Penn State Grad Student to Compete on ‘Jeopardy!’
For Bill Cossen, some of his earliest memories involve crowding around a television screen with his parents in the living room of his Lexington, S.C., home to watch “Jeopardy!”, the popular trivia game show that has captured the attention of the American public since its debut in 1964.
After auditioning for the show for the past four years, the Penn State grad student will finally fulfill his childhood dream and take the stage he has grown up watching. He will appear as a contestant on an episode of “Jeopardy!” that will be broadcast nationally tonight.
“I’ve been watching the show for virtually my entire life,” said Cossen, a doctoral candidate in Penn State’s Department of History. “I’ve always wanted to appear on the show. ‘Jeopardy!’, in our country at least, is the ultimate test of trivia knowledge, so that was always sort of the end goal.”
Thanks to his early introduction to the hit game show when he was just three years old, Cossen maintained a deep passion for trivia. A quiz bowl competitor throughout high school, he kept looking for ways to get on the show, whether it was through the teen or college tournament. Try as he might, it just never panned out.
“There were never any tryouts nearby,” said Cossen. “This was before the online tests, so you had to actually go somewhere to try out, so I just waited until I was an adult.”
After completing his undergraduate degree at Emory University in 2008, Cossen enrolled at Penn State, where he earned his Master’s degree in 2012 and is currently pursuing a doctorate through the university’s Department of History. His research focuses mainly on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholicism in the United States.
Having settled in Pittsburgh to continue his education, conduct research, and serve as an editorial assistant for The Journal of the Civil War Era, Cossen decided to give “Jeopardy!” another shot.
“I decided, well, I’ve got no excuses,” Cossen said. “I might as well do my best.”
He took the online test for the first time in 2010, and was called in for an audition and personal interview. He was in the contestant pool each month, but never heard back from the show, so he continued online testing for the next four years. This year, he finally caught his big break.
After taking yet another online test in January, Cossen received an email in April asking him to attend auditions in Washington, D.C. He completed the audition on June 1, and was told the typical rhetoric: You may or may not hear from us over the next year and a half.
Cossen got a call from the show just 10 days later.
“I was really shocked at how fast the call came,” Cossen said. “Usually, for most people, you wait months and months and months, but for me it was just a week and a half.”
They asked him if he could fly out Los Angeles in four weeks to appear on the show. Faster than you can say “Daily Double,” Cossen agreed to attend the taping in mid-July.
After admitting to not studying for both the online tests and the auditions, Cossen realized competing on the “Jeopardy!” stage in Los Angeles in front of Alex Trebek and a live studio audience was an entirely different beast.
He had exactly 30 days to prepare, and he needed to study. Fast.
His main source was j-archive.com, a fan-created website that compiles game and player information from the beginning of the show to the present day. From the comfort of your own computer, you can complete past games with actual dollar amounts so you can see how you stack up against past competitors.
“I just started working through as many past games as possible,” said Cossen, “and I found that was actually the best help because I was able to see if I was performing as well as actual competitors on the show, and I got a chance to see if there were any patterns to questions.”
Quickly, Cossen saw a lot of the same questions presented in the same style over and over again. He was not only able to hone in on what pieces of information he needed, but in which areas of knowledge he was particularly weak. This allowed him to target his studying.
“If I noticed, for example, that I wasn’t getting any opera questions right, I would maybe go the library and check out a book on opera, or look up Shakespeare, or something like that,” explained Cossen.
A common misconception, he said, was that a “Jeopardy!” contestant must be an expert in every field of study. “It’s much more about broad knowledge base than very specific, hyper-specialized knowledge.”
Realizing a lifelong dream of standing at the “Jeopardy!” podium, Cossen admitted to feeling a little frazzled.
“It was surreal,” said Cossen. “To actually step on the stage that I’ve seen on TV for so many years, it was kind of bizarre. To actually stand there at the podium, and looking at the big game board, and holding the buzzer in my hands and everything — it was surreal. That’s the best way I can describe it.”
Something he quickly realized was the breakneck pace of the game. You may not notice while watching on TV, but the speed of the questions, and the promptness of their delivery, is exhilarating.
“It’s such a fast experience,” Cossen explained. “When you’re taping, it kind of really flies by, it’s rapid fire, and you don’t really get a chance to take everything in. Everything hits you at once — the music, all the lights. It was a thrilling experience, and it gets your adrenaline pumping.”
Cossen says there are multiple one-minute TV timeouts that are utilized for commercial breaks, but the show maintains a quick pace in order to adhere to a tight schedule. During the crunch of the filming season, the show shoots five episodes a day, twice a week. The 22 minutes of content you’re watching at home is very close to the actual time it takes in studio.
“You need to get a handle on your nerves as quickly as possible,” said Cossen. “Basically, just stare ahead at the game board and try to block everything out, including the contestants standing next to you buzzing in at the same time, and just focus on staying with each question.”
“The questions come as fast as you see them on TV.”
One piece of advice that helped Cossen: Don’t look at the scoreboards.
“You really have very minimal time to calm down,” he said, “so if you’re not doing well after the first round, you only have a minute to collect yourself. Don’t think about how you’re doing. Don’t look at your opponent’s scores if you can help it, because that can throw you off your game really easily.”
However, the pressure cooker of the studio was no match for the show’s long-time narrator, Alex Trebek. His interviews with contestants at the end of the first round have become legendary among past competitors, and become even more nerve-racking when you realize it’s the only chance for competitors to make a strong first impression on national television.
“It was strange that I was actually more nervous about a 15-second interview with Alex Trebek than I was [about] playing the game,” joked Cossen.
While Trebek’s “all-knowing” persona and banter with contestants have rubbed some people the wrong way, Cossen said he’s a “really nice, charming guy,” and and is a big fan of his style.
“I’ve been watching him for a long time, and while some people say he’s snarky, I like it,” said Cossen. “Honestly, the game goes by so fast that I think that I really didn’t notice his interjections. I think I’m gonna be surprised to see what he says on TV, because it goes by so quickly that you don’t even have time to notice.”
Over the last several weeks leading up to the airing of the show on Tuesday night, Cossen says his social media accounts have “exploded.” He said he’s been posting reminders every few days for people to tune in on Sept. 16, and friends and family have responded with a flurry of positive messages.
“They’re beyond excited,” said Cossen. “I think [my mom] is more excited than I am, to be honest, because I’ve already lived it.”
For the airing of “Jeopardy!” on Tuesday night, Cossen said he and his friends are holding a viewing in his Pittsburgh home to celebrate the hard work and determination it took for him to finally realize his dream. He feels proud to represent his university, but, at the same time, he’s really glad he didn’t screw up.
“I didn’t want do anything like vom on TV or end up in the negatives, so people would say, ‘Oh man, that Penn State student doesn’t know anything!’” joked Cossen. “So it was definitely in the back of my mind: I’ve got to make my employer and my university proud.”
Although his appearance marks an incredible moment in Cossen’s life, it also means it’s the last time he will ever have a chance to compete on the stage he grew up admiring.
“It’s sort of bittersweet,” said Cossen. “I’ve been waiting to get on the show for such a long time now — I think four years of consistently trying. I’m obviously very happy to have played and had the opportunity to appear on the show, but now I’m kind of a little bummed out I can’t participate anymore.”
With a lifelong journey goal having finally been completed, Cossen has one valuable piece of advice: Don’t give up on any dream. Appearing on the show is almost like winning the lottery, he explained, but it wouldn’t have happened if he gave up after being rejected the first few times.
“This is the number one dream I’ve had for many years, and I realized it,” he added. “It was really one of the highlights of my life. It was an absolute blast.”