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Infuriating Math Competitions

2 min read

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For a while, I've been taking the AMC 12 every year sometime in February. This year, the contest was moved 4 months ahead to November, and I panicked.

But before we talk about that, what is the American Mathematics Competition? "The AMC 10 and AMC 12 are both 25-question, 75-minute, multiple-choice examinations in high school mathematics designed to promote the development and enhancement of problem-solving skills." Each AMC tests you on various math topics like algebra, number theory, geometry, counting and probability, complex numbers (only AMC 12), and more. If you qualify as the top 5% or top 2.5% for the AMC 12 or 10, respectively, you can take the American Invitational Mathematics Examination (AIME). Then, if you do well on that and the AMC 10/12, you qualify to take the USAJMO or USAMO.

"Last year," I took the AMC 12A and 12B and missed the cutoff for the 12A by 1.5 points (there are a total of 150 possible points). When I realized why I missed the cutoff, I just about pulled out my hair. I missed one of the easiest questions on the 12