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This Exam Pays College Students $100,000 Who Ace the Test


So you think poetry is:

a) dull
b) boring
c) lucrative?

Ask electrical engineering and computer science student Lilly Chin what she thinks after winning $100,000 on American television for knowing the poetry of Walt Whitman. (See below for "Who's [Walt] Whitman?")

Chin, a 21-year-old who attends Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), won $100,000 for answering challenging test questions on national television in this year's Jeopardy! College Championship.

Chin got 88 out of 96 questions correctly and outperformed her competitors for five days of the college competition. She said her goal was merely to make it to the semifinal round.

“Everything else was just icing on the cake,” Chin said in a press release. “I never expected to do so well and honestly, everything after that quarterfinal win just feels like a dream. After the competition, I actually had dreams where the JEOPARDY! staff called me up and said there was a mistake and that I wasn’t the champion.”

Jeopardy! is a game of friendly nerd competition in a fun quiz format. The award-winning show is in its 33rd year of syndication and has 23 million viewers weekly. Jeopardy! has been lauded by the Writers Guild of America and won a 2011 Peabody Award. It broadcasts in the U.S. and internationally. While there is no audience in the television studio, viewers typically shout out the answers from the comfort of their living rooms.

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For those who haven't seen it, Jeopardy pits three contestants against each other in a brain race to answer a clue before the others. But it throws in a twist: The contestants are given the answer -- such as, "She released 'Lemonade' and 'Put A Ring On It'" -- and have to state the question -- such as, "Who is Beyonce?" (The "who is" is essential; without the interrogative, the contestant does not get the points for a correct answer.)

The questions are tailored to the interests of college students and got more difficult during the final round between the three remaining contestants.

"This 5-letter company began in 1903 as a wholesale cheese business," asked one clue. The correct answer was "What is Kraft?" answered correctly by finalist Viraj Mehta. Kraft Mac and Cheese is a popular staple of poor college students who grew up on the quickly made snack.

"Who is Whitman?" Chin answered correctly to this statement, "'When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd' conveyed this poet's grief over the death of President Lincoln."

"I would love to go to Denmark and do video game studies research, there's a lot of people at both MIT and at Copenhagen who do a lot of work so it would be cool to study with them," Chin told Jeopardy! after winning the championship.

The 21-year-old told WGBH News she is planning to attend graduate school for robotics.

"I already got into MIT and Stanford, so I’ll be making those decisions. There’s also the Jeopardy! tournament of champions coming up with everyone who’s ever won," Chin said.

Chin moved to Atlanta when she was 6, and graduated from the Westminster Schools in 2013. Chin told AJC.com that her dad was an immigrant who learned English partly by watching talk shows, and their family would watch “Jeopardy” at dinner as she was growing up.

Both her parents – her mom Lian Li and her dad Lih-Shen Chin – are neuroscience professors at Emory University. Chin is from Georgia where her parents are professors at Emory University, according to the Decaturish.com.

Chin says she plans to save some of her winnings, and use the rest to pay off her student loans. “The extra money will definitely make my life as a starving grad student much more comfortable,” she said.

Chin's competitors were second-place finisher Gary Tse, 18. He is better known as Midshipman 4th Class Tse at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he is a freshman. He is the first first contestant from the Naval Academy to compete in the College Championship.

Gary Tse
Gary Tse


“To have made it to the final three against MIT and Stanford, [and] to show that the Academy can hold its own against those renowned academic heavyweights," Tse said, who won $50,000. "It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Besides intellectual pursuits, Tse, from Maryland, said his goals at the USNA include being able “to run an eight-minute mile and a half, do over 100 pushups in a two-minute period, and do 30 pullups in a row.”

Third-place winner Viraj Mehta, 20, is a mathematics major at Stanford University in California and is from Austin, Texas.

“Stanford is such a wild place to go to school because there’s like a [chess] grandmaster rooming with an NFL draft pick down the hall and two different national championship-winning sports teams in my building," he said. "And I know several people who have already published in ‘Nature,’” an esteemed academic journal.

“So it is nice that I didn’t make a complete fool of myself, because that’s a lot to live up to."

Viraj Mehta
Viraj Mehta


Mehta is conducting research on training neural nets to learn 3D representations of images pulled from the internet and plans to get a Ph.D. He said he will use some of his winnings “to be a less poor grad student,” and he has some unique plans for the rest of his $25,000.

“I’m going to definitely give some money to the ACLU because I feel civil liberties need all the help they can get in the current climate,” he said. “Secondarily, I want to go see Wimbledon, since Roger Federer is my favorite athlete of all time.”

While thousands of students applied online, only 250 were invited to audition in person. At the audition, students took a written test, participated in a mock game, and were interviewed. From there, the number of students invited to compete live on Jeopardy dropped to 15.

Besides being the big winner, Chin might go down as submitting one of the best wrong answers. In Final Jeopardy in the category of 17th Century Germans, the answer was "Astronomer who began his epitaph: 'I used to measure the heavens. Now I shall measure the shadows on the earth."

Chin answered (incorrectly), "Who was the spiciest memelord?"

The correct answer was "Kepler."

Test your own knowledge by joining VOA’s Student Union for our trivia game SU Quest on SU's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn social media sites!
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