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Everything You Need to Know About the USA Computing Olympiad

Computer science in modern society has become one of the most important and coveted skills across all industries and schools. For any high school students especially passionate about programming and algorithms and want a venue where they can learn more, challenge themselves, and show off their skills, the prestigious USA Computing Olympiad is perfect for you.

What is the USA Computing Olympiad?

The USA Computing Olympiad (USACO) is an annual competition designed to challenge students in their skills in programming and algorithm development, and problem solving. The USACO is split into Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum, with each level getting progressively more difficult and covering a wide variety of topics. The competition is online and is open for a couple of days for students to finish the contest in a 3-5 hour span.

High performers in the USACO have the chance to participate in the training camp to represent the United States in the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI) or the European Girls Olympiad in Informatics (EGOI), which are both the most prestigious international programming competitions.

The USACO is internationally recognized as one of the most prestigious and competitive programming competitions for high school students and is a great way for students to showcase their programming skills and gain public recognition and awards for their high computer science knowledge and ability.

Who is Eligible to Participate in the USA Computing Olympiad?

Anyone can participate in the USA Computing Olympiad! The competition is open to anyone to participate, but the majority of participants are middle and high school students. Additionally, only pre-college students are eligible to qualify for the IOI or EGOI.

Is the USA Computing Olympiad Prestigious?

To put it simply, the USA Computing Olympiad is extremely prestigious and world-renowned as a difficult, prestigious, and sought-after award to win. The USACO brings some of the best young programmers to compete, and winning a medal in the competition can be a significant accomplishment for any student. Placing high can help students stand out in college admissions and other applications, as well as the prospect of representing the United States is a dream for many. Amongst other reasons, the USACO is:

  • Selective, as only the top performers in each round are invited to the next level, thus winning means you have beaten the best of the best through hard work, high preparation, and extensive computing knowledge.

  • Professionally recognized, as USACO is recognized by many top universities and tech companies as an indicator of programming ability.

  • Difficult: The problems in the USACO are challenging and require a deep understanding of computer science concepts and algorithms. The competition tests students' ability to think creatively and solve complex problems under time pressure.

  • Encourages Community: The USACO has a strong and supportive community of students, coaches, and volunteers who are passionate about computer science and programming. Participating in the competition can provide students with valuable networking opportunities with mentors and friends with shared interests.

Timeline of the USA Computing Olympiad

The USACO has a series of four rounds that take place throughout the year. Each consists of a single contest with three to four programming problems. Students have a total of four hours to solve the problems, and they can start anytime throughout the chosen weekend of the contest. Here is a general timeline of the competition:

  • December Contest: The first round is held in mid-December.

  • January Contest: The second round is held in mid-January.

  • February Contest: The third round is held in mid-February.

  • US Open: The fourth and final round is held in mid-March.

The highest scorers of the US Open are then chosen to attend Training Camp in late May - early June to choose the next USA team for the IOI or EGOI.

Structure of the USA Computing Olympiad

The USACO is split into four different contests with four different divisions, from Bronze to Platinum. All students begin in the bronze division and then through achieving high scores, make their way up to the next rounds. Students with high scores are promoted to the next USACO division, which they will compete in for the next open round. If you get a perfect score for that round, you are allowed to compete twice that weekend, with the second in the new division.

  • The bronze level covers topics such as introductory simulation, graphing, data structures, and sorting.

  • The silver level can focus on graphs and trees, stacks and queues, and other sorting methods.

  • Gold and Platinum levels expand to more complex and sophisticated computer science techniques from the ones listed above, and can vary in complexity and style year by year.

Tips and Resources to Win the USA Computing Olympiad

Here are some tips to help you prepare for the competition:

  1. Start as soon as possible: It is crucial to begin your preparation early, ideally several months before the competition. This will allow you to cover all the essential topics and practice enough problems. If you are just starting, be sure to cover all of the topics from bronze onward. If you have competed before and are starting at an upper level, begin to prepare those more complex topics and do not focus on the topics of the lower divisions.

  2. Build a strong foundation: Focus on building a strong foundation in the basics of computer science and programming. This includes concepts such as data structures, algorithms, recursion, dynamic programming, and graph theory. This competition tests your finesse and expertise in your chosen computing language, so be sure to have this foundation set in place. This includes reading books about algorithms and the theory behind computer science, not just coding itself.

  3. Practice: Practice is key to success in programming competitions. Practice through the extensive amounts of practice problems available online, beginning with the easier problems to ensure your foundational understanding is there, and ending with the more difficult problems. You can find plenty of practice problems on websites like USACO's own training website, Codeforces, CodeChef, HackerRank, and more.

  4. Participate in contests: Participating in programming contests regularly will help you improve your skills and get used to the time pressure of competitions. There are many other practice contests out there and self-ran practice with USACO’s previous problems, as well as the official four-round competition.

  5. Collaborate and seek help: Collaborate with other students interested in the competition and seek help from more experienced programmers. You can join online forums, and programming clubs, or reach out to your computer science teacher for guidance. The online community for computer science is expansive, so be sure to use the network to get some help answering your questions. Answering other people’s questions can also help you study and learn as much as getting your questions answered.

  6. Manage your time effectively: Time management is critical during the competition, so make sure you practice writing efficient and optimized code. You can also practice solving problems under a time limit to help you manage your time more effectively, as remember you only have 3-5 hours to finish complex problems under pressure. Additionally, make sure this code is efficient as there are time limits for each problem, thus even if the code is perfect, if it runs a second longer than the limit, you will receive no points for the problem.

  7. Review past competitions: Reviewing past USACO competitions and analyzing the solutions can help you understand the types of problems you might encounter and how to approach them. Past competitions allow you to analyze trends and patterns in how the committee asks questions and how solutions are drafted. Preparing for the competition format-wise is the same as preparation material-wise.

  8. Stay motivated and positive: The competition can be challenging, and it's important to keep a happy mindset throughout your preparation. Remember to take breaks, celebrate your achievements, and stay confident in your abilities. Struggling through the preparation and competition is perfectly normal and should happen – this competition is meant to be difficult and push you. Lean into the challenge and just because something is hard, does not mean you are not learning.


If you’re looking for a network of motivated students passionate about STEM, or want another opportunity to build your own independent project and research paper, then consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program. Last year over 2100 students applied for about 500 spots in the program. You can find the application form here.

Aaron Zheng is a sophomore at Harvard University, studying Bioengineering. He is passionate about biotechnology, business development, and aiding students to get to college, regardless of background. In his spare time, he looks to read, journal, and explore the world.

Image source: USA Computing Olympiad

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