tl;dr I parodied my own book, download the new version here. People often complain to me about how olympiad geometry is just about knowing a bunch of configurations or theorems. But it recently occurred to me that when you actually … Continue reading
Pictures, thoughts, and other festives from the 2019 Romania Masters in Math. See also the MAA press release. Summary Po-Shen Loh and I spent the last week in Bucharest with the United States team for the 11th RMM. The USA … Continue reading
I think it would be nice if every few years I updated my generic answer to “how do I get better at math contests?”. So here is the 2019 version. Unlike previous instances, I’m going to be a little less olympiad-focused than I usually am, since these days I get a lot of people asking for help on the AMC and AIME too.
(Historical notes: you can see the version from right after I graduated and the version from when I was still in high school. I admit both of them make me cringe slightly when I read them today. I still think everything written there is right, but the style and focus seems off to me now.)
0. Stop looking for the “right” training (or: be yourself)
These days many of the questions I get are clearly most focused on trying to find a perfect plan — questions like “what did YOU do to get to X” or “how EXACTLY do I practice for Y”. (Often these words are in all-caps in the email, too!) When I see these I always feel very hesitant to answer. The reason is that I always feel like there’s some implicit hope that I can give you some recipe that, if you follow it, will guarantee reaching your goals.
I’m sorry, math contests don’t work that way (and can’t work that way). I actually think that if I gave you a list of which chapters of which books I read in 2009-2010 over which weeks, and which problems I did on each day, and you followed it to the letter, it would go horribly.
Why? It’s not just a talent thing, I think. Solving math problems is actually a deeply personal art: despite being what might appear to be a cold and logical discipline, learning math and getting better at it actually requires being human. Different people find different things natural or unnatural, easy or hard, et cetera. If you try to squeeze yourself into some mold or timeline then the results will probably be counterproductive.
On the flip side, this means that you can worry a lot less. I actually think that surprisingly often, you can get a first-order approximation of what’s the “best” thing to do by simply doing whatever feels the most engaging or rewarding (assuming you like math, of course). Of course there are some places where this is not correct (e.g., you might hate geometry, but cannot just ignore it). But the first-order approximation is actually quite decent.
That’s why in the introduction to my geometry book, I explicitly have the line:
Readers are encouraged to not be bureaucratic in their learning and move around as they see fit, e.g., skipping complicated sections and returning to them later, or moving quickly through familiar material.
Put another way: as learning math is quite personal, the advice “be yourself” is well-taken.
1. Some brief recommendations (anyways)
With all that said, probably no serious harm will come from me listing a little bit of references I think are reasonable — so that you have somewhere to start, and can oscillate from there.
For learning theory and fundamentals:
For sources of additional practice problems (other than the particular test you’re preparing for):
- The collegiate contests HMMT November, PUMaC, CMIMC will typically have decent short-answer problems.
- HMMT February is by far the hardest short-answer contest I know of.
- At the olympiad level, there are so many national olympiads and team selection tests that you will never finish. (My website has an archive of USA problems and solutions if you’re interested in those in particular.)
The IMO Shortlist is also good place to work as it contains proposals of varying difficulty from many countries — and thus is the most culturally diverse. As for other nations, as a rule of thumb, any country that often finishes in the top 20 at the IMO (say) will probably have a good questions on their national olympiad or TST.
For every subject that’s not olympiad geometry, there are actually surprisingly few named theorems.
2. Premature optimization is the root of all evil (so just get your hands dirty)
For some people, the easiest first step to getting better is to double the amount of time you spend practicing. (Unless that amount is zero, in which case, you should just start.)
There is a time and place for spending time thinking about how to practice — one example is if you’ve been working a while and feel like nothing has changed, or you’ve been working on some book and it just doesn’t feel fun, etc. Another common example is if you notice you keep missing all the functional equations on the USAMO: then, maybe it’s time to search up some handouts on functional equations. Put another way, if you feel stuck, then you can start thinking about whether you’re not doing something right.
On the other extreme, if you’re wondering whether you are ready to read book X or do problems from Y contest, my advice is to just try it and see if you like it. There is no commitment: just read Chapter 1, see how you feel. If it works, keep doing it, if not, try something else.
(I can draw an analogy from my own life. Whenever I am learning a new board game or card game, like Catan or Splendor or whatever, I always overthink it. I spend all this time thinking and theorizing and trying to come up with this brilliant strategy — which never works, because it’s my first game, for crying out loud. It turns out that until you start grappling at close range and getting your hands dirty, your internal model of something you’ve never done is probably not that good.)
3. Doing problems just above your level (and a bit on reflecting on them)
There is one pitfall that I do see sometimes, common enough I will point it out. If you mostly (only?) do old practice tests or past problems, then you’re liable to be spending too much time on easy problems. That was the topic of another old post of mine, but the short story is that if you find yourself constantly getting 130ish on AMC10 practice tests, then maybe you should spend most of your time working on problems 21-25 rather than repeatedly grinding 1-20 over and over. (See 28:30-29:00 here to hear Zuming make fun of them.)
The common wisdom is that you should consistently do problems just above your level so that you gradually increase the difficulty of problems you are able to solve. The situation is a little more nuanced at the AMC/AIME level, since for those short-answer contests it’s also important to be able to do routine problems quickly and accurately. However, I think for most people, you really should be spending at least 70% of your time getting smarter, rather than just faster.
I think in this case, I want to give concrete descriptions. Here’s some examples of what can happen after a problem.
