The Role of Competition Mathematics for College Admissions and Beyond

Mathematical talent is more important than ever in today’s highly technical world, and yet, the US high school math curriculum still fails our students. Confused instruction and reliance on standardized testing do not produce students who have the creativity necessary to be tomorrow’s thinkers. Parents and students alike are seeking alternatives that will help them remain competitive in a fast-changing world. That’s why more and more universities are looking for student’s who have engaged in math competitions such as the American Mathematics Competition (AMC). For many students, this first exposure to competitions happens in middle school with the MATHCOUNTS program.

What makes competition math different?
While some of the topics are the same, for example algebra and geometry, math competitions utilize a problem-solving approach which is more creative than the standard school rubric. Students are encouraged to think creatively and develop the approach that works best for them. Further, math competitions introduce the topic of discrete mathematics, the math of modern computing, which includes number theory and combinatorics (counting and probability).

What if my student is not a fast problem-solver?
While it is true that many of the math competitions are timed, so speed and competitiveness is important to do well on tests such as the AMC, there are other competitions which appeal more to the reflective thinker. The USA Mathematical Talent Search contest (USAMTS.org) is just such a test. Students have a full month to work on problems that require well-thought-out articulations. Both the AMC 10/12 and the USAMTS contests are qualifying exams for the prestigious American Invitational Mathematics Exam (AIME). Universities such as MIT and Caltech have sections on their official admissions forms for these scores.

How can I improve my problem-solving skills?
As with many things in life, improvement and growth come from a competition mathematicscombination of mentors, community, and the desire to learn. When assessing programs, it is critical to ensure that the instructors have the educational background necessary to guide the students where they need to be. Math Circles across the country have gained in popularity to fill this need of pairing mentors with students to work on problems with “low thresholds and high ceilings,” meaning, the purpose of the problem is easily understood and can be tied to more complex mathematical concepts.

A problem-solving approach also creates a high engagement atmosphere. The process shifts from revolving around a grade or test, instead focusing on the problem itself. Students are rewarded for resilience and creativity and, in turn, learn about their individual way of thinking and how to celebrate their strengths and assess their weaknesses so that they can improve.

Learning in a community of strong mentors and interested peers makes the process that much more engaging for a student. By seeking programs and curricula that provide high quality instruction with individuals who are passionate about their topic, a student’s desire to learn will increase.

Why study for mathematics competitions?
With myriad activities and subjects constantly vying for your attention, competition mathematicswhy should you devote time and energy to math competitions? Consider these five reasons to enter math competitions:
• Develop critical thinking and problem solving skills
• Exposure to problems in the area of discrete math
• Build confidence through the rigor of solving elegant problems
• Connect with a close community of thinkers
• Because it’s fun!


AwesomeMathKathy Cordeiro works for the AwesomeMath program. AwesomeMath is devoted to providing enriching experiences in mathematics for intellectually curious learners. Through summer camps, publications, curriculum, and competitions, AwesomeMath fosters a community that values critical thinking, creativity, passionate problem solving, and lifetime mathematical learning.

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One Response to The Role of Competition Mathematics for College Admissions and Beyond

  1. KatoC says:

    I highly recommend the Purple Comet Math Meet competition for homeschoolers. Since it is team based, a homeschooler can work with friends and collaborate while solving interesting problems. purplecomet.org. ~Kathy Cordeiro

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