By Erin Vogel
1:54 PM CDT, May 6, 2013
Northwestern University junior Daniel Donohue may or may not have won $100,000 in the "Jeopardy!" College Championship. You'll have to watch the two-week tournament starting Monday to find out for sure.
Donohue was selected to compete on the show against 15 other college students around the country from schools like MIT, Stanford, Georgetown, and University of Wisconsin-Madison. His first episode is set to air at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday on WLS-Ch. 7 (ABC).
The 21-year-old Communications major was surprised to find out in February that he had been chosen even after passing a 50-question online test and an in-person audition in Cleveland. He already had been through the pre-show screening process once before as a freshman, when he auditioned in Kansas City after passing the online test. But he didn't make it on the show.
This time, he was worried he wouldn't be chosen because another Northwestern student, Katie Singh, had competed in the "Jeopardy!" college episode in 2010. The "Jeopardy!" producers like to switch up the list of universities that participate in their College Championship each year.
Donohue also knows a number of previous Jeopardy contestants, which can be an issue. During the pre-selection process contestants are required to disclose the names of people they know who already have competed on the show.
Donohue, who has participated since seventh grade in Quiz Bowl, had to write down so many names of people he'd met through the academic quiz tournament that he ran out of room on the front sheet of the paperwork and had to continue his list them on the back.
"I felt like all of these things were working against me, so I wasn't really expecting to get on the show," Donohue said. "I kind of looked at both auditions as just a weekend away from work and school for me."
Even after Donohue got the official call telling him he had made it, he had to wait one more excruciating week while the producers took a second look at his paperwork and double checked with "Jeopardy!" higher-ups to guarantee he was definitely qualified.
Penny Nichols, Donohue's freshman year advisor and Spanish teacher, wasn't as surprised that he was chosen to be on the show. She said Donohue stands out among the thousands of smart young people at Northwestern because of his personality and sense of humor.
"I always had to be on my toes with him in class and he was often quick to correct me if I misremembered some detail or date," Nichols said. "I am sure Dan will be a huge success. His breadth of knowledge is impressive and he the kind of quick, agile mind that 'Jeopardy!' requires."
When Donohue shared the news with his parents, who had paid for his flights and hotel rooms for the auditions, the first thing they asked him was, "How much money can you win?" They joked that he could use the $10,000 in prize money to pay them back for the flights and the remainder of his college tuition, but Donohue said that if he wins he would buy a new car to replace his current car, which is older than he is.
In the month before the show taping, Donohue prepared for the show by playing "Jeopardy!" board games with his parents at their home in Arlington Heights and reading through the J! Archive, a fan-created online archive of transcribed "Jeopardy!" episodes.
"A lot of people are surprised to learn that I didn't just try to memorize a lot of facts before going to the show, but that's difficult, because they can ask so much," he said.
Instead, Donohue said, he took a more holistic approach, studying to get a broad sense of the "Jeopardy!" categories he felt comfortable with, like the Literature category, and the ones he didn't, like Geography.
On April 8, Donohue was flown out for the show taping in Los Angeles, a trip that had an "extra level of coolness" for him because he is considering moving to L.A. or New York after he graduates from Northwestern with a degree in radio, television and film.
When it came time to compete during the taping, Donohue figured out pretty quickly that the experience was going to be a lot different from the way he was used to playing the game--at home on the couch.
"When I usually watch 'Jeopardy!' I'm just mumbling answers at the TV, and my competition is just my parents or whoever happens to be in the house," Donohue said. "So in that situation, it feels very easy. But when you're actually under the lights in the studio and there's a camera in your face, and you're competing against people from very prestigious universities--there's a lot of immense pressure. It gets to you. You forget things, and you make mistakes you wouldn't have made at home."
Now that the pressure is off, Donohue is facing a different kind of pressure--the pressure to get out of class in time to watch his episode air Tuesday. He says if he can't get officially excused from his class, he plans to duck out and run back to his apartment to watch it.
Donohue said that a lot of his friends and classmates have suggested getting together to watch the show, but he knows 2:30 p.m. isn't exactly the best time for a party.
"If everyone that has told me that they're going to throw a 'Jeopardy!' party for me actually throws one, I'm going to have to be in like five places at once," Donohue said. "I imagine that I'll just get out of class, go to my apartment, throw it on, open up Twitter, and go to town. But if some people are free and want to watch it, I'd be down for that."
The two-week "Jeopardy!" College Championship show event begins Monday afternoon.
Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.
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