- You looked at the problem and immediately (already?) knew how to do it. Then you probably didn’t learn much from it. (But at least you’ll get faster, if not smarter.)
- You looked at the problem and didn’t know right away how to start, but after a little while figured it out. That’s a little better.
- You struggled with the problem and eventually figured out a solution, but maybe not the most elegant one. I think that’s a great situation to be in. You came up with some solution to the problem, so you understand it fairly well, but there’s still more for you to update your instincts on. What can you do in the future to get solutions more like the elegant one?
- You struggled with the problem and eventually gave up, then when you read the solution you realize quickly what you were missing. I think that’s a great situation to be in, too. You now want to update your instincts by a little bit — how could you make sure you don’t miss something like that again in the future?
- The official solution quoted some theorem you don’t know. If this was among a batch of problems where the other problems felt about the right level to you, then I think often this is a pretty good time to see if you can learn the statement (better, proof) of the theorem. You have just spent some time working on a situation in which the theorem was useful, so that data is fresh in your mind. And pleasantly often, you will find that ideas you came up with during your attempt on the problem correspond to ideas in the statement or proof of the theorem, which is great!
- You didn’t solve the problem, and the solution makes sense, but you don’t see how you would have come up with it. It’s possible that this is the fault of the solutions author (many people are actually quite bad at making solutions read naturally). If you have a teacher, this is the right time to ask them about it. But it’s also possible that the problem was too hard. In general, I think it’s better to miss problems “by a little”, whatever that means, so that you can update your intuition correctly.
- You can’t even understand the solution. Okay, too hard.
You’ll notice how much emphasis I place on the post-problem reflection process. This is actually important — after all the time you spent working on the problem itself, you want to update your instincts as much as possible to get the payoff. In particular, I think it’s usually worth it to read the solutions to problems you worked on, whether or not you solve them. In general, after reading a solution, I think you should be able to state in a couple sentences all the main ideas of the solution, and basically know how to solve the problem from there.
For the olympiad level, I have a whole different post dedicated to reading solutions, and interested readers can read more there. (One point from that post I do want to emphasize since it wasn’t covered explicitly in any of the above examples: by USA(J)MO level it becomes important to begin building intuition that you can’t explicitly formalize. You may start having vague feelings and notions that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you can feel it. These non-formalizable feelings are valuable, take note of them.)
4. Leave your ego out (e.g. be willing to give up on problems)
This is easy advice to give, but it’s hard advice to follow. For concreteness, here are examples of things I think can be explained this way.
Sometimes people will ask me whether they need to solve every problem in each chapter of EGMO, or do every past practice test, or so on. The answer is: of course not, and why would you even think that? There’s nothing magical about doing 80% of the problems versus 100% of them. (If there was, then EGMO is secretly a terrible book, because I commented out some problems, and so OH NO YOU SKIPPED SOME AAAHHHHH.) And so it’s okay to start Chapter 5 even though you didn’t finish that last challenge problem at the end. Otherwise you let one problem prevent you from working on the next several.
Or, sometimes I learn about people who, if they do not solve an olympiad problem, will refuse to look at the solution; instead they will mark it in a spreadsheet and to come back to later. In short, they never give up on a problem: which I think is a bad idea, since reflecting on missed problems is so important. (It is not as if you can realistically run out of olympiad problems to do.) And while this is still better than giving up too early, I mean, all things in moderation, right?
I think if somehow people were able to completely leave your ego out, and not worry at all about how good you are and rather just maximize learning, then mistakes like these two would be a lot rarer. Of course, this is impossible to do in practice (we’re all human), but it’s good to keep in mind at least that this is an ideal we can strive for.
5. Enjoy it
Which leads me to the one bit that everyone already knows, but that no platitude-filled post would be complete without: to do well at math contests (or anything hard) you probably have to enjoy the process of getting better. Not just the end result. You have to enjoy the work itself.
Which is not to say you have to do it all the time or for hours a day. Doing math is hard, so you get tired eventually, and beyond that forcing yourself to work is not productive. Thus when I see people talk about how they plan to do every shortlist problem, or they will work N hours per day over M time, I always feel a little uneasy, because it always seems too results-oriented.
In particular, I actually think it’s quite hard to spend more than two or three good hours per day on a regular basis. I certainly never did — back in high school (and even now), if I solved one problem that took me more than an hour, that was considered a good day. (But I should also note that the work ethic of my best students consistently amazes me; it far surpasses mine.) In that sense, the learning process can’t be forced or rushed.
There is one sense in which you can get more hours a day, that I am on record saying quite often: if you think about math in the shower, then you know you’re doing it right.
There’s a recent working paper by economists Ruchir Agarwal and Patrick Gaule which I think would be of much interest to this readership: a systematic study of IMO performance versus success as a mathematician later on.
Despite the click-baity title and dreamy introduction about the Millenium Prizes, the rest of the paper is fascinating, and the figures section is a gold mine. Here are two that stood out to me:
There’s also one really nice idea they had, which was to investigate the effect of getting one point less than a gold medal, versus getting exactly a gold medal. This is a pretty clever way to account for the effect of the prestige of the IMO, since “IMO gold” sounds so much better on a CV than “IMO silver” even though in any given year they may not differ so much. To my surprise, the authors found that “being awarded a better medal appears to have no additional impact on becoming a professional mathematician or future knowledge production”. I included the relevant graph below here.
The data used in the paper spans from IMO 1981 to IMO 2000. This is before the rise of Art of Problem Solving and the Internet (and the IMO was smaller back then, anyways), so I imagine these graphs might look different if we did them in 2040 using IMO 2000 – IMO 2020 data, although I’m not even sure whether I expect the effects to be larger or smaller.
