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W&M freshman competes tonight on Jeopardy!

  • McDonnell and Trebek
    McDonnell and Trebek  Zachary McDonnell '15 with Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek (R) during taping of the 2012 Jeopardy! College Championship. Jeopardy! averages nine million daily viewers.  Photo courtesy of Jeopardy Productions, Inc.
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What’s more competitive than getting into the College of William & Mary? Getting on the game show Jeopardy! William & Mary freshman Zach McDonnell has done both. McDonnell appears tonight in Jeopardy!'s College Championship on ABC affiliate stations. In Hampton Roads, Jeopardy! appears at 7:30 p.m. on WVEC, Channel 13.

McDonnell traveled to California in early January to tape the show. He said it was a long-time dream fulfilled.

“I’ve been addicted to the show for probably six or seven years,” he said.

More than 12,000 undergraduate students competed for slots in the championship.  McDonnell was one of 15 students nationwide selected to participate in the championship which will air next month. The appearance followed a nerve racking, months-long audition process.

McDonnell started the audition process when he was still a senior at Harrisonburg High School.  While the idea to try out for the show was his own, McDonnell admitted it wouldn’t have gotten done without his mother.

“My mom really encouraged me,” he said. “And reminded me when to take the [online] test.”

The game show began incorporating online testing in 2006. All contestants must pass the rigorous test before they are eligible to participate in a live audition. 

“The online test is the first hurdle and by far the hardest. It is really, really hard,” McDonnell said. “You get very little time to answer each question.  ”

The test was so hard that he didn’t feel like he had a very good chance of making the show, he said, adding that it made waiting to hear less stressful.

“My mom thought about it more than I did,” he remembered.

Weeks later, the call to participate in a live audition did come, and McDonnell traveled to Washington, D.C. in late May of last year to participate. The audition screens for knowledge and personality, he noted, and included a written test, a personal interview and mock game play.

McDonnell said the mock game was frustrating because he couldn’t get the hang of the buzzer.

“I knew a lot of the answers but couldn’t buzz in. You have to time your response to the questioner’s voice or your reflexes are too slow to buzz in before you get locked out.”

McDonnell feared his buzzer skills would keep him off the show, but seven month later he got the call that he would be flown to California in early January to participate in the College Championship.

Never having been to California, he said the trip and the taping were definitely an experience of a lifetime.

McDonnell noted that being on set and playing the game “for real” is much harder than playing from your living room.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

Still, being in the iconic Sony studio was a thrill.

“It was just fantastic being there,” he said. “It’s smaller than it looks on TV.”

While being in California was fun and meeting Alex Trebek was exciting (McDonnell notes he’s quite the jokester), McDonnell said the best part of the experience was meeting the other contestants.

“I really liked all of my competitors,” he said. “I’ve never been around so many people that smart.  I wish we’d had more time and I could have gotten to know them better.”

The 2012 Jeopardy! College Championship will air through Feb. 14.