Breaking away from the pack

This is the true story of two high-school students. Let’s call them Jamie and Jackie. Both had GPAs approaching 4.0, SAT scores nearing 1600, excellent extracurriculars, and glowing recommendations. Both were aspiring engineers seeking admission to MIT, yet only Jamie won admission. Many observers would wonder why Jackie was turned down. But I prefer to view this from a different perspective: What set Jamie apart?

Jamie was a finalist at the National Chemistry Olympiad, ranking among the top 20 in the United States. He scored among the top 100 in the AMC Math competition and was a finalist in the AAPT Physics Olympiad. Being among the top 50 science scholars nationwide is a very conspicuous, quantifiable accomplishment—far rarer than stellar test scores and GPAs. Top schools like MIT and Caltech want future scientific leaders. Simply declaring your passion for science or engineering in your personal statement isn't enough. You have to show it.

Succeeding in science Olympiads is a way to do just that. There’s the MAA math competition, the AAPT Physics Olympiad, the ACS Chemistry Olympiad, and the IOL Linguistics Olympiad, among others. All are administered as tests and start regionally. Those who make the cutoff progress to the national level. The top 20 or so nationwide (the number is different for each competition) gather in a camp where they compete among themselves. The top five or so will represent the U.S. in the respective international Olympiad. Just like varsity athletes, academic athletes must train for years to perform well.

Jamie realized this early, as a freshman. He knew he wanted to go to MIT. His college counselor advised him that good grades alone weren't enough for top-tier schools—he would have to distinguish himself somehow. Jamie did some research and stumbled across the science and math Olympiads, finding that finalists went on to schools like MIT. In anticipation of taking AP Chemistry as a sophomore, Jamie decided to take chemistry on the side while studying biology.

For students interested in the Chemistry Olympiad, preparation usually begins during the summer before AP Chemistry. Studying ahead to finish the entire curriculum by January of the following year is ideal. Most Olympiad coaches advise at least 1–2 months of dedicated review before the regional test in March. Jamie doggedly took previous Chemistry Olympiad exams for two months after finishing the last chapter in his AP Chemistry textbook. By the time of the regional March test, he had taken every previous regional and national test three times. Just like practicing free throws before basketball games, repetition is key. Having made the cutoff, Jamie started preparing for the national level of the Chemistry Olympiad. The exam would have the same format but would be longer and more difficult. Because he scored in the top 20 in the country, he was invited to the study camp, which is held at a different host university each year. Even though he didn’t end up being one of the four chosen to represent the U.S. in the International Chemistry Olympiad, his name was out there. He had been identified as one of the top 20 budding chemists in the country.

Academic Olympiads have a finite number of winners each year. Just as the number of college applicants grows every year, the number of students competing in academic Olympiads increases as well. The progressively more stringent cutoff scores attest to this. Furthermore, the exams have only gotten more challenging, as what was once considered a difficult college course is now commonly taught to honors high-school students. Consequently, the prestige associated with success in these competitions continues to mount as well and provide an attractive avenue for distinction.