Why I Wish WOOT Existed When I Was a Student

June 26, 2019

I went to a great high school and had amazing teachers. But I still didn’t have the support I needed to move past the highest levels in academic competitions, like the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO).  

I Went to a Great High School.

I grew up in Austin, Texas, where I went to a local magnet high school for math and science. The teaching faculty at our school included a few PhDs, who taught versions of courses that we usually wouldn’t see until college—subjects like analysis, organic chemistry, and immunology. I got to take AP Calculus BC and Physics C in my freshman year, followed by AP Chemistry and Biology.

And our school didn’t just do well in academic subjects: we also had a great record in contests, too. Every year, our teams swept the podium in local math and science competitions. Our math team got to travel to tournaments around Texas, where we were neck and neck with teams from other top schools.

But I was hungry for more. By my third year, I’d already taken all the math and science courses that were offered and I ended up graduating early. I wanted to further my STEM education, and my high school—even though it was very, very good—just didn’t have the resources to take me where I wanted to go.

I Took Part in Many Academic Competitions.

My teachers could tell that I wanted more, and started directing me to academic contests right away. I did well, and I enjoyed these competitions a lot. I usually ranked at the statewide math contests. And I did well enough at the AHSME—what’s now the American Mathematics Competitions (AMCs)—and the American Invitational Mathematics Examination (AIME) that I got to take the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) every year in high school and likewise for the USA Physics Olympiad Exam (USAPhO). In my last two years, I also got to take the US National Chemistry Olympiad (USNCO).  

Hundreds of students across the US take these Olympiad exams each year, in the hopes of being selected as one of the dozens of students to attend summer training camps that select the traveling teams for the International Math Olympiad (IMO), International Physics Olympiad (IPhO), and International Chemistry Olympiad (ICO). But despite my strong performance on the preliminary levels, the furthest I ever got was my sophomore year of high school, when I got to go to the US Physics Team training camp with about twenty other students.

Other than this exception, I never made it past the olympiads. I had hit a wall—and I kept hitting it, over and over. My strong math skills had helped me earn one of the highest scores in physics one year, but not the year after. On the USAMO, I toyed with problems for hours without making much progress. I especially remember getting stuck on one of the Chemistry practical exams, which I couldn’t solve because I needed to know something that I hadn’t even been aware I should have known.  

A literal wall to symbolize the figurative wall that James Fung hit preparing for math olympiads

Why Did I Hit the Wall?

There are a number of reasons, but the fundamental problem was that I really didn’t know how to prepare for the Olympiads I was competing in—and I didn’t have anyone to teach me.  

My usual process was to get copies of past exams from my math team and then work through them. That had worked for me at statewide math tournaments and all the way through the AIME. I assumed that practicing old problems would continue to help me on the USAMO. So I became really frustrated when I stopped making progress using my usual methods. (I wasn’t alone in this—AoPS Founder Richard Rusczyk also began his olympiad preparations by exhaustively working through old exams, and ran into the same issues I did.)

You could say that I was facing a classic dilemma for gifted students: I was so used to academics coming easily that I didn’t realize that the day would come when I’d need help. As it was, I couldn’t get any further because I didn’t know how to make meaningful progress, and I needed someone else to show me.

Actually, it took me years to figure out that all learners, even strong ones, need a mentor at some point. Finally, a coach on my competitive ballroom dance team (don’t laugh!) made it clear: if your practice focus is wrong, you can practice for days or weeks without making meaningful progress. On the dance team, our coaches constantly monitored our technique, identifying which movements we should correct and which corrections we needed to work into muscle memory through deliberate, targeted practice. Knowing what to look for and proposing the right corrections is what really good teachers and coaches do, whether in art, or sports, or music—or math.

Solving Olympiad-level problems means mastering specialized material far beyond a normal high school curriculum. It’s like going from PE class to the NFL Combine—or the Qualifying Trials for the Olympics. It definitely wasn’t my teachers’ fault that they didn’t know how to guide me in the specialized world of math and science Olympiads. Previously, a student from my school had made it to the US Math Olympiad Summer program and gone on to medal at the IMO—but his dad was a math professor at a research university who had spent years helping him prepare. My parents and the coach of my math team couldn’t do that.

