(Pre-college) math (contest) advice/reflections/Q&A

Title says it all: I’ll maybe add thoughts here from time to time, but probably the Q&A through comments (and subsequent post updates) will generate much more valuable discussion than anything I could do myself.

Maybe we can start with what the obvious/boring history; there’s probably much more story and philosophy behind a lot of these things, but it’s hard for me to remember that stuff without proper context (maybe the comments/Q&A will spur some memories/thoughts!):

  • I lived in College Station, TX (a small university city) through 5th grade (around 2006, for context), and didn’t really do much math outside of the UIL competitions (and only the local ones, not the state ones; I don’t remember why—maybe my school didn’t fund it). I had a couple other friends also into the UIL competitions, and there was a local Chinese school community behind them, but overall during this time I hadn’t really heard of the more interesting math opportunities for younger students (notably AoPS and AMC).
  • I (randomly, from my perspective at least) moved to St. Louis, MO (a much bigger university city :)) in 6th grade (fall 2006), where I met (and was overwhelmed, hence motivated, by) a ridiculously strong (especially compared to previous environment) peer group in the same grade (Max Schindler, Runpeng Liu, Haohang Xu) at Ladue Middle School. I don’t know when/how/if I would’ve gotten started on math (or anything else with a similar level of passion/enthusiasm) without our resulting camaraderie, leading concretely for three of us (along with Max’s sister) to a close 2nd place team finish at 2009 MATHCOUNTS nationals (which also happens to be a Youtube-semi-famous year of competition), and one of the last ever Obama visits (he’s too busy nowadays). Well, I really need to credit AoPS too—I heard about it randomly from a family friend in 7th grade, and then voraciously read many books in the series while also participating actively in the forums, in both productive and (to my embarrassment, unfounded pride, and periodical entertainment) certain unproductive ways.
  • In freshman year (where I think the distinction is important because it’s before my first MOP), I had all the resources I needed, but less camaraderie/direction, since my closest Ladue friends moved away from math then (except for Max, to some degree). Fortunately, I still had a good deal of online (gchat/AoPS) math friends from MATHCOUNTS and such in middle school, and maybe together we did some (or told each other to do some) Engel, ACoPS, USAMO/ISL problems. I also mocked the inaugural USAJMO with Ray Li. And I did happen to make green MOP my freshman year, but who knows; with a different choice of problems I could’ve easily not made it, and my life may have turned out much differently. (This sounds ominous, but honestly MOP, especially the first year, gave me an amazing community to work and hang out with, even stronger in many ways than the local Ladue community back in middle school—though with the school year being longer than the summer, that had its charm too.)
  • I had much more turbulent experiences the rest of high school. For example, concretely, in terms of contest results, I got near last at RMM one year, and (near?) first in the following MOP TSTST. But results tell only a small fraction of the story, and generally I’d say I’ve gained much less from contests per se than more from the less concrete things attached like community, collaboration, and just the process of loving and spending so much time and energy on math. I might write about all of this (read: pull up college essays, at least for some things) sometime. Honestly, I can’t remember everything off the top of my head, and you’ll probably have to ask me the right questions to get me to write it down. (Maybe I should journal/blog more…) One thing I do remember very distinctly: even in the darkest times (hooray, first world problems!), Problems from the Book kept me invigorated by giving me some sense of story and direction in math (as opposed to Olympiad problems, which are usually presented without context), both at the high school/elementary level and beyond (and in particular it got me into number theory, then and currently my favorite subject—but we’ll see how it goes). Along with the MOP community, it inspired me to write/discuss/etc. problems for the ELMO and OMO, which for me turned out to be some of the strongest bonding experiences during high school, at least during the school year (away from MOP).

2 thoughts on “(Pre-college) math (contest) advice/reflections/Q&A”

  1. WOAH, interesting story. Mine is actually very similar… On year I was trying to find a solution to a math problem which was coincidently from AMC, so I found AOPS accidently. For the first half of the following year I spent finishing majority of the aops books where I eventually made mop ( australia equivalent). I then learnt there that I had to do more olympiad problems and thoroughly improve my geometry and combinatorics and algebra (number theory was the topic I believe I was naturally good at) So yeah I tried doing that and it went well until I learned projective geometry (inspired by proglote when I was doing woot and evan chen) and then I just did geometry and managed to snag a bronze with 21 from apmo… I then spent the year doing geome5ry and number theory, where my weaknesses were obvious at the next mop (which I made senior). That year(this year) wasnt successful, because a typo loses 6 marks here (?). BUT at least I made sharygin and got third prize ( vould have won it if it wasnt for a typo in day 1). Now lets see how I go this year haha.

    Could you give some details of what ur day consisted of for math before you became highly pro (during 2012 maybe).


  2. What you are doing is beautiful, please never stop. People like you are extremely rare. Most of the time, people who “make it” aren’t willing to help those below them, or share their experiences/resources. I think this is starting to change now, so keep at it because people like you are the future.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Thoughts and feelings on math and real life.


Galois Representations and more!


"Everything can be made radically elementary." ~Steven Rudich

Matt Baker's Math Blog

Thoughts on number theory, graphs, dynamical systems, tropical geometry, pedagogy, puzzles, and the p-adics

What's new

Updates on my research and expository papers, discussion of open problems, and other maths-related topics. By Terence Tao

Open Matters

MIT OpenCourseWare news and information.

A Mind for Madness

Meandering Through a Literary Life

Zilin & His Friends

Thoughts and feelings on math and real life.


Exploring and venting about quantitative issues

Rational Altruist

Adventures of a would-be do-gooder.


Thoughts and feelings on math and real life.

Automorphic Forum

Automorphic forms, number theory, representation theory, algebraic geometry, and other mathematics

Cédric Villani

Thoughts and feelings on math and real life.

The Accidental Mathematician

Because "exact science is not always exact science."

E. Kowalski's blog

Thoughts and feelings on math and real life.

Secret Blogging Seminar

Representation theory, geometry and whatever else we decide is worth writing about today.


The Blog of Scott Aaronson


Math, Madison, food, the Orioles, books, my kids.

Concrete Nonsense

A group blog about mathematics

Climbing Mount Bourbaki

Thoughts on mathematics

Academically Interesting

Where I exposit about whatever interests me

Combinatorics and more

Gil Kalai's blog


Thoughts and feelings on math and real life.

Mental Wilderness

Holden Lee's Blog

Gowers's Weblog

Mathematics related discussions

je ne sais quoi

Thoughts and feelings on math and real life.

%d bloggers like this: