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International Math Olympiad (IMO) - 10 Tips to Help You Ace it

If you love math and want to pursue it with any type of rigor, then competitions like the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) should be on your radar! Not only are Olympiads excellent for building advanced skills and seeing how you stack up against peers, winning them will give your college application a pretty significant boost.

Sure, preparing for Olympiads is a lot of hard work, but remember that engaging in such high-level competitions demonstrates your commitment, problem-solving skills, and passion for mathematics, all of which are highly valued by universities.

What is the International Mathematical Olympiad?

The IMO is the World Championship Mathematics Competition for high school students. With its inception in 1959 in Romania, the IMO has grown from 7 participating countries to over 100 (including the US!), engaging students in a rigorous test of their mathematical prowess. The event, held annually in a different country, is a 10-day residential affair where participants tackle complex mathematical problems over two days of exams.

The 2024 iteration of the event will be hosted at the University of Bath, in the United Kingdom.

The IMO aims to foster a love for mathematics, encourage collaboration among young mathematicians, and promote intellectual exchange. You will not only hone your mathematical skills but also develop critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. The competition offers a unique opportunity to interact with equally skilled peers from around the world, creating lasting friendships and networks.

Who is eligible for the IMO?

To participate in the IMO, you must:

  • Be a high school student.

  • Not be enrolled at any tertiary institution (university level).

  • Be selected through national mathematical competitions or examinations. In the case of the US, this would be the invitational competitions hosted by the Mathematics Association of America. Each country has a similar national olympiad, and you should refer to their website to check their individual eligibility criteria.

How does the application process work?

The journey to IMO begins with national selection processes, which vary by country. The application page for IMO 2024 is not up yet, however below are the key deadlines:

  • February 15, 2024: Confirmation of participation by countries. This will be done post the conclusion of the various national math olympiads.

  • April 1, 2024: Request for official paper invitations.

  • April 23, 2024: Registration of team leaders, deputy leaders, observers, number of contestants. Team leaders are also invited to propose problems for the IMO for that year.

  • May 20, 2024: Full payment of charges for single rooms and observers. Each host nation releases its own payment details, and the UK has not yet provided these for IMO2024. We suggest keeping an eye on the website.

  • May 31, 2024: Registration of contestants.

  • June 15, 2024: Registration of travel details.

How is the IMO structured?

The IMO stretches over a span of ten days, tentatively scheduled as follows for 2024:

  • Thursday 11th July: Arrival of Leaders

  • Friday 12th July: Jury at Work

  • Saturday 13th July: Jury at Work

  • Sunday 14th July: Arrival of Contestants and Deputy Leaders

  • Monday 15th July: Opening Ceremony at Forum Theatre Bath (15:30)

  • Tuesday 16th July: Contest Day 1 Exam (08:30-13:00)

  • Wednesday 17th July: Contest Day 2 Exam (08:30-13:00) and leaders move to main site

  • Thursday 18th July: Coordination

  • Friday 19th July: Coordination

  • Saturday 20th July: Final Jury meeting (09:00)

  • Sunday 21st July: Closing Ceremony at Forum Theatre Bath (15:00) and farewell party (19:00)

  • Monday 22nd July: Departures

It consists of two exam days, with each exam lasting 4.5 hours and containing three complex problems.

When we say complex, we mean it - you will be attempting to solve problems featuring extremely difficult algebra, precalculus, complex geometry, functional equations, combinatorics and number theory. While you will not technically need calculus or knowledge of advanced university-level mathematics to solve these problems, they will however require creativity, ingenuity, and strong foundational knowledge.

What are the prizes on offer, and how do you win?

Each of the 6 problems are worth 7 points, and based on your performance, you may be awarded Gold, Silver, or Bronze medals. The point criteria changes every year, but IMO tries to set it such that roughly 50% or fewer participants win a medal, with gold, silver and bronze winners in a 1:2:3 ratio.

Aside from these medals, you may also be able to win an Honorable Mention for a particularly elegant or innovative solution.

Is IMO prestigious?

The IMO is one of the most prestigious mathematical competitions globally. Simply to reach the IMO, you must be a winner of your national math olympiad, adding a significant layer of selectivity. In the international competition itself, you will be facing over 600 competitors from more than 110 countries - a testament to the depth and breadth of talent it attracts. Competitive pressure aside, the competition's rigor and the level of problems presented are unparalleled. What all of this means is that winning in, or even participating in, the IMO marks you unequivocally as one of the best mathematicians in the world. Both your university applications as well as any career pursuits, especially in fields adjacent to mathematics, will be significantly enhanced thanks to this achievement. The network you build while representing your country at the IMO will also help you down the line, forming connections with some of the best mathematicians in the world.

7 preparation tips to help you win IMO

  1. Master past problems: IMO helpfully provides a complete compendium of previous years' problems and solutions that you absolutely should master, to get a sense of the competition's level and get some solid practice in.

  2. Practice regularly and start ealy: Building on the previous point, set up a dedicated practice schedule and make sure you stick to it. Consistent practice is key to mastering complex mathematical concepts. This brings us to the next point.

  3. Find a mentor: While you don’t need college-level math to solve IMO problems, what you do need is a good teacher or mentor who will guide and coach you on the foundational knowledge and problem-solving techniques required. This could be your math teacher, but it could also be a specialized coach or university professor who is interested.

  4. Join math clubs/forums: While the IMO is only technically a team event while problem-solving is individual, it’s still helpful to work in a peer group to help maintain competitive encouragement and social release. Participate in their practice sessions and internal competitions to hone your skills

  5. Seek out and utilize additional resources: Attend workshops or seminars led by former IMO participants or winners. Register on sites like Art of Problem Solving or Mathlinks and try their practice tests. In short, do everything you can to improve your foundational skills.

  6. Learn time management: One of the hardest aspects of the IMO is the limited time you have to solve six incredibly complex questions, effectively giving you only an hour and a half per question. You’ll need to learn to manage your time efficiently, being careful to focus on one question at a time while having cut-offs in mind to allow you to make the strongest possible attempt.

  7. Be a marathoner, not a sprinter: Like most challenging things in life, the IMO is a marathon. It is as much a test of your endurance and resilience as it is a test of mathematics. Maintain a positive attitude and stay calm and focused to have the best chance of winning.

Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’re keen on pursuing in-depth research in math, you could also consider applying to one of the Lumiere Research Scholar Programs, selective online high school programs for students I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 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: International Math Olympiad logo


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