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How to prepare for the USABO: Everything you need to know

The USA Biolympiad is a highly prestigious, nationwide competition for high school students organized by the Center for Excellence in Education.


USABO sees over 10,000 students participate each year. Preparing for it is hard work! So, why should you consider it when you have so much going on already? In the process of preparing for the USABO, you would have gone beyond what’s taught in the classroom. This already gives you an edge, not just in terms of your skillset, but also when you apply for college.


To help you understand what you’re in for and prepare efficiently, we’ve put together this complete guide that covers everything you need to know about the USA Biology Olympiad (USABO).


We'll talk about the Olympiad, why it's an excellent opportunity, eligibility, fees, syllabus, as well as other essential information for any USA Biolympiad participant.


You should also check out our lists of research opportunities in biology and biology competitions.


What is the USABO?


The USABO was launched in 2002, and its main goal is to provide students with a comprehensive, rigorous, and holistic exposure to biology exams, as well as provide opportunities for networking on a national and international level.


It is a national science competition with regional and national rounds, and if qualified, an international round that takes place as part of the International Biolympiad as well. The competition tests your knowledge of both theory and lab skills in the subject of biology, and includes MCQs, short answers, and practical rounds.


It is held annually and sees thousands of students compete for the top spot each year.


Who Can Participate in the USABO?


Here's a list of eligibility requirements that you must keep in mind before signing up individually or through your school/institution.


Once your registration fee of $95 and basic details have been received, you will receive a unique ID number that you must use to sign into the USABO portal while appearing for the Online rounds, as well as official record keeping.

  • High school seniors are eligible provided that they have not enrolled formally in an undergraduate program at a college or university.

  • All interested students in grades 9 to 12 are eligible to participate in the USABO.

  • Students must be U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents (green cards) of the United States.

  • Home-schooled students are invited to participate in the USABO. Arrangements must be made before the close of registration through the USABO to participate in the exam at high schools within their local area. Home-schooled students may be responsible for the $95.00 registration fee.

How Do You Participate in the USABO?


To participate in the USABO, you must register through your school. If your school is affiliated with the USABO, you can directly reach out to your teacher(s)/guidance counselors and register your details. Each school must pay a registration fee of $95. If your school hasn't participated in the USABO before, you can register here.


What Should You Expect?


Format: The USABO Online Open Exam is open to all residents of the United States and is a proctored, MCQ-based test that requires you to answer 40 questions.


Progression: The top 10% of all Open Exam participants will then proceed to Round 2, the Online Semifinal Exam, which requires you to answer questions within 120 minutes. Note that you require a green card/US citizenship to be able to participate in this round. This round is divided into 3 main parts -

  • Part A includes MCQs

  • Part B includes slightly more complex, MCQs that require you to select multiple right answers or interpret graphs

  • Part C may include true/false questions, as well as some short and long answer questions.

Nationals: The top 20 participants of this round are invited to the Nationals competition cum training program at Marymount University, undergo a training program of about 10 days, and give a thorough, 3-hour-long theory-based paper, as well as 6-hour-long lab assessments.


The practical paper tests you on the following - laboratory-based skills, techniques, data interpretation, and real-time laboratory competency exam involving conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills.


The theory-based paper includes multiple true/false questions and MCQs that require you to interpret diagrams and graphs, integrate information, and analyze data given.


The competition is held yearly, and has 4 rounds -

  • Round 1: USABO Online Open Exam

  • Round 2: USABO Online Semifinal Exam

  • Round 3: USABO National Finals Exam (in-person)

  • Round 4: International Biology Olympiad (IBO, in-person)

IBO: The top 4 scorers in the National Finals are then selected to represent the country at the International Biology Olympiad (IBO), where you are pitted against 20+ teams from all over the world.


The IBO will be held in the UAE for the 2023 edition.


The USABO Calendar for 2022-23


Here is the list of key milestones that you must keep in mind for the 2023 Biolympiad, as taken from the official website. The registration deadlines for 2023 passed in November 2022, and the exams will begin in February 2023. Keep your eye out so that you can participate in the 2024 olympiad!


