Who is Erika Sloan? Middlebury student competes on ‘Jeopardy!’

MIDDLEBURY — A Middlebury College sophomore will appear on the Jeopardy! College Championship, a version of the popular television game show hosted by Alex Trebek.
Erika Sloane, 19, was one of 15 undergraduates from across the country selected to compete in the tournament, which is open only to full-time undergraduates with no prior degrees.
“I grew up watching Jeopardy!, and I always wanted to be on it,” said Sloane, a native of Simsbury, Conn.
To qualify, Sloane first took a 50-question online test last March. In April she was invited to New York City for an in-person audition — another 50 questions in a mock game format.
“They want to see if you’ll come across well on television,” Sloane said. “You do a brief personality interview.”
It was not until November that Sloane heard from the show’s producers that she would appear on the program. Sloane said that, while she would be representing Middlebury in front of thousands of viewers, no one from the college knew she’d be on the show, since she’d applied on her own.
“I felt strange about representing Middlebury on national television,” Sloane said. “I contacted our media relations person, Sarah Ray. She was the only person I talked to beforehand.”
Sloane flew to Culver City, Calif., in January to tape the show.
“It was a whirlwind, exciting and surreal,” Sloane said. “They filmed a two-week tournament in five days — five shows a day.”
Sloane said she viewed the other contestants not as competitors, but as others sharing in the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“The other contestants were amazing,” Sloane said. “We kept in touch via texting and Facebook. We bonded over this crazy experience.”
To prevent any appearance of bias, contestants were not allowed to meet host Alex Trebek until the taping began.
“The first time I saw him in person was when the music started and the lights came up,” Sloane said.
During the contestant introductions, which take place after the first round, Sloane said Trebek asked her about her experiences on the rowing team at Middlebury. Sloane said that Trebek, who has hosted Jeopardy! since 1984, was knowledgeable on many subjects.
“There are a lot of people on the Internet who say he’s condescending,” Sloane said. “I didn’t get that sense at all; he was warm and kind.”
The contestants are barred from disclosing the results of the contests until they air. Sloane said that only her family knows how she did, since they came to the taping.
To prepare for the game, Sloane discussed strategy with Keith Williams, a Middlebury College alumnus who won the Jeopardy! College Championship in 2003. Williams runs a blog called “The Final Wager,” which offers advice on betting strategy in the game.
“He helped me with wagering strategy and game theory, and how to optimize your chances of winning,” Sloane said. “He gave me general advice on what to expect in the studio, and how the buzzer works — that’s the trickiest part.”
Sloane explained that knowing when to buzz in is the biggest challenge because if contestants buzz in while Trebek is still reading the question, they cannot buzz again for half a second, allowing other contestants to potentially ring in.
“Knowing when to ring in was the hardest part — trying to hit that sweet spot of when to buzz in,” Sloane said.
When Sloane’s show airs Friday at 7 p.m. on NBC, Middlebury will host a viewing party at the McCullough Student Center. The tournament started Monday and will run through Feb. 21.
“Being on stage and competing, it’s such a blur,” Sloane said. “I’m excited to watch it back.”
In contrast with regular Jeopardy!, where contestants are awarded prize money based on the sum of the dollar amount of the questions they answer correctly, the contestants in the College Championship are awarded prizes on a sliding scale.
All the contestants automatically get $5,000. If they advance to the semi-final round, they earn $10,000. In the final round, the third, second and first place finishers will win $25,000, $50,000 and $100,000, respectively.
Sloane is a Classical Studies major. She also takes pre-med classes at Middlebury and has nearly completed her EMT license, and said she plans to go to medical school after completing her undergraduate degree.

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