(As usual: I do not mean to suggest that non-IMO participants cannot do well in math later. This is so that I do not get flooded with angry messages like last time.)
Some of the stuff covered in this handout:
- Advice for constructing the triangle centers (hint: circumcenter goes first)
- An example of how to rearrange the conditions of a problem and draw a diagram out-of-order
- Some mechanical suggestions such as dealing with phantom points
- Some examples of computer-generated figures
Some thoughts about some modern trends in mathematical olympiads that may be concerning.
I. The story of the barycentric coordinates
I worry about my geometry book. To explain why, let me tell you a story.
When I was in high school about six years ago, barycentric coordinates were nearly unknown as an olympiad technique. I only heard about it from whispers in the wind from friends who had heard of the technique and thought it might be usable. But at the time, there were nowhere where everything was written down explicitly. I had a handful of formulas online, a few helpful friends I can reach out to, and a couple example posts littered across some forums.
Seduced by the possibility of arcane power, I didn’t let this stop me. Over the spring of 2012, spring break settled in, and I spent that entire week developing the entire theory of barycentric coordinates from scratch. There were no proofs I could find online, so I had to personally reconstruct all of them. In addition, I set out to finding as many example problems as I could, but since no one had written barycentric solutions yet, I had to not only identify which problems like they might be good examples but also solve them myself to see if my guesses were correct. I even managed to prove a “new” theorem about perpendicular displacement vectors (which I did not get to name after myself).
I continued working all the way up through the summer, adding several new problems that came my way from MOP 2012. Finally, I posted a rough article with all my notes, examples, and proofs, which you can still find online. I still remember this as a sort of magnus opus from the first half of high school; it was an immensely rewarding learning experience.
Today, all this and much more can be yours for just $60, with any major credit or debit card.
Alas, my geometry book is just one example of ways in which the math contest scene is looking more and more like an industry. Over the years, more and more programs dedicated to training for competitions are springing up, and these programs can be quite costly. I myself run a training program now, which is even more expensive (in my defense, it’s one-on-one teaching, rather than a residential camp or group lesson).
It’s possible to imagine a situation in which the contest problems become more and more routine. In that world, math contests become an arms race. It becomes mandatory to have training in increasingly obscure techniques: everything from Popoviciu to Vieta jumping to rectangular circumhyperbolas. Students from less well-off families, or even countries without access to competition resources, become unable to compete, and are pushed to the bottom of the IMO scoreboard.
(Fortunately for me, I found out at the 2017 IMO that my geometry book actually helped level the international playing field, contrary to my initial expectations. It’s unfortunate that it’s not free, but it turned out that many students in other countries had until then found it nearly impossible to find suitable geometry materials. So now many more people have access to a reasonable geometry reference, rather than just the top countries with well-established training.)
II. Another dark future
The first approximation you might have now is that training is bad. But I think that’s the wrong conclusion, since, well, I have an entire previous post dedicated to explaining what I perceive as the benefits of the math contest experience. So I think the conclusion is not that training is intrinsically bad, but rather than training must be meaningful. That is, the students have to gain something from the experience that’s not just a +7 bonus on their next olympiad contest.
I think the message “training is bad” might be even more dangerous.
Imagine that the fashion swings the other way. The IMO jury become alarmed at the trend of train-able problems, and in response, the problems become designed specifically to antagonize trained students. The entire Geometry section of the IMO shortlist ceases to exist, because some Asian kid wrote this book that gives you too much of an advantage if you’ve read it, and besides who does geometry after high school anyways? The IMO 2014 used to be notable for having three combinatorics problems, but by 2040 the norm is to have four or five, because everyone knows combinatorics is harder to train for.
Gradually, the IMO is redesigned to become an IQ test.
The changes then begin to permeate down. The USAMO committee is overthrown, and USAMO 2050 features six linguistics questions “so that we can find out who can actually think”. Math contests as a whole become a system for identifying the best genetic talent, explicitly aimed at weeding out the students who have “just been trained”. It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve worked; we want “creativity”.
This might be great at identifying the best mathematicians each generation, but I think an IMO of this shape would be actively destructive towards the contestants and community as well. You thought math contests were bad because they’re discouraging to the kids who don’t win? What if they become redesigned to make sure that you can’t improve your score no matter how hard you work?
What this means is that we have a balancing act to maintain. We do not want to eliminate the role of training entirely, because the whole point of math contests is to have a learning experience that lasts longer than the two-day contest every year. But at the same time, we need to ensure the training is interesting, that it is deep and teaches skills like the ones I described before.
Paying $60 to buy a 300-page PDF is not meaningful. But spending many hours to work through the problems in that PDF might be.
In many ways this is not a novel idea. If I am trying to teach a student, and I give them a problem which is too easy, they will not learn anything from it. Conversely, if I give them a problem which is too difficult, they will get discouraged and are unlikely to learn much from their trouble. The situation with olympiad training feels the same.
This applies to the way I think about my teaching as well. I am always upset when I hear (as I have) things like “X only did well on USAMO because of Evan Chen’s class”. If that is true, then all I am doing is taking money as input and changing the results of a zero-sum game as output, which is in my opinion rather pointless (and maybe unethical).
But I really think that’s not what’s happening. Maybe I’m a good teacher, but at the end of the day I am just a guide. If my students do well, or even if they don’t do well, it is because they spent many hours on the challenges that I designed, and have learned a lot from the whole experience. The credit for any success thus lies solely through the student’s effort. And that experience, I think, is certainly not zero-sum.
