Why Compete In the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO)

May 11, 2020
By AdmissionSight
a trophy and a certificate

The Best Ways to Prepare for the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO)

One of the best ways to set yourself apart academically and prove that you deserve a spot at one of the country’s most prestigious universities is to compete in national scholastic competitions. One such competition is the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO), the nation’s premier math competition for the highest achieving math students in the country.

If you’re interested in learning more about the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO) and want to see what you’ll need to participate, you’ve come to the perfect place.

Students gathering for the International Math Olympiad.


How do you qualify for the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO)?

We’ll break down everything you’ll want to know about taking part and succeeding in the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO). We’ll also go over why it’s so valuable to pursue for those who are interested in boosting their academic profile.

Take the AMC 10 or AMC 12

In order to complete at the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO), you’ll have to first take the AMC 10 or AMC 12 tests, which are national tests administered by the Mathematical Association of America. Only those students who achieve the top scores will be invited to the next stage of the arduous process. When it comes to the AMC tests, the MAA recommends that students in the two lower high school grades take the AMC 10, while juniors and seniors take the AMC 12.

Each test features 25 questions, with each tester getting 75 minutes total to complete the exam. Each correct answer is worth 6 points and each unanswered question is worth 1.5 points.

One thing of note is that test takers do not face any deductions for wrong answers, and test takers don’t technically need to get every question right to reach a qualifying score. In fact, you simply need your score to be in the top 5% of scorers in the AMC 12 or top 2.5% of scorers in the AMC 10 to qualify. If you do qualify, you then move on to the next round of testing.

Take the AIME

From there, you will then take the American Invitational Mathematics Exam, otherwise known as the AIME. The AIME is a highly difficult 15-question exam in which testers have 3 hours to complete. Every answer in the AIME is an integer between 999, inclusive.

One thing to keep in mind is that whether you took the AMC 10 or AMC 12, you will be taking the same exact AIME. To make the task even more daunting, while students have multiple chances to qualify while taking the AMC 10 or AMC 12, you’ll only have one chance at the AIME. It goes without saying that you are going to want to prepare for it as best you can.

Once your score has been recorded, you AIME score is multiplied by ten and added to your AMC score. That final score determines whether or not you qualify for the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO). Typically, an index of 210 or higher is necessary to qualify, which combines your AMC Score + 10*AIME score. So if you have a 120 on the AMC and 10 on the AIME, that is enough to qualify for the USAMO.

Qualify for the Math Olympiad

If you do well enough on the AIME, chances are very good that you will qualify for the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO). The very top scorers will have the opportunity to represent their school and country in the International Math Olympiad.

This is an incredibly difficult process, and it is important to remember that very few students actually make it this far. The truth is that even taking the AIME will make your application shine in university admissions offices.

This is especially true if you are interested in pursuing a career in engineering, physics, economics, or other math-based professions.

Students posing for the International Math Olympiad.

What is the best way for beginners to prepare?

Typically, math through pre-calculus will cover the majority of topics that are tested on the AMC 10, AMC 12 and AIME. With that being said, math competition problems are going to be quite a bit harder than the questions you have to answer on your nightly homework or even exams.

If you are not yet studying pre-calc at school, your first step to prepare for this process will be learning the problems and how to solve them for your AMC 10 or AMC 12 test day. If you want to start working ahead of your class, considering asking a teacher at your school if they are willing to meet with you outside of class so you can begin learning.

Another option is to see if there are courses that you can take over the summer months so that you can advance your knowledge in a quick amount of time. An additional option that you could consider is working ahead in your school textbook. This will be hard, however, because you will essentially be teaching yourself the material!

How can you best learn problem-solving skills to qualify for the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO)?

One of the best ways to prepare for and succeed at taking the AMC is not just knowing math and being able to do rote problems, but also to downright master the concept of problem solving and using them to solve difficult problems.

A great way to excel during this process, and look best on your college application, is to utilize the website and books known as the Art of Problem Solving. This is a well-known and oft-used resource for those who took the AMC and AIME. The Art of Problem Solving offers opportunities to learn how to solve certain types of problems that you are likely to see on the exams. The site also advertises a list of the best prep books to purchase as well as online forums where you can speak with other AIME hopefuls about questions you may have, studying and strategies to succeed.

the Art of Problem Solving (AoPS) textbooks which teach the fundamentals of algebra, geometry, number theory, and combinatorics in order to master the material on the AMC. By learning the fundamentals through the Art of Problem Solving textbooks, you’ll be way ahead of your peers.

Another great option is to utilize online resources from the MAA, as well as doing lots of practice problems on the practice exams. There’s really no substitute when it comes to doing practice problems, and by applying the methods that you learn from AoPS, you’ll be on track toward qualifying for the USAMO.

Here at AdmissionSight, we advise students to study specifically for the AMC and do as many practice problems as possible to prepare. It is key that you not just take the practice exams, but also go through your answers and understand the mistakes you made while correcting them. Carefully analyzing your weaknesses and the mistakes you make while practicing is one of the very best ways to improve.

While it might feel good to only focus on what you are answering correcting, it is crucially important to figure out what is going on in your computations when you answer questions incorrectly, especially if you consistently answer the same kinds of questions incorrectly.

