The USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A hand holding a medal.

The USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad

In 2013, a small group of six high school students, driven by their fascination with the cosmos, founded the USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad (USAAAO). Inspired by existing Olympiads in physics and chemistry, they were surprised to find no international-level astronomy competition in the USA. Determined to change this, they connected through email, forming the USAAAO.

The First Steps

During their inaugural involvement in the 7th International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics, the participants from the USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Organization (USAAAO) achieved noteworthy success.

Securing two individual honorable mentions and attaining the 11th position in the team competition marked a significant accomplishment. The recognition of their efforts at the international level fueled their enthusiasm and dedication.

Motivated by this initial triumph, they committed themselves to a more significant cause – establishing a systematic and national selection process. This dedication reflects their desire to pave the way for future teams, ensuring a more organized and accessible pathway for aspiring students to represent the United States on the global stage of astronomy and astrophysics competitions.

The Mission

The USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Organization (USAAAO) has a clear mission: to kindle interest in astrophysics and astronomy nationwide. Through their multifaceted approach, they provide valuable resources, online training opportunities, and selection tests.

The organization’s objective extends beyond merely offering academic support; it actively seeks to nurture the intellectual development of students. The culmination of these efforts is identifying and selecting students who will go on to represent the United States at the prestigious International Olympiad for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

In doing so, USAAAO not only contributes to the educational enrichment of participating students but also cultivates a sense of national pride as these students compete on the international stage in the field of astronomy and astrophysics.

a male astronomer looking through his telescope

The Selection Process

The selection process begins with the annual National Astronomy Competition (NAC) to choose the US team for the upcoming International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA). This involves two rounds of exams, held in February and March (or April)—students who cut undergo free online training for several months.

1. First Round

The First Round exam is a roughly 75-minute pen-and-paper test with around 30 multiple-choice questions. Covering all aspects of the IOAA Syllabus, this exam takes place on January 30th and must be proctored by a teacher. Students with a scientific calculator can participate for a $25 registration fee, with financial aid options available.

2. National Astronomy Competition: A Deeper Dive

The NAC, lasting around 2.5 hours, challenges participants with free-response questions covering the full IOAA Syllabus. The top 10 performers on the NAC earn the coveted opportunity to represent the USA at the IOAA. Furthermore, based on performance and various criteria, additional students may be invited to an extensive online training program spanning several months.

Adapting to Change

Due to the ongoing impact of COVID-19, USAAAO has embraced virtual proctoring for their exams, ensuring the safety and accessibility of the selection process.

Embark on this celestial journey with USAAAO, where your passion for the stars could lead you to represent the USA among the brightest minds in astronomy and astrophysics!

3. Online Training

After the cosmic crew is chosen, USAAAO organizes free weekly online training sessions. Past IOAA participants, professional astronomers, and astrophysicists volunteer as coaches. These weekly sessions involve readings, assignments, homework, and discussions to prepare students for the IOAA.

A Special Opportunity to Represent the Country

The USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Organization (USAAAO) plans to send 10 students to the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA) when the host country allows. If that’s not possible, five students will still get the chance.

Since 2020, the Masson Family Fund has been kind enough to cover the costs of getting there and registration.

Who Can Join?

Now, let’s talk about who will join this exciting journey. To be on the USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Team, you must be a US Citizen or Permanent Resident. That’s the key to getting on the team and shining bright in the sky.

But don’t worry if you don’t meet these criteria – you can still take the exams. So, whether you’re dreaming of being on the team or just curious about the wonders of space, everyone is welcome to explore and reach for the stars!

a male astronomer looking at the night sky through his telescope

Resources for Astronomy and Astrophysics

Check out the syllabus if you’re just getting into the International Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad. It tells you what topics are covered, like a guide to what you need to know!

After that, look at our old exams and past IOAA exams. If you want a paperback copy, you can find a book with the first eight IOAA exams on Amazon.