Prizes and Awards


USABO does not offer any scholarships or financial prizes, but this should not deter you from participating! USABO is an incredibly prestigious competition, and if you are one of the top finalists that move to the International round, you can expect guaranteed admission from top universities, including Ivy League schools!


What's New in the 2023 USABO Edition?


USABO has introduced lots of changes in the 2023 edition, which we'll cover in this section -


Test Administration

  • All the exams will be held on a single day, at a single time, and will be administered by the Art of Problem Solving

  • All exams will be password protected and proctored

  • The Open Exam recognition will include an Honorable Mention Certificate (Top 20%) and Certificate of Merit (Top 30%).

  • The Semifinal recognition will include Recognition of Academic Excellence (Top 50 scores), Honorable Mention (Next 75 scores), and Certificate of Merit (Next 100 scores).

Exam Format

  • The USABO Open Exam uses Multiple Choice format with one response per question.

  • The USABO Semifinal Exam uses the Multiple Choice, Short Answer, and Multiple True/False Choice formats.

  • IBO Theoretical and USABO National Exam use the Multiple True/False Choice format.

The test shall cover these 7 different focus groups -

  • Cell Biology

  • Animal Anatomy and Physiology

  • Plant Anatomy and Physiology

  • Ethology

  • Genetics and Evolution

  • Ecology

  • Biosystematics

  • Neurobiology

  • Bioinformatics

The Biolympiad is an excellent opportunity to test your current knowledge about biology and various divisions, encourages you to compete against thousands of other students across the country, and gives you the opportunity to represent the country at an international level!


To check out the complete list of changes in the 2023 Biolympiad, click here!


How to Prepare for the USA Biolympiad?


USABO tests you on an extensive range of topics, and your preparation needs to be a lot more intense than typical prep for a school exam or quiz. USABO recommends textbooks that every participant should ideally go through. Here is a list of textbooks that you should check out before attempting any of the USABO rounds!

  1. Campbell and Reece's BIOLOGY (8th edition or higher preferred)

  2. Human Physiology by Sherwood

  3. Essential Cell Biology by Alberts

  4. Plant Biology by Raven

  5. BioEd - an educational resource for life science educators

  6. Jablonski Diagram Molecular Expressions: Interactive Java tutorials.

  7. MacMillan Learning: 106 tutorials on topics in biology.

  8. zeroBiology: Biology quizzes, games, worksheets, dissections, and songs for students.

  9. Flashcard Database: Sets of biology-related flashcards to study.

  10. Botany: An Introduction to Plant Biology, Fourth Edition by James D. Mauseth.

  11. Your school biology curriculum!

Additionally, you are also encouraged to form a USABO club with other students from your school, guidelines for which can be found here. Forming a USABO club gives you the opportunity to test each other on key topics, learn together, and discuss and answer queries that you may have about any of the topics and/or the olympiad itself.


The Student Corner, a resource center for all students, regardless of whether they have registered for the USABO, has been further expanded to now include the following -

  • How to Start a USABO Club: Step-by-step information and guidance from USABO students who have formed USABO Clubs at their schools. Each year, this information is updated with input from USABO participants.

  • General Content: As the title implies, this has information on the areas of the IBO Curriculum.

  • Content: This area has been expanded to include:

    • Suggested sites.

    • Suggested texts for in-depth and supplemental study or reading.

    • Scientist of interest

    • USABO Finalists' Favorite Links

    • Introduction to the seven areas of the IBO curriculum resources where more in-depth resources are found in the Student Resource Center.

The Student Resource Corner (SRC), now includes the following

  • All seven areas of the International Biology Olympiad (IBO) have been updated with useful links, study problems, and other resources to prepare for the USABO. In addition, two new areas will be added in 2021; Neurobiology and Bioinformatics.

  • The Biodiversity area has an image of a common organism for each taxonomic representative prescribed by the IBO.

For a more extensive list of resources published by the USABO, click here! This page is a handy guide to websites, tutorial platforms, textbooks, databases, and other relevant study materials that give you a much better shot at acing the USABO!


Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you are interested in doing university-level research in biology, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 2100 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.


Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.


Image source: CEE Website

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