SALT LAKE CITY — Aspiring “Jeopardy!” contestants, rejoice! It’s almost time for the “Jeopardy!” online test, and Ken Jennings wants to help you succeed.
But first, he wants to let you in on a little secret: He’s never taken the online test, which will be available April 9, 6 p.m. MT; April 10, 7 p.m. MT; and April 11, 9 p.m. MT.
That’s not going to stop him from giving advice, though.
“I’m pretty sure I’m qualified,” said Jennings, who recently returned to “Jeopardy!” and competed in the show’s first “All-Star Games.” “I don’t want to brag.”
The audition process ran a lot differently during the initial Jennings era of “Jeopardy!,” when the Brigham Young University graduate wound up winning more than $2.5 million after 74 consecutive wins in 2004.
“Back in the day, you had to wait for “Jeopardy!” to come to your town — like to show up at a mall with their Brain Bus — or (you had) to come to L.A. to try out at a hotel in person,” he said. “They never came to Salt Lake, so me and a friend, a BYU roommate, drove down to L.A. just to try out — which they tell you not to do. But we both passed the test."
The first part of Jennings’ “Jeopardy!” audition in 2003 involved a 50-question written test where he had 15 seconds to answer each clue — much like today’s online format. The one main — and exciting — difference was that the clues were presented on a PowerPoint, voiced by longtime “Jeopardy!” announcer John Gilbert.
After completing the 13-minute test, Jennings and his friend waited while a person on the “Jeopardy!” team graded the tests. They never received their official scores — potential contestants must get at least 35 of the 50 questions right — but after reconstructing the test in his head, Jennings figured he’d answered around 40 correctly.
He couldn’t have been too far off, as both Jennings and his friend made the cut. So yes, even though he took the test “back in the day,” Jennings does believe he has insights worth sharing with “Jeopardy!” fans today.
Preparing for the online test
- Watch "Jeopardy!"
“The sad truth is, the best tip is: Spend your entire life being interested in learning stuff and watching ‘Jeopardy!’ every night on KJZZ-TV,” Jennings said. “Watching the show is the best thing — you’ll see how the clues work and the kind of stuff that comes up over and over.”
- Know your U.S. presidents and world capitals
“If you’ve watched the show, you realize which things you really have to know,” Jennings said. “There’s only 45 presidents; there’s no reason not to spend some time studying the presidents. Know their years, know their vice presidents, know their home states and first ladies. And world capitals, that’s kind of the other big one. Be able to know the capital for every country in the world. That’s the most bang for your buck.”
- Other categories to be aware of
“There’s stuff that’s disproportionately ‘Jeopardy!’” Jennings said. “Like they don’t ask about opera a lot, but way more than it comes up in real life, so learn the composers of 20 operas. The Shakespeare plays are another manageable list, (as well as) Olympic cities, orchestra conductors, constitutional amendments (and) university towns.”
- Make flashcards
About a year after making the drive to Los Angeles to take the “Jeopardy!” written test, Jennings received a shocking phone call. He was at his job in Salt Lake City when he got the news.
“Bob from ‘Jeopardy!’ was … like, ‘OK, we actually want to have you on (the show) in three weeks,’” Jennings recalled. “I’d totally forgotten that I had ever tried out for ’Jeopardy!’ and then I panicked because I had not been studying; I had not even been watching the show, and so then it was flashcards morning, noon and night. … (I) made flashcards with the name of a cocktail on the front and all the ingredients on the back so that I would know how to mix drinks if it ever came up on ‘Jeopardy!’”
Taking the online test
Aspiring “Jeopardy!” contestants have only a few days to watch “Jeopardy!” and brush up on U.S. presidents and world capitals before the big day arrives. When it comes to taking the test, Jennings has another handful of tips.
- Don’t cheat
Jennings may use Google when it comes to HQ Trivia, but he would never think to do that with the online “Jeopardy!” test.
“Fifteen seconds is enough time to have a friend googling, but don’t because you’ll get caught when you get invited to the in-person audition,” he said.
- Speed-read the clue
When it comes to taking the online test, Jennings encourages test-takers to follow the lead of his supercomputer nemesis Watson.
“(Watson) doesn’t read the whole clue; it tries to pick out the most relevant parts of the clue — the proper names, the place names, the dates, the titles,” he said. “Pick those out as quick as you can, see if an idea pops into your head of who or what (the clue is) talking about and then plug that back into the clue and see if everything fits and works.”
- Don’t worry about spelling
Taking the test can be stressful enough. Don’t throw obsessing over spelling into the mix.
“What they want to know is, ‘Could you answer the question right on the show?’” Jennings said. “Don’t get into a brain freeze about ‘i before e.’”
- Don’t get hung up on one question
Even Jennings misses questions from time to time.
“You can get a bunch wrong; don’t let one wrong answer submarine you,” Jennings said. “ You can get one wrong. Don’t think ‘Oh, now I’m done for.’ There’s another question coming up in 15 seconds, (so) leave the past in the past.”
“The great thing about the online test is you’re doing it at home and no one will know,” he continued. “You can always tell everybody you missed it just by one. That’s the best advice: Always say you missed it by one.”
- Have fun
According to Jennings, the real best advice is simple: Have fun.
“This is the best advice for the show as well,” he said. “Don’t treat it like it’s some nerve-wracking crucible that’s going to define you as a person. It’s really fun to play “Jeopardy!” — even on a computer test. … Don’t put so much pressure on yourself; you’ll play better and there’s always the next test.”
- Don’t give up
Tens of thousands of people try out for “Jeopardy!” each year, so don't feel discouraged if you don't make it through.
“It’s super selective every year,” Jennings said. “I think by the numbers it’s 10 times harder to get on “Jeopardy!” than to get into Yale. I know a lot of really good players who failed the audition five times before they finally got on the show and did great. So don’t get down on yourself. Wait for the next tryout, you’re going to get better. It is something you can get better at.”
For additional tips and practice tests, visit jeopardy.com.