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Penn State Grad Student Competes on 'Jeopardy!'

by on September 16, 2014 6:00 AM

“How would you like to fly to L.A. to appear on ‘Jeopardy!’?”

That's a question William Cossen had been hoping someone would ask him for years. Finally, on June 11, Cossen got a call from a show representative telling him the time had finally come.

Cossen, a doctoral candidate in history at Penn State, describes himself as a “trivia fanatic.” A massive fan of the enduringly popular trivia show, he considered auditioning to be on the show’s teen and college editions – but that was before the advent of Jeopardy's online application and he wasn't able to get to the cities where they looked for contestants.

“I’ve been watching the show virtually my entire life,” Cossen says. “It’s always been a dream of mine to get on.”

Cossen almost achieved this dream the very first time he applied, back in 2010. He took the online quiz, and later got a call do to an in-person interview. He drove to Washington D.C., where he took a second quiz and performed a mock game with the 40 contestants.

Cossen was told he may or may not be contacted within 18 months to come on the show. He wasn’t.

So he tried again in 2012. Even though he’d already gotten through the first round of the process once, he heard nothing. Nor did he hear back from the show when he applied in 2013 – but a few rejections mean nothing in the face of a lifelong dream.

So he applied once again this year, and got the call to come back to Washington D.C. With a better idea of what to expect, he went in looking “confident for the camera,” hoping that would improve his chances.

“Ten days later I got the call, which really surprised me,” Cossen says. “You hear stories of people waiting a year or a year and a half, so it really came out of nowhere.”

As it turns out, ‘Jeopardy!’ tapes months in advance during the summer rerun season – giving Cossen only about a month to study up before flying out to California to compete.

Studying became an “all-encompassing” process during that time, Cossen says. He found a fan site that complied old episodes, where he studied the categories and questions that seemed to pop up most often. He played through ten entire practice games every day.

“I’d have my wife read me my questions like Alex Trebek, and I’d click in with a pen to get the feel for using the signaling device,” Cossen says.

Finally, the day came. He flew to the Sony studio in California and stepped onto the stage behind the podium to test his knowledge and reflexes.

He says it was a “surreal” and “bizarre” experience. Though Cossen was familiar with the nuances of the game, he was surprised by the game’s amazing blitzkrieg of questions.

“It’s very different actually playing the game from what it looks like from home,” Cossen says. “It goes much faster than I ever expected it to.”

The good news is this gave him very little time to be nervous. Cossen says if he were to get caught up in thinking about his score or performance, he’d find himself a question behind the other contestants.

The part of the game that he was most nervous about was actually very small.

“Doing the interview with Alex Trebek was particularly nerve wracking for the 15 seconds that it lasts,” Cossen says. “Speaking to the other contestants, we were all more nervous about that than anything else – I mean, it’s Alex Trebek!”

Now that he’s been on the show, Cossen says it can be a little strange to watch ‘Jeopardy!”. After all, he knows “the magic that goes on behind the scenes” to make the show work. However, his love of the show remains the same.

“‘Jeopardy!’ is the ultimate test of trivia knowledge, so to finally be able to actually go on and test myself against other trivia fanatics is very rewarding,” Cossen says. “I’ve worked for this for four years, so to have it finally pay off was a dream come true.”

Due his contract with the show, Cossen isn't allowed to reveal how he did on or what his interview with Alex Trebek concerned. But you can find out tonight. The episode featuring Cossen airs on ABC 23 Tuesday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m.

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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for StateCollege.com who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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