and then it was all really quick.
TC: Were you studying throughout the whole process?
GJ: Before I took the first test, I didn’t study. I will say that I’ve always been really interested in and excited about trivia. When I was in middle school, I was on my school’s Academic Challenge team, which is the same thing as Quiz Bowl or Scholastic Bowl—I know there’s lots of regional variations on that. I just had a lot of fun with it, so that gave me some training on using the buzzer machine, and thinking in that fast-paced trivia mindset.
Since starting college, whenever I’ve been home on break, my dad plays on a trivia team at a local Irish pub, and so every Tuesday night when I’m home I go with him and play on his team, so I’ve really had fun doing that. I never actually studied. I’m constantly consuming information as any Duke student was, and I love to read. I read news all the time and growing up I did have some weird idiosyncrasies like I would read the encyclopedia and almanacs for fun, which I think really fostered that type of learning early on, but I didn’t study for either of the first two tests. It’s kind of general knowledge and pop culture, which I mainly felt pretty strong in. I just went into that knowing what I already knew. I know some people do study and there’s lots of resources out there, but that wasn’t something that I chose to do.
But then once I found out that I was going to be on the show, I started studying more. The team recommended a few books to read, so I got those and read them. I watched the show a lot, and I practiced while I watched the show using a pen instead of a buzzer because the timing of clicking in is really important. And I found an online study guide that was for the things that were important general knowledge to know such as basic facts about every single country in the world, basic facts about every world war, every United States president and vice president, things like that. And I tried to study that, but it was a pretty quick turnaround time—I filmed three weeks after they contacted me, so it wasn’t like I had time to relearn lots of different stuff.
I also knew it’s all luck of the draw—you have no idea what the categories are going to be, so there’s only so much studying you can do. There’s a point where it becomes futile to study.
I watched a lot of the show, and I would say that’s the most helpful because that’s where you figure out the strategy for things such as daily doubles or how to approach the final Jeopardy round.
In an email to The Chronicle, Jeffrey added: I'm an avid New York Times crossworder, and I think that was incredibly helpful in my studying. I actually got really into the Crossword during my sophomore year at Duke. Sometime between freshman spring and sophomore fall, I started picking up a paper copy of the New York Times each morning (either in Perkins or the Bryan Center) and filling out the crossword, always with ink. Junior year, I upgraded to a subscription to the crossword so I could do it on the app while studying abroad. Since then, my dedication has grown and grown. Figuring out the answers to crossword hints is pretty analogous to answering Jeopardy! clues, both in format and type of knowledge. More than anything else, I think this helped broaden my knowledge base.
TC: How was the overall experience? Were you stressed?
GJ: Honestly I had a really fun time! It’s a really nice group of people. As you can imagine, everyone is super interesting and has their own story for why they’re there. One really interesting thing was that some of the people I filmed with had been waiting a really long time because these were people who had been chosen as contestants for the 2020 calendar year and whose original times of filming were cancelled due to the pandemic. So there were some people like me who were just coming on this year, but there were other people who had been waiting a year or even upwards of that. There was someone who was supposed to film in 2019 who was there on my day. So it was interesting that some people actually went through the process in person—I did everything online.
You get there really early in the morning. You’re basically there all day. They film multiple episodes per day—it’s not just one at a time. It was cool to be on an actual set. We filmed at the Sony Pictures studios, and other television shows were filming there.
Things were definitely different because of COVID-19. There was no craft services table where we could go get snacks. But we all had lunch together, which was really fun. I definitely was nervous because I was the youngest person there as this was normal adult Jeopardy!, not the college tournament. It was nice getting to talk to people and being around people who were excited by and passionate about the show.
I actually can tell you now who our guest host was because Jeopardy! has revealed it, but we were with Mayim Bialik, and so we got to meet her, and she was really nice.
You don’t actually know which episode you’re going to be on when you get there before you film. They randomly select who's going to be on the episode. So because of the way things work, you could go and not film, but you’re guaranteed to film on at least one of the two days you’re there. You get booked for a two day period.
Another interesting thing was that there was no studio audience because of the pandemic. I don’t know if at this point now they’ve gone back to a studio audience, but I had to go by myself. I wasn’t allowed any guests and neither were other people who filmed with me. So we served as each other's studio audience. We got to watch the other games that were filmed before or after, which was really fun.
TC: Did you get to watch your episode or will next Thursday be the first time you see it?
GJ: I haven’t seen anything.
TC: Anything else you want to add?
GJ: I would recommend this experience to anyone who wants to try it. Anyone can take the at-home test right now on their own computer if they want to. And you really have no idea what’s going to happen.
I took the test in early 2020 and I didn’t pass the first test. I took the Teen version back when I was in middle school, and I did not pass the test. James Holzhauer, who’s the guy who holds the record for the highest single-game winnings, took the test several times before he ever got on the show. You can take it a number of times and you never know because the benchmark and how people overall perform can change.
There were other people with me who said they had taken the test several times, and they tried every year and eventually one of those days it works out based on what questions they throw at you.