There are lots of recourses out there meant to help students prepare for the AMC exams and to improve their math problem solving skills. The great thing about this kind of work is that even if you do unfortunately fall short of your goal to advance to the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO), the lessons you learn while pursuing that goal will help you throughout your high school career, college career and professional career.

To win the International Math Olympiad, the US team trained with its rivals

How to prepare for the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO)

There are some absolutely fantastic ways to prepare for success at the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO). With that being said, it is important to remember that there is a difference between successful studying and meaningless studying.

In order to make sure that you are using the best studying practices, consider these following tips to help you study like a pro.

Find great practice problems.

When you are looking for problems to try and master to prepare for the AMC exams, make sure that you are working with problems that will actually be similar to those that you will find on the official test. You want to prepare using questions that fit both format and type. Of course any form of math-related problem-solving questions will be helpful, but if your concern is doing well on the AIME, you will want to be preparing with questions that you will find on the AMC.

Ask for help if you need it.

If you are struggling with a specific question, or the same kind of question over and over, don’t hesitate to reach out for help, either from your teacher at school or within a useful message board that you find online.

Make great use of your time.

Practicing is crucial, but make sure that you are making the very most of your practice time as well. Make sure to time yourself so that you are simulating a real test-taking environment.

Find a quiet room, do not use outside help, and sit at a great desk or table that is quiet and private. As you review your answers, there is nothing wrong with brining in outside resources to figure out what you’ve done right and what you’ve done wrong.

After all, the students who are able to get into the best schools are often those who are the best at using their time efficiently.

Make sure to focus on areas of weakness.

When you are studying, make sure to spend the most amount of time focusing on the areas that you find yourself struggling with most. As you work through your answers, make sure to keep track of the problems that you did not solve as well as concepts that you are not confident in. Log your mistakes in your workbook or a separate journal to keep track of trends that might help you improve overall.

It is also important to not just log your mistakes and then move on. Make sure that you understand why you made the mistakes that you did, what you didn’t know, what you thought you knew, and make a plan for how you will solve similar problems in the future.

Keep an eye out on the small mistakes that have big repercussions.

Something that you should pay very close attention to while you study is making sure that you avoid tiny mistakes that can have a major impact on your final answer. Obviously, something as small as an incorrect decimal point will result in your coming up with a drastically different answer than the correct one. It is also important to be taking these sample exams while using a timer.

If you feel rushed, you will be more likely to make small mistakes. Making sure that you can pay close attention to detail while dealing with the pressure of taking a test on the clock, you will be greatly prepared for the actual test day.

Set a regular scheduled time to study.

It is best for your brain to set aside a dedicated block of time each week for studying. By practicing at least once per week, you will be able to retain the skills you need to build your ability and confidence. In fact, the best way to do it is to treat your studying like another class like you have in school.

It is also important to remember that the earlier you start for the exam, the better your chances are of succeeding. Even if you don’t plan on trying to take the AMC 10 until your sophomore year, there is absolutely nothing wrong with starting to study in your freshman year. In fact, it’s encouraged!

Take part in other math competitions

If you are lucky enough to have a math team or club at your school, there is nothing wrong with joining in for extra practice. Doing regional, state or even local competitions will only help you learn how to manage your nerves and gain confidence. It will also give you lots of chances to practice.

Don’t forget, the earlier you start preparing, the better you will likely do when the big AIME test day finally comes. For parents, remember that some middle schools and even elementary schools have math clubs that can get your children thinking about numbers in a productive and challenging way from a very young age.

What should you do when test day actually arrives?

After the many months of preparation, test day if finally here. So, how do you make sure that you’re best prepared the night before the test? Here are a few little tips to keep in mind.

  • Don’t do lots of studying the night before you take the AMC. At that point, it’s up to you to trust in your knowledge and experience and give your mind the rest it needs to be performing at its peak the next day.
  • Make sure you get a healthy meal and a great night’s sleep. That doesn’t mean you have to eat a huge meal and sleep for 10 hours. Simply give your body and mind the fuel and rest it needs.
  • Finally, before you go to bed, sit down with your parents (or whoever will be taking you to the exam) and review the schedule and directions you will need to make sure that you arrive with ample time. After all, the last thing you want to worry about on test day is whether or not you’re going to show up late.

Performing well on the USA Math Olympiad is as much an intellectual game as it is a mental game. Hopefully by implementing the tactics above, you can qualify for USAMO and be considered one of the top 500 students in the country for mathematics, and stand out from your peers in the college admissions process.

What are you waiting for?

By competing in the AMC10 and 12, and possibly advancing to the American Invitational Mathematics Exam (AIME) and reaching the holy grail of the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO), you will significantly increase your odds to MIT or Caltech. Practicing competition math is a great way for students to develop critical thinking skills that will serve them the rest of their life.

If you’re looking to get into the top colleges in the country, you’re going to need to make a strong case to the admissions officers that you’re going to be successful academically, and performing well in the USA Math Olympiad is one way to separate yourself from the rest of the pack. Here at AdmissionSight, our main goal is to set students up with the highest chance for success when it comes to college admissions. Contact us today to see how we can help.

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