University sophomore Nibir Sarma to take on Jeopardy!

Sarma competes for $100K on Jeopardy! College Championship on April 10 on NBC.

Illustration by Hailee Schievelbein

Hailee Schievelbein

Illustration by Hailee Schievelbein

by Frankie Carlson

While driving his younger brother home from a high school quiz bowl competition in early January, University of Minnesota student Nibir Sarma got the phone call he had been waiting for. He was told that he was chosen as a contestant on Jeopardy! College Championship.

Sarma, a sophomore chemical engineering major, will represent the University of Minnesota on Jeopardy!’s annual collegiate competition. The show pits 15 undergrads from colleges around the country against one another in a three-round tournament with a grand prize of $100,000. Sarma’s quarterfinal episode airs this Friday on KARE 11 (NBC).

An Eden Prairie native, Sarma first got involved in trivia after joining the quiz bowl club at his middle school. Six years later, he is a second-year member of the University of Minnesota’s Quizbowl club, which hosts regular tournaments every semester for Minnesota and Midwest colleges. The University club has regularly qualified for the national tournament, which was set to be held in Chicago this year prior to its cancellation.

The Jeopardy! College Championship had been on Sarma’s radar long before his appearance on the show. He and several of his quiz bowl teammates received invitations for an online tryout-like test in September 2019. 

Out of nearly 15,000 applicants to take the online test, Sarma was one of less than 350 to be invited for an in-person audition. 

The road to Jeopardy! 

In early October, Sarma flew to St. Louis with a few other University of Minnesota Quizbowl club members who had also made the cut. There, they went through a one-day audition process that consisted of paper tests, interviews and simulations of the show.

The contestant coordinators look closely for personality and charisma in their contestants in addition to their test scores, said Tora Husar, vice president of the University Quizbowl team and fellow auditionee.

“They want to see if you are good at presenting yourself, and if you’re clear and concise when answering questions,” Husar said. “If you’re at the audition, you probably already know enough to do well on Jeopardy!, but the score is not the only thing they’re looking for.”

It took several weeks before Sarma found out that he had been chosen as a contestant on the show. In preparation for his appearance, he was less concerned about studying and more focused on his response time.

“The limiting factor that makes you do well or not as well is how fast you actually can buzz in,” Sarma said. 

At the audition in St. Louis, the contestants were given pens to practice with that were similar to the buzzers used on the show. 

“I would bring this pen around with me everywhere in my jacket pocket or something and just keep on clicking it up and down just so I could get a feel for those muscles and get practice doing that,” Sarma said. 

The real deal

Come February, it was finally time to shoot the show. Sarma flew to Los Angeles and was put up in a hotel with the 14 other contestants.

In their downtime, the contestants were able to get to know each other.

Tyler Combs, a senior at Indiana University and one of Sarma’s two opponents in the upcoming episode, described the camaraderie amongst the contestants during the two days of shooting.

“The group honestly clicked immediately,” Combs said. “It’s amazing how close you can get to people when you’re all sharing this once in a lifetime opportunity that’s intensely stressful. It really draws people together.”

Sarma is thrilled to be representing the Gophers on this Friday’s episode in a maroon and gold hoodie as he goes up against students from Indiana University and Liberty University. 

“Nibir has a very winning personality,” Husar said. “He’s very outgoing and friendly to people, and I’m sure that set him apart.”

What: Jeopardy! College Championship

When: 4:30 p.m., Friday

Where: KARE 11 (NBC)