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How to Prepare for the International Physics Olympiad (IPhO): [Everything you need to win]

If you want to develop and highlight your skills in physics, preparing for the International Physics Olympiad can be a great way to showcase your passions.

If you’d like to know how to participate, this guide will show you how to do well in this competition.

What is IPhO?

The International Physics Olympiad is the most prestigious physics competition for high school students around the globe.

First, participating countries will host preliminary exams. In the US, this test is referred to as the F = ma exam, and the top 400 scorers from this exam will be invited to participate in the semi-final exam, which is referred to as the USAPhO. From this test, the top 20 scorers will earn a spot on the US Physics team in the IPhO.

After the international competitors are determined, IPhO is open during the summer and is held in a different country – in 1967, it took place in Poland, and in 2022, it was planned to be hosted in Switzerland, although it was virtual.

As the name suggests, competitors are tested in all areas of physics, including but not limited to mechanics, electromagnetic fields, oscillations and waves, relativity, quantum physics, and thermodynamics and statistical physics. Strong experimental and mathematical skills are also expected.

Who is eligible for the IPhO?

Eligibility may change slightly depending on the student’s country of origin. The follow below is the USA’s rules of eligibility:

  1. Students taking the F=ma exam must be either U.S. Citizens, U.S. Permanent Residents (Green Card holders), or currently attending a U.S. school.

  2. Students must be either U.S. Citizens, or U.S. Permanent Residents (Green Card holders) to take the USAPhO exam. Students must also be located in the U.S. to take the USAPhO exam.

  3. Students must be eligible to compete at the International Physics Olympiad to be invited to U.S. Physics Team training camp. This requires that they are U.S. citizens, or hold a green card. Students also must not exceed age 20 by June 30 of the competition year.

  4. Due to the nature of the training program, students must be able to attend the U.S. Physics Team training camp for its full 10 days, and cannot attend camp more than twice.

How do you participate in USAPhO?

The registration rules for the USA preliminary exam can be found here. Schools are expected to pay registration fees for the institution and their students, after which a qualified teacher or proctor will receive the F=ma exam as a printable PDF for the exam.

What is the timeline of IPhO?

The timeline of IPhO may be subject to change, but the general timing of events looks like this:

Early February F=ma Exam

Mid-April USAPhO

July IPhO

How to study for the F=ma exam?

As with any science olympiad, students should build a strong foundation in algebra and attend class in AP Physics 1 or C or equivalent. The test will consist of 25 multiple choice during the course of 75 minutes, which will focus on mechanics, including kinematics, statics, Newton’s laws, momentum and energy, oscillations, orbital mechanics, fluids, and elementary data analysis.

Although calculus is not necessary, it may be helpful as a tool in order to solve problems in a quicker manner.

To prepare for the test environment, students should practice using past exams, which can be found here. After attempting the test on their own, they should check their answers with the solutions sheet and review the material they have trouble with.

How to study for the USAPhO exam?

If you qualify for the USAPhO exam, congratulations! That means that your F=ma score met or exceeded the cutoff score, which varies from year to year. Generally speaking, this cutoff score ranges from 12 to as high as 17. Past distributions can be found here.

You should not only retain your knowledge of kinematics, but also in all topics in introductory physics, including mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, relativity, nuclear, atomic, and particle physics, waves, optics, and data analysis. Problems may require the use of calculus.

The USAPhO is a 3 hour free response exam where students are required to justify their answers. The exam is divided into two parts of 90 minutes each. Past exams and solutions are available at the same link as above.

What are the awards for high scores in the USAPhO exam?

At this round, students will have an opportunity to receive gold, silver, or bronze medals, along with honorable mentions. Generally, the top 10-12% will receive gold medals, 14-16% receive silver medals, the next 19-21% receive bronze medals and the next 24%-26% will receive honorable mentions. The exact cutoff will vary from year to year.

As mentioned earlier, the top 20 scorers will be invited to participate in the IPhO, the most difficult round of the competition.

How to study for the IPhO?

Past exams and solutions for IPhO can be found here. The test will consist of a theoretical examination, which has three questions and will last five hours, and an experimental portion, which will consist of one or two questions dn will last five hours. The full rules behind IPhO is found here.

Want extra support? The Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’re looking for a mentor to participate in a science competition like USNCO or want to build your own independent 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.

Image source: IPhO 2023 website

Lydia is currently a sophomore at Harvard University, studying Molecular and Cellular Biology. During high school, she pursued engineering activities like attending the Governor's School of Engineering and Technology. In her spare time, she likes to create digital art while listening to music.



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