One of the major headaches of using complex numbers in olympiad geometry problems is dealing with square roots. In particular, it is nontrivial to express the incenter of a triangle inscribed in the unit circle in terms of its vertices.
The following lemma is the standard way to set up the arc midpoints of a triangle. It appears for example as part (a) of Lemma 6.23.
Theorem 1 is often used in combination with the following lemma, which lets one assign the incenter the coordinates in the above notation.
Unfortunately, the proof of Theorem 1 in my textbook is wrong, and I cannot find a proof online (though I hear that Lemmas in Olympiad Geometry has a proof). So in this post I will give a correct proof of Theorem 1, which will hopefully also explain the mysterious introduction of the minus signs in the theorem statement. In addition I will give a version of the theorem valid for quadrilaterals.
2. A Word of Warning
I should at once warn the reader that Theorem 1 is an existence result, and thus must be applied carefully.
To see why this matters, consider the following problem, which appeared as problem 1 of the 2016 JMO.
By experimenting with the diagram, it is not hard to guess that the correct fixed point is the midpoint of arc , as seen in the figure below. One might be tempted to write , , , and assert the two incenters are and , and that the fixed point is .
This is a mistake! If one applies Theorem 1 twice, then the choices of “square roots” of the common vertices and may not be compatible. In fact, they cannot be compatible, because the arc midpoint of opposite is different from the arc midpoint of opposite .
In fact, I claim this is not a minor issue that one can work around. This is because the claim that the circumcircle of passes through the midpoint of arc is false if lies on the arc on the same side as ! In that case it actually passes through instead. Thus the truth of the problem really depends on the fact that the quadrilateral is convex, and any attempt with complex numbers must take this into account to have a chance of working.
3. Proof of the theorem for triangles
Fix now, so we require , , . There are choices of square roots , , we can take (differing by a sign); we wish to show one of them works.
We pick an arbitrary choice for first. Then, of the two choices of , we pick the one such that . Similarly, for the two choices of , we pick the one such that . Our goal is to show that under these conditions, we have again.
The main trick is to now consider the arc midpoint , which we denote by . It is easy to see that:
Thus, we have
From this we can see why the minus signs are necessary.
4. A version for quadrilaterals
We now return to the setting of a convex quadrilateral that we encountered in Example 3. Suppose we preserve the variables , , that we were given from Theorem 1, but now add a fourth complex number with . How are the new arc midpoints determined? The following theorem answers this question.
This setup is summarized in the following figure.
Note that unlike Theorem 1, the four arcs cut out by the sides of do not all have the same sign (I chose to have coordinates ). This asymmetry is inevitable (see if you can understand why from the proof below).
Proof: We select , , with Theorem 1. Now, pick a choice of such that is the arc midpoint of not containing and . Then the arc midpoint of not containing or is given by
On the other hand, the calculation of for the midpoint of follows by applying Lemma 4 again. (applied to triangle ). The midpoint of is computed similarly.
In other problems, the four vertices of the quadrilateral may play more symmetric roles and in that case it may be desirable to pick a setup in which the four vertices are labeled in order. By relabeling the letters in Theorem 6 one can prove the following alternate formulation.
To test the newfound theorem, here is a cute easy application.
In a previous post I tried to make the point that math olympiads should not be judged by their relevance to research mathematics. In doing so I failed to actually explain why I think math olympiads are a valuable experience for high schoolers, so I want to make amends here.
In high school I used to think that math contests were primarily meant to encourage contestants to study some math that is (much) more interesting than what’s typically shown in high school. While I still think this is one goal, and maybe it still is the primary goal in some people’s minds, I no longer believe this is the primary benefit.
My current belief is that there are two major benefits from math competitions:
- To build a social network for gifted high school students with similar interests.
- To provide a challenging experience that lets gifted students grow and develop intellectually.
I should at once disclaim that I do not claim these are the only purpose of mathematical olympiads. Indeed, mathematics is a beautiful subject and introducing competitors to this field of study is of course a great thing (in particular it was life-changing for me). But as I have said before, many alumni of math olympiads do not eventually become mathematicians, and so in my mind I would like to make the case that these alumni have gained a lot from the experience anyways.
2. Social experience
Now that we have email, Facebook, Art of Problem Solving, and whatnot, the math contest community is much larger and stronger than it’s ever been in the past. For the first time, it’s really possible to stay connected with other competitors throughout the entire year, rather than just seeing each other a handful of times during contest season. There’s literally group chats of contestants all over the country where people talk about math problems or the solar eclipse or share funny pictures or inside jokes or everything else. In many ways, being part of the high school math contest community is a lot like having access to the peer group at a top-tier university, except four years earlier.
There’s some concern that a competitive culture is unhealthy for the contestants. I want to make a brief defense here.
I really do think that the contest community is good at being collaborative rather than competitive. You can imagine a world where the competitors think about contests in terms of trying to get a better score than the other person.  That would not be a good world. But I think by and large the community is good at thinking about it as just trying to maximize their own score. The score of the person next to you isn’t supposed to matter (and thinking about it doesn’t help, anyways).
Put more bluntly, on contest day, you have one job: get full marks. 
Because we have a culture of this shape, we now get a group of talented students all working towards the same thing, rather than against one another. That’s what makes it possible to have a self-supportive community, and what makes it possible for the contestants to really become friends with each other.