Here are some other things we think you might find helpful:

Books to Get You Started:

  • An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics by Bradley Carroll and Dale Ostlie
  • Fundamental Astronomy by Karttunen et. al.
  • Schaum’s Outlines – Astronomy by Stacey Palen
  • Foundations of Astrophysics by Barbara Ryden

Getting Cheap Books:

If you’re looking for used textbooks that won’t break the bank, try abebooks.com. They’ve got books in great condition at low prices.

Online Learning:

Check out edX, Coursera, and other online platforms. They often have courses about astronomy and astrophysics.

Studying the Sky:

Stellarium is a cool tool (maybe the best one) for studying constellations and Deep Sky Objects. If you’ve done all that and want to dive even more profound, try these books with problems:

For General Problems:

  • “Astronomical Problems” by B. A. Vorontsov-Vel’Yaminov

For Celestial Mechanics: 

  1. Orbital Mechanics (MIT 8.01 Celestial Mechanics Notes – you can find it at http://web.mit.edu/8.01t/www/materials/modules/chapter25.pdf)
  2. Chapter 8 of “Classical Dynamics of Particles and Systems” by Marion, Thorton – with its problems
  3. Chapter 7 of “Introduction to Classical Mechanics with Problems and Solutions” by D. Morin

For Exoplanets:

  • “Exoplanets” – edited by Sarah Seager

For Cosmology:

  • “Introduction to Cosmology” by Barbara Ryden

For Beyond IOAA Level:

  • “Cosmology and Astrophysics Through Problems” by Padmanabhan

Scores at IOAA

Every year, the five students with the best scores earn an invitation to represent the USA at the next IOAA. If the host country allows, the following five top scorers also get invited to join the guest team.

How students do on the exam depends on that year’s test and the students taking it. We don’t want to influence students with past scores because they change each year and don’t show what a “good enough” score is for the current year.

a view of planet Earth from outer space

Choosing IOAA Over IAO: What Sets Them Apart?

IOAA and IAO are both contests for high-school students who love astronomy, but they differ. The first IAO happened in 1996, while IOAA is a bit newer, starting in 2007. Both competitions are alike, but there’s a contrast.

In 2019, IAO had 20 countries participating (in Romania), but IOAA had 46 countries involved (in Hungary). The IOAA’s setup is open, including a global board with leaders elected from member states. Because the IOAA has a broader reach worldwide and is easier to organize, the program picked it over IAO for sending their team.

USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Organization and College Admissions

Participating in the USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Organization (USAAAO) can positively impact college admissions. Here’s a breakdown:

1. Demonstrated Interest:

Involvement in organizations like USAAAO demonstrates a genuine passion and interest in astronomy and astrophysics. Colleges appreciate applicants who actively pursue their interests outside of the classroom.

2. Academic Excellence:

The rigorous selection process and the nature of the competition indicate a high level of academic achievement. Colleges value students who excel in challenging academic pursuits, and participation in USAAAO is a testament to your dedication and intellectual curiosity.

3. Leadership and Teamwork:

If you’re part of the team representing the USA at the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA), it showcases your ability to work collaboratively. This is a valuable skill in a college setting and beyond.

4. Problem-Solving Skills:

The exams and challenges presented by USAAAO require strong problem-solving skills. Colleges appreciate applicants who can think critically and analytically, and your experience in this organization can highlight these abilities.

5. Differentiation:

USAAAO participation sets you apart from other applicants. It adds a unique dimension to your application, helping you stand out in a competitive college admissions process.

6. Letters of Recommendation:

If you perform well and make a positive impression within USAAAO, you may secure strong letters of recommendation from mentors or coaches associated with the organization. These letters can carry significant weight in college admissions.

7. Networking Opportunities:

Involvement in USAAAO may provide networking opportunities with professionals and experts in the field. If you engage with these connections, it could enhance your application, especially if you intend to pursue a career in astronomy or astrophysics.

