Here are some pointers I would share with my students at the start of a secondary math olympiad programme. In Singapore, most mathletes attending these enrichment classes are usually selected by the form or math teacher, who tends to choose the best three math students from each class to form a small group of 15 to 20 participants. They would then graduate to represent the school after attending a six-, eight-, or ten-session training programme, depending on the mathematical needs and wants of the school.
• Take your time! Very few contestants can solve all given problems within the time limit. For instance, in the Singapore Mathematics Olympiad (SMO), both at the junior and senior levels, [unconfirmed] feedback based on different schools’ results hints to the fact that those who can win a medal hover around five percent.
Interestingly but disturbingly, an SMO mathlete who can get six or seven out of 35 questions correct may still win a bronze medal, revealing how unmoderated olympiad math papers had been in recent years, going by the abnormally high rate of failures among the participants. This is primarily due to the fact that few, if any, faculty members who set these competition papers, are familiar with what elementary and middle school teachers are covering in local schools.
• Try the “easier” questions first.
The questions aren’t set in ascending order of difficulty. It’s not uncommon to see easier questions in the second half of the paper.
• Olympiad questions don’t “crack” immediately. Be patient. Try various approaches. Experiment with simple cases. Working backwards from the desired result in some cases is helpful.
• If you’re using a contests book, and you’re stuck, glance at the “Hints” section. Sometimes a problem requires an unusual idea or technique.
• Even if you can solve a problem, read the hints and solutions. The hints may contain some ideas or insights that didn’t occur in your solution, and they may discuss intuitive, strategic, or tactical approaches that can be used elsewhere.
Remember that modeled or elegant solutions often conceal the torturous or tedious process of investigation, false starts, inspiration and attention to detail that led to them. Be aware of the behind-the-scenes hours-long dirty mathematical work! When you read the modeled solutions, try to reconstruct the thinking that went into them. Ask yourself, “What were the key ideas?” “How can I apply these ideas further?”
• Go back to the original problem later, and see if you can solve it in a different way, or in a different context. When all else fails, remember the reliable old friend, the guess-and-check strategy (or heuristic, as it’s being arguably called in Singapore)—for instance, substituting the optional answers-numbers given in an MCQ into some given equation or expression may yield the answer sooner than later.
Meaningful or creative problem solving takes practice, with insightful or elegant solutions not being the norm. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t seem to make any headway at first. The key isn’t to give up; come back to the question after a day or a week. Stickability and perseverance are two long-time buddies for full-time problem solvers.
Happy problem solving!
© Yan Kow Cheong, Feb. 7, 2014.