Left on my own, the USAMO and IMO problems were so different from what I’d seen before that I didn’t know how to begin preparing.

How Would WOOT Have Helped Me?

Our students’ parents often tell us that they wish Art of Problem Solving had existed when they were in school. The same goes for many of us who work here! For my younger, floundering self, AoPS’s Worldwide Online Olympiad Training (WOOT) program would have made a big difference. It would have given me access to expert teachers. I also would have had access to materials specifically designed to teach me the topics I didn’t know yet.

In a way, that exposure to unfamiliar material is one of the biggest benefits of Olympiad programs like USAMO, USAPhO, and USNCO. They gave me a new goal to aim at after I’d taken all the available classes at my school. And in the process, they taught me that I didn’t actually know everything, and that I’d need to find the right community of students and teachers to keep learning.

That’s right—they gave me a taste of the kind of challenging, enriching problem-solving community that I wouldn’t see again until upper-division classes in college, or even graduate school. Unfortunately, that’s all I had: a taste.

At AoPS, we created the WOOT program to help students get further than that. The best high school STEM opportunities shouldn’t only be available to students whose parents are professors. By offering WOOT classes to prepare for math, chemistry, and physics Olympiads, AoPS is making sure that more students get to explore fascinating material and build superb critical-thinking skills. And it pays off—when our alums get to college, they’re already ready to tackle advanced coursework, pursue challenging research opportunities, and compete for rewarding internships.

What Does WOOT Look Like?

Each two-week unit in WOOT covers some specialized topic that students can use to solve Olympiad-level problems. We provide students with materials on the important concepts and theorems for that topic—say, for vectors for olympiad math. But we don’t just teach students about vectors by giving IMO problems to solve (the way that I mistakenly tried to study when I was in school).

No, we start out with problems that introduce mathematical results using vectors, and then ask students to explore their application through a series of progressively harder exercises. Students learn the material on a deeper level and integrate each new concept into their repertoire of problem-solving skills.

Then, during each online class meeting, our instructors lead students through example problems. We never just give the solutions—we also talk through how students could figure out how to generate that solution on their own, like they would on an exam.

Those kinds of materials and classes were exactly what I needed back in high school. WOOT students get other benefits, too, like building a sense of community with their peers as they discuss their work on the class message board. They’re making friends with other students who share their love of challenging problems, and that sense of community helps keep them going.

Each year in math WOOT, students sharpen their problem-solving skills on eight practice Olympiad exams. Four of these exams are hand graded by AoPS staff, which means students get individual feedback on their proof-writing skills. I know I would have benefitted from this kind of attention when I was younger, since my proofs weren’t really as good as I thought.

ChemWOOT and PhysWOOT students also get individual feedback on their practice exams, which build facility with the kinds of difficult problems that appear on the USNCO and USAPhO. In contrast, I did a lot of chemistry and physics preparation in high school while reviewing for my AP exams. But AP exams are designed to let students display mastery of basic knowledge—not push themselves past the basics and into new territory. My strategy had no chance of preparing me for the hard Olympiad problems I encountered.

WOOT Will Help You Go Further.

I was doing great in my regular courses in high school and I was ready for more. But although I found the challenge that I needed in math and science Olympiads, I didn’t have the right support to really make the most of them. And lots of students face the same dilemma. If you’ve been studying for an Olympiad but feel frustrated because you can’t make progress, our WOOT classes were made for you. Our curriculum developers and teachers are former Olympians who are passionate about helping strong students prepare for Olympiad-material. We’ll give you the support you need to pursue the very best.

Are our WOOT classes successful? Yes—but don’t just take it from us! Every year, the winners at competitions like USAMO and USAJMO are won by students who have taken our WOOT courses. And you can take WOOT course more than once, since we teach more than one version of each program.

I can only imagine how much better I’d have done on math and science Olympiads in high school if I’d been able to take WOOT. I wholeheartedly recommend it to students who are striving for the best.

Learn more about WOOT and enroll on the AoPS Online WOOT page.

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