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An MIT student in Jeopardy!

An interview with 2012 Jeopardy! College Championship Quarterfinalist Marie C. McGraw

For $1200: A computer message that something’s wrong; a classic one in DOS said, “abort, retry, fail?”

What a piece of cake for a typical MIT student. Marie C. McGraw ’12 cinched this “epic fail words” Jeopardy! clue with the answer “error” on the Feb. 6 episode of the 2012 Jeopardy! College Championship.

Marie was one of 15 selected out of 10,000 applicants to compete in the college championship after testing and auditioning in June. In early January, she traveled to Los Angeles for the two-day taping of the championship series and won second place in her quarterfinal round.

Marie is majoring in Course 2-OE, Mechanical and Ocean Engineering, and will be headed to grad school next year to study marine robotics.

TT: Is this something you’ve been preparing for a long time?

McGraw: No, I kind of just decided to do it on a whim because I saw how the first step was super easy. The online test was real quick and painless. In high school I did Academic Challenge, which is similar to Quiz Bowl, and it’s actually on TV. Our team won our first match and then got invited to the final and got second.

TT: How did you prepare after you found out you’d be on the show?

McGraw: I didn’t really study after they called me to be on the show, because they called me at the beginning of December, so I had finals, I was in 2.009 — I was working a lot. I went on a trip with a friend right before the show, so I really did not study very much. I don’t think you can though. … I play a lot of Sporcle.

TT: Do you have a favorite TV show?

McGraw: I watch more TV than I would care to admit. I guess probably Arrested Development is my all-time favorite TV show, and I watch a lot of cartoons like The Simpsons and Futurama. I never watched TV until I came to MIT.

TT: How was the experience of being on the Jeopardy! show?

McGraw: Pretty stressful. There’s a lot of waiting because you can’t know, since it’s a wildcard thing, what happened in the previous rounds because that could affect your wagering. So you just wait and they call you in three at a time about every hour or so. And I went towards the end.

Once you’ve gone, you can watch, so I got to watch all of the semifinals and the finals, which was fun. It’s a lot more fun when you’re in the audience and watching. They always say it’s really easy — it is super easy to play along at home, and you think, “how could they forget up there, they’re so dumb,” but it is totally different. And final jeopardy seems really long at home, like 30 seconds feels really long, but it goes by real quick.

It was pretty fun overall. You get money, you get to meet Alex Trebek. I’d never been to L.A., so that was cool.

TT: Did you talk a lot with the other contestants?

McGraw: Yeah, everyone stays in the hotel, and the hotel is about an hour away from the studio, so there’s a long bus ride there and you’re all in the same room waiting. And then you sit together in the audience separate from everyone else after your episode is done. Everyone was pretty nice, and really smart obviously. There were not that many science and engineering people, but I think a lot of people who are good at trivia are really good at memorizing facts and stuff. And that’s not a thing that’s really helpful in science and engineering, so there’s a lot of poly sci and history majors.

TT: Did you have a favorite category or question?

McGraw: So I didn’t actually watch when it aired — I couldn’t watch, and I don’t remember … but there was a category that was “epic fail words,” and I was trying to take that entire category, because I wanted MIT to be proud of me, because I thought it was a very “MIT” category. So I did like that category.

The “Asian literature” category was hard, and also we were all really close if I remember correctly, so we were all too afraid of making mistakes. I think there were three or four questions in that category that we just didn’t answer.

And now I will never ever forget the Mason-Dixon Line [from the Final Jeopardy! round]. My brother is a political science major at Ohio State, and as soon as they asked, I knew I didn’t know it, and I was like, my brother would know this. And he’s going to see this and yell at me like, how did you get that wrong? I knew that Lewis and Clark was wrong, but you look really dumb if you don’t write anything.

TT: Is there anything else interesting about being on the show that you want to share?

McGraw: Alex Trebek is a big fan of home improvement. He drives a pickup truck, he knows how to weld, his favorite power tool is a bench-top grinder. That’s what I was asking him about when they show everyone talking to him in a circle at the end when they roll the credits.