I think the strongest contestants don’t even care about the results of contests other than the few really important ones (like USAMO/IMO). It is a long-running joke that the Harvard-MIT Math Tournament is secretly just a MOP reunion, and I personally see to it that this happens every year. 
I’ve also heard similar sentiments about ARML:
I enjoy ARML primarily based on the social part of the contest, and many people agree with me; the highlight of ARML for some people is the long bus ride to the contest. Indeed, I think of ARML primarily as a social event, with some mathematics to make it look like the participants are actually doing something important.
(Don’t tell the parents.)
3. Intellectual growth
My view is that if you spend a lot of time thinking or working about anything deep, then you will learn and grow from the experience, almost regardless of what that thing is at an object level. Take chess as an example — even though chess definitely has even fewer “real-life applications” than math, if you take anyone with a 2000+ rating I don’t think many of them would think that the time they invested into the game was wasted. 
Olympiad mathematics seems to be no exception to this. In fact the sheer depth and difficulty of the subject probably makes it a particularly good example. 
I’m now going to fill this section with a bunch of examples although I don’t claim the list is exhaustive. First, here are the ones that everyone talks about and more or less agrees on:
- Learning how to think, because, well, that’s how you solve a contest problem.
- Learning to work hard and not give up, because the contest is difficult and you will not win by accident; you need to actually go through a lot of training.
- Dual to above, learning to give up on a problem, because sometime the problem really is too hard for you and you won’t solve it even if you spend another ten or twenty or fifty hours, and you have to learn to cut your losses. There is a balancing act here that I think really is best taught by experience, rather than the standard high-school moral cheerleading where you are supposed to “never give up” or something.
- But also learning to be humble or to ask for help, which is a really hard thing for a lot of young contestants to do.
- Learning to be patient, not only with solving problems but with the entire journey. You usually do not improve dramatically overnight.
Here are some others I also believe, but don’t hear as often.
- Learning to be independent, because odds are your high-school math teacher won’t be able to help you with USAMO problems. Training for the highest level of contests is these days almost always done more or less independently. I think having the self-motivation to do the training yourself, as well as the capacity to essentially have to design your own training (making judgments on what to work on, et cetera) is itself a valuable cross-domain skill. (I’m a little sad sometimes that by teaching I deprive my students of the opportunity to practice this. It is a cost.)
- Being able to work neatly, not because your parents told you to but because if you are sloppy then it will cost you points when you make small (or large) errors on IMO #1. Olympiad problems are difficult enough as is, and you do not want to let them become any harder because of your own sloppiness. (And there are definitely examples of olympiad problems which are impossible to solve if you are not organized.)
- Being able to organize and write your thoughts well, because some olympiad problems are complex and requires putting together more than one lemma or idea together to solve. For this to work, you need to have the skill of putting together a lot of moving parts into a single coherent argument. Bonus points here if your audience is someone you care about (as opposed to a grader), because then you have to also worry about making the presentation as clean and natural as possible.
These days, whenever I solve a problem I always take the time to write it up cleanly, because in the process of doing so I nearly always find ways that the solution can be made shorter or more elegant, or at least philosophically more natural. (I also often find my solution is wrong.) So it seems that the write-up process here is not merely about presenting the same math in different ways: the underlying math really does change. 
- Thinking about how to learn. For example, the Art of Problem Solving forums are often filled with questions of the form “what should I do?”. Many older users find these questions obnoxious, but I find them desirable. I think being able to spend time pondering about what makes people improve or learn well is a good trait to develop, rather than mindlessly doing one book after another.
Of course, many of the questions I referred to are poor, either with no real specific direction: often the questions are essentially “what book should I read?”, or “give me a exhaustive list of everything I should know”. But I think this is inevitable because these are people’s first attempts at understanding contest training. Just like the first difficult math contest you take often goes quite badly, the first time you try to think about learning, you will probably ask questions you will be embarrassed about in five years. My hope is that as these younger users get older and wiser, the questions and thoughts become mature as well. To this end I do not mind seeing people wobble on their first steps.
- Being honest with your own understanding, particularly of fundamentals. When watching experienced contestants, you often see people solving problems using advanced techniques like Brianchon’s theorem or the n-1 equal value principle or whatever. It’s tempting to think that if you learn the names and statements of all these advanced techniques then you’ll be able to apply them too. But the reality is that these techniques are advanced for a reason: they are hard to use without mastery of fundamentals.
This is something I definitely struggled with as a contestant: being forced to patiently learn all the fundamentals and not worry about the fancy stuff. To give an example, the 2011 JMO featured an inequality which was routine for experienced or well-trained contestants, but “almost impossible for people who either have not seen inequalities at all or just like to compile famous names in their proofs”. I was in the latter category, and tried to make up a solution using multivariable Jensen, whatever that meant. Only when I was older did I really understand what I was missing.
- Dual to the above, once you begin to master something completely you start to learn what different depths of understanding feel like, and an appreciation for just how much effort goes into developing a mastery of something.
- Being able to think about things which are not well-defined. This one often comes as a surprise to people, since math is a field which is known for its precision. But I still maintain that this a skill contests train for.
A very simple example is a question like, “when should I use the probabilistic method?”. Yes, we know it’s good for existence questions, but can we say anything more about when we expect it to work? Well, one heuristic (not the only one) is “if a monkey could find it” — the idea that a randomly selected object “should” work. But obviously something like this can’t be subject to a (useful) formal definition that works 100% of the time, and there are plenty of contexts in which even informally this heuristic gives the wrong answer. So that’s an example of a vague and nebulous concept that’s nonetheless necessary in order to understanding the probabilistic method well.