8. Demonstrated Commitment:

Long-term participation in USAAAO signals commitment and perseverance. This commitment can be appealing to colleges, as it demonstrates your willingness to invest time and effort into your interests.

9. Impact on College Major/Career:

If you’re considering a major or career in astronomy or astrophysics, participation in USAAAO aligns with your academic and professional goals. This alignment can strengthen your application, showcasing a clear trajectory and dedication to your chosen field.

While participating in USAAAO is undoubtedly a positive factor, it’s essential to remember that college admissions consider a holistic view of an applicant. Other factors like grades, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, essays, and letters of recommendation also play significant roles in the admissions process. 

Ultimately, USAAAO participation can be a valuable asset, contributing to a well-rounded and compelling college application.

three medals dangling

Preparing for the USAAAO

Harnessing the Best Resources

1. Books: A solid foundation in any subject invariably starts with comprehensive reading. The universe of astronomy and astrophysics literature is vast, but where should you begin? “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” is an ideal starting point.

This engaging read offers a succinct overview of the most fascinating aspects of space science. Once you’ve whetted your appetite, dive deeper into specialized textbooks. These books delve into the nitty-gritty of topics, providing you with a detailed understanding that’s essential for the Olympiad.

2. Online Courses: The digital age presents a treasure trove of learning resources right at your fingertips. Platforms like Coursera and edX host courses curated by experts from leading institutions worldwide. 

Whether you’re starting from scratch or aiming to strengthen specific topics, these platforms cater to your needs. Additionally, YouTube channels dedicated to astronomy offer bite-sized tutorials, discussions on recent discoveries, and even lectures from seasoned astronomers.

3. Observatory Visits: While theoretical knowledge is vital, the allure of astronomy lies in observing the vast cosmos. Local observatories provide a unique opportunity to indulge in this. Here, you can acquaint yourself with celestial bodies the tools of the trade, and maybe even catch a meteor shower or a planet transit. 

These visits instill a sense of wonder and give you practical exposure, an aspect the USAAAO often tests.

Tips and Tricks

  • Understand, Don’t Just Memorize: While it’s essential to know facts, the USAAAO emphasizes understanding concepts. When you grasp the underlying principles, you can tackle a broad spectrum of questions, even ones you might not have encountered before.
  • Practical Application is Key: Theoretical knowledge is half the battle won. The real challenge is applying this knowledge to real-world scenarios. Whenever you learn a new concept, think of its practical implications. How would it work in space? How do scientists observe or measure it? This approach not only deepens your understanding but also preps you for the USAAAO’s problem-solving sections.


Passion for astronomy fuels participation in the USA Astronomy and Astrophysics Olympiad, which not only challenges one’s intellectual limits but also offers recognition and entry into a global community of like-minded individuals, fostering collaboration and lasting friendships.

Remember, the USAAAO isn’t just another competition; it’s a journey, one that propels you closer to the stars, both metaphorically and academically.

Inspired to embark on this stellar journey? The USAAAO awaits you. Registering is your first step towards a galaxy of opportunities. Visit the official website for all the details you need to get started.

And if this guide illuminated your path, why keep it to yourself? Sharing is, after all, the essence of any community. Pass on this blog post to friends, peers, or anyone you believe has the spark to shine in the world of astronomy. Together, let’s celebrate the universe and our undying curiosity to explore it.

It is important to have all the necessary information before making any decision. AdmissionSight is always here to help you with any questions or concerns. We have over ten years of experience helping students successfully navigate the challenging admissions process.

Consult with AdmissionSight and find out how we can help you get into the school of your choice by ensuring that you are fully informed and prepared for the application process. We will work with you to develop a personalized plan that meets your specific needs and goals. We will also provide you with access to our team of experts who can help you with everything from choosing the right schools to writing your essays.

Don’t let the admissions process overwhelm you. Contact AdmissionSight today and let us help you achieve your dreams.


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