Math competitions are in full swing and students are busy preparing for, participating in, and reviewing both regional and national contests. Winners are celebrating awards being handed out in thousands of elementary, middle, and high schools across the nation.

Most people think that students who win math competitions know more advanced concepts such as calculus and have memorized more formulas. This is not the case. True mathematics is not about memorizing formulas and applying them to problems that are tailor made for those formulas, but, instead, is about applying basic concepts to solve problems.

Competing students spend countless hours learning, practicing, and reviewing difficult problems. In math clubs, they learn how to apply what they have learned in a creative way, how to think critically, and how to apply problem solving skills. But why put much effort into competitions that do not count toward school grades?

Here’s why. Following are some of the benefits of competing in math contests, to be addressed in more detail in subsequent articles.

  • Students learn critical thinking and creative problem solving skills, which can be applied to all aspects of academic discipline and help students excel.
  • Students learn by teaching while explaining their solutions to fellow students.
  • Students score higher in college entrance exams because they have learned to work under time constraints in a competitive environment.
  • Many students who excel in math find school math classes boring. Math clubs and competitions provide an excellent opportunity for them to challenge themselves and have fun at the same time.

In addition, math competitions build confidence and teach teamwork, the discipline to prepare, and the perseverance to tackle complex problems. Students learn to excel in a competitive environment.

Some of the annual nationwide contests that attract hundreds of thousands of students are:

  • American Mathematics Competitions (AMC8, AMC10, AMC12) – tests available worldwide to all ages
  • Math Olympiad: five monthly contests from November-March for elementary and middle school students.
  • Mathcounts: for middle school students
  • Mandelbrot: advanced contest for high school
  • Math Kangaroo: for elementary, middle, and high school students

These lead to the highest levels of competition:

  • AIME: Top 10,000 qualifying students are invited to participate.
  • USAMO: Top 500 students from AIME are selected to participate
  • IMO: Top six students represent the United States at an international competition with approximately 100 other countries.

Julie Yi is director of Apex College Prep with locations in Walnut Creek and Cupertino, Calif. She may be reached at