There are much more general examples one can say. What does it mean for a problem to “feel projective”? I can’t tell you a hard set of rules; you’ll have to do a bunch of examples and gain the intuition yourself. Why do I say this problem is “rigid”? Same answer. How do you tell which parts of this problem are natural, and which are artificial? How do you react if you have the feeling the problem gives you nothing to work with? How can you tell if you are making progress on a problem? Trying to figure out partial answers to these questions, even if they can’t be put in words, will go a long way in improving the mythical intuition that everyone knows is so important.
It might not be unreasonable to say that by this point we are studying philosophy, and that’s exactly what I intend. When I teach now I often make a point of referring to the “morally correct” way of thinking about things, or making a point of explaining why X should be true, rather than just providing a proof. I find this type of philosophy interesting in its own right, but that is not the main reason I incorporate it into my teaching. I teach the philosophy now because it is necessary, because you will solve fewer problems without that understanding.
4. I think if you don’t do well, it’s better to you
But I think the most surprising benefit of math contests is that most participants won’t win. In high school everyone tells you that if you work hard you will succeed. The USAMO is a fantastic counterexample to this. Every year, there are exactly 12 winners on the USAMO. I can promise you there are far more than 12 people who work very hard every year with the hope of doing well on the USAMO. Some people think this is discouraging, but I find it desirable.
Let me tell you a story.
Back in September of 2015, I sneaked in to the parent’s talk at Math Prize for Girls, because Zuming Feng was speaking and I wanted to hear what he had to say. (The whole talk was is available on YouTube now.) The talk had a lot of different parts that I liked, but one of them struck me in particular, when he recounted something he said to one of his top students:
I really want you to work hard, but I really think if you don’t do well, if you fail, it’s better to you.
I had a hard time relating to this when I first heard it, but it makes sense if you think about it. What I’ve tried to argue is that the benefit of math contests is not that the contestant can now solve N problems on USAMO in late April, but what you gain from the entire year of practice. And so if you hold the other 363 days fixed, and then vary only the final outcome of the USAMO, which of success and failure is going to help a contestant develop more as a person?
For that reason I really like to think that the final lesson from high school olympiads is how to appreciate the entire journey, even in spite of the eventual outcome.
- I actually think this is one of the good arguments in favor of the new JMO/USAMO system introduced in 2010. Before this, it was not uncommon for participants in 9th and 10th grade to really only aim for solving one or two entry-level USAMO problems to qualify for MOP. To this end I think the mentality of “the cutoff will probably only be X, so give up on solving problem six” is sub-optimal.
- That’s a Zuming quote.
- Which is why I think the HMIC is actually sort of pointless from a contestant’s perspective, but it’s good logistics training for the tournament directors.
- I could be wrong about people thinking chess is a good experience, given that I don’t actually have any serious chess experience beyond knowing how the pieces move. A cursory scan of the Internet suggests otherwise (was surprised to find that Ben Franklin has an opinion on this) but it’s possible there are people who think chess is a waste of time, and are merely not as vocal as the people who think math contests are a waste of time.
- Relative to what many high school students work on, not compared to research or something.
- Privately, I think that working in math olympiads taught me way more about writing well than English class ever did; English class always felt to me like the skill of trying to sound like I was saying something substantial, even when I wasn’t.
(This is a bit of a follow-up to the solution reading post last month. Spoiler warnings: USAMO 2014/6, USAMO 2012/2, TSTST 2016/4, and hints for ELMO 2013/1, IMO 2016/2.)
I want to say a little about the process which I use to design my olympiad handouts and classes these days (and thus by extension the way I personally think about problems). The short summary is that my teaching style is centered around showing connections and recurring themes between problems.
Now let me explain this in more detail.
1. Main ideas
Solutions to olympiad problems can look quite different from one another at a surface level, but typically they center around one or two main ideas, as I describe in my post on reading solutions. Because details are easy to work out once you have the main idea, as far as learning is concerned you can more or less throw away the details and pay most of your attention to main ideas.
Thus whenever I solve an olympiad problem, I make a deliberate effort to summarize the solution in a few sentences, such that I basically know how to do it from there. I also make a deliberate effort, whenever I write up a solution in my notes, to structure it so that my future self can see all the key ideas at a glance and thus be able to understand the general path of the solution immediately.
If you look at any complete solution to the problem, you will see a lot of technical estimates involving and the like. But the main idea is very simple: “consider an table of primes and note the small primes cannot adequately cover the board, since ”. Once you have this main idea the technical estimates are just the grunt work that you force yourself to do if you’re a contestant (and don’t do if you’re retired like me).
Thus the study of olympiad problems is reduced to the study of main ideas behind these problems.
So how do we come up with the main ideas? Of course I won’t be able to answer this question completely, because therein lies most of the difficulty of olympiads.
But I do have some progress in this way. It comes down to seeing how main ideas are similar to each other. I spend a lot of time trying to classify the main ideas into categories or themes, based on how similar they feel to one another. If I see one theme pop up over and over, then I can make it into a class.
I think olympiad taxonomy is severely underrated, and generally not done correctly. The status quo is that people do bucket sorts based on the particular technical details which are present in the problem. This is correlated with the main ideas, but the two do not always coincide.
An example where technical sort works okay is Euclidean geometry. Here is a simple example: harmonic bundles in projective geometry. As I explain in my book, there are a few “basic” configurations involved:
- Midpoints and parallel lines
- The Ceva / Menelaus configuration
- Harmonic quadrilateral / symmedian configuration
- Apollonian circle (right angle and bisectors)
(For a reference, see Lemmas 2, 4, 5 and Exercise 0 here.) Thus from experience, any time I see one of these pictures inside the current diagram, I think to myself that “this problem feels projective”; and if there is a way to do so I try to use harmonic bundles on it.
An example where technical sort fails is the “pigeonhole principle”. A typical problem in such a class looks something like USAMO 2012/2.
It’s true that the official solution uses the words “pigeonhole principle” but that is not really the heart of the matter; the key idea is that you consider all possible rotations and count the number of incidences. (In any case, such calculations are better done using expected value anyways.)
Now why is taxonomy a good thing for learning and teaching? The reason is that building connections and seeing similarities is most easily done by simultaneously presenting several related problems. I’ve actually mentioned this already in a different blog post, but let me give the demonstration again.
Suppose I wrote down the following:
You can tell what each of the ‘s, ‘s, ‘s have in common by looking for a few moments. But what happens if I intertwine them?
This is the same information, but now you have to work much harder to notice the association between the letters and the numbers they’re next to.
This is why, if you are an olympiad student, I strongly encourage you to keep a journal or blog of the problems you’ve done. Solving olympiad problems takes lots of time and so it’s worth it to spend at least a few minutes jotting down the main ideas. And once you have enough of these, you can start to see new connections between problems you haven’t seen before, rather than being confined to thinking about individual problems in isolation. (Additionally, it means you will never have redo problems to which you forgot the solution — learn from my mistake here.)
3. Ten buckets of geometry
I want to elaborate more on geometry in general. These days, if I see a solution to a Euclidean geometry problem, then I mentally store the problem and solution into one (or more) buckets. I can even tell you what my buckets are:
- Direct angle chasing
- Power of a point / radical axis
- Homothety, similar triangles, ratios
- Recognizing some standard configuration (see Yufei for a list)
- Doing some length calculations
- Complex numbers
- Barycentric coordinates
- Harmonic bundles or pole/polar and homography
- Spiral similarity, Miquel points
which my dedicated fans probably recognize as the ten chapters of my textbook. (Problems may also fall in more than one bucket if for example they are difficult and require multiple key ideas, or if there are multiple solutions.)
Now whenever I see a new geometry problem, the diagram will often “feel” similar to problems in a certain bucket. Exactly what I mean by “feel” is hard to formalize — it’s a certain gut feeling that you pick up by doing enough examples. There are some things you can say, such as “problems which feature a central circle and feet of altitudes tend to fall in bucket 6”, or “problems which only involve incidence always fall in bucket 9”. But it seems hard to come up with an exhaustive list of hard rules that will do better than human intuition.
4. How do problems feel?
But as I said in my post on reading solutions, there are deeper lessons to teach than just technical details.
For examples of themes on opposite ends of the spectrum, let’s move on to combinatorics. Geometry is quite structured and so the themes in the main ideas tend to translate to specific theorems used in the solution. Combinatorics is much less structured and many of the themes I use in combinatorics cannot really be formalized. (Consequently, since everyone else seems to mostly teach technical themes, several of the combinatorics themes I teach are idiosyncratic, and to my knowledge are not taught by anyone else.)
For example, one of the unusual themes I teach is called Global. It’s about the idea that to solve a problem, you can just kind of “add up everything at once”, for example using linearity of expectation, or by double-counting, or whatever. In particular these kinds of approach ignore the “local” details of the problem. It’s hard to make this precise, so I’ll just give two recent examples.
If you look at the solutions to these problems, they have the same “feeling” of adding everything up, even though the specific techniques are somewhat different (double-counting for the former, diagonals modulo for the latter). Nonetheless, my experience with problems similar to the former was immensely helpful for the latter, and it’s why I was able to solve the IMO problem.
This perspective also explains why I’m relatively bad at functional equations. There are some things I can say that may be useful (see my handouts), but much of the time these are just technical tricks. (When sorting functional equations in my head, I have a bucket called “standard fare” meaning that you “just do work”; as far I can tell this bucket is pretty useless.) I always feel stupid teaching functional equations, because I never have many good insights to say.
Part of the reason is that functional equations often don’t have a main idea at all. Consequently it’s hard for me to do useful taxonomy on them.
Then sometimes you run into something like the windmill problem, the solution of which is fairly “novel”, not being similar to problems that come up in training. I have yet to figure out a good way to train students to be able to solve windmill-like problems.
I’ll close by mentioning one common way I come up with a theme.
Sometimes I will run across an olympiad problem which I solve quickly, and think should be very easy, and yet once I start grading I find that the scores are much lower than I expected. Since the way I solve problems is by drawing experience from similar previous problems, this must mean that I’ve subconsciously found a general framework to solve problems like , which is not obvious to my students yet. So if I can put my finger on what that framework is, then I have something new to say.
The most recent example I can think of when this happened was TSTST 2016/4 which was given last June (and was also a very elegant problem, at least in my opinion).
I solved this problem very quickly when we were drafting the TSTST exam, figuring out the solution while walking to dinner. So I was quite surprised when I looked at the scores for the problem and found out that empirically it was not that easy.
After I thought about this, I have a new tentative idea. You see, when doing this problem I really was thinking about “what does this operation do?”. You can think of as an infinite tuple
of prime exponents. Then the can be thought of as an operation which takes each nonzero component, decreases it by one, and then adds some particular vector back. For example, if then is decreased by one and each of and are increased by one. In any case, if you look at this behavior for long enough you will see that the coordinate is a natural way to “track time” in successive operations; once you figure this out, getting the bound of is quite natural. (Details left as exercise to reader.)
Now when I read through the solutions, I found that many of them had not really tried to think of the problem in such a “structured” way, and had tried to directly solve it by for example trying to prove (which is false) or something similar to this. I realized that had the students just ignored the task “prove ” and spent some time getting a better understanding of the structure, they would have had a much better chance at solving the problem. Why had I known that structural thinking would be helpful? I couldn’t quite explain it, but it had something to do with the fact that the “main object” of the question was “set in stone”; there was no “degrees of freedom” in it, and it was concrete enough that I felt like I could understand it. Once I understood how multiple operations behaved, the bit about almost served as an “answer extraction” mechanism.
These thoughts led to the recent development of a class which I named Rigid, which is all about problems where the point is not to immediately try to prove what the question asks for, but to first step back and understand completely how a particular rigid structure (like the in this problem) behaves, and to then solve the problem using this understanding.
Epistemic status: highly dubious. I found almost no literature doing anything quite like what follows, which unsettles me because it makes it likely that I’m overcomplicating things significantly.
Recently I was working on an elegant problem which was the original problem 6 for the 2015 International Math Olympiad, which reads as follows:
Proceeding by contradiction, one can prove (try it!) that in fact all sufficiently large integers have exactly one representation as a sum of an even subset of . Then, the problem reduces to the following:
To see this, note that all sufficiently large have coefficient . Now, the intuitive idea is obvious: the root appears with finite multiplicity in so we can put where , and then we get that on the RHS divides too many times, right?
Well, there are some obvious issues with this “proof”: for example, consider the equality
The right-hand side is “divisible” by , but the left-hand side is not (as a polynomial).
But we still want to use the idea of plugging , so what is the right thing to do? It turns out that this is a complete minefield, and there are a lot of very subtle distinctions that seem to not be explicitly mentioned in many places. I think I have a complete answer now, but it’s long enough to warrant this entire blog post.
Here’s the short version: there’s actually two distinct notions of “generating function”, namely a “formal series” and “functional series”. They use exactly the same notation but are two different types of objects, and this ends up being the source of lots of errors, because “formal series” do not allow substituting , while “functional series” do.
Spoiler: we’ll need the asymptotic for the partition function .
2. Formal Series Functional Series
I’m assuming you’ve all heard the definition of . It turns out unfortunately that this isn’t everything: there are actually two types of objects at play here. They are usually called formal power series and power series, but for this post I will use the more descriptive names formal series and functional series. I’ll do everything over , but one can of course use instead.
The formal series is easier to describe:
This is the “algebraic” viewpoint: it’s a sequence of coefficients. Note that there is no worry about convergence issues or “plugging in ”.
On the other hand, a functional series is more involved, because it has to support substitution of values of and worry about convergence issues. So here are the necessary pieces of data:
Thus formal and functional series, despite having the same notation, have different types: a formal series is a sequence, while a functional series is a function that happens to be expressible as an infinite sum within its domain.
Of course, from every functional series we can extract its coefficients and make them into a formal series . So, for lack of better notation:
3. Finite operations
Now that we have formal and functional series, we can define sums. Since these are different types of objects, we will have to run definitions in parallel and then ideally check that they respect .
For formal series:
It’s probably more intuitive to write these definitions as
and in what follows I’ll start to use more. But officially, all definitions for formal series are in terms of the coefficients alone; these presence of serves as motivation only.
On the other hand, with functional series, the above operations are even simpler:
Now, for these finite operations, everything works as you expect:
So far so good: as long as we’re doing finite operations. But once we step beyond that, things begin to go haywire.
We need to start considering limits of and , since we are trying to make progress towards infinite sums and products. Once we do this, things start to burn.
Thus, if each coefficient of eventually stabilizes as . For example, as formal series we have that , , converges to , which we write as
As for functional series, since they are functions on the same open set , we can use pointwise convergence or the stronger uniform convergence; we’ll say explicitly which one we’re doing.
To be fair, we do have the following saving grace:
Proof: Here is a proof, copied from this math.SE answer by Joey Zhou. WLOG , and let . It suffices to show that for all . Choose any . By Cauchy’s integral formula, we have
since converges uniformly to on . Hence, . Since for , the result follows.
The take-away from this section is that limits are relatively poorly behaved.
5. Infinite sums and products
Naturally, infinite sums and products are defined by taking the limit of partial sums and limits. The following example (from math.SE again) shows the nuances of this behavior.
Now the upshot is that one example of a convergent formal sum is the expression itself! This means we can use standard “radius of convergence” arguments to transfer a formal series into functional one.
Proof: Let and be the corresponding partial sums of to . Then by Cauchy-Hadamard theorem, we have uniformly on (compact subsets of) . Also, by construction.
This works less well with products: for example we have
as formal series, but we can’t “plug in ”, for example,
6. Finishing the original problem
We finally return to the original problem: we wish to show that the equality
cannot hold as formal series. We know that tacitly, this just means
as formal series.
Here is a solution obtained only by only considering coefficients, presented by Qiaochu Yuan from this MathOverflow question.
Both sides have constant coefficient , so we may invert them; thus it suffices to show we cannot have
as formal power series.
The coefficients on the LHS have asymptotic growth a polynomial times an exponential.
On the other hand, the coefficients of the RHS can be shown to have growth both strictly larger than any polynomial (by truncating the product) and strictly smaller than any exponential (by comparing to the growth rate in the case where , which gives the partition function mentioned before). So the two rates of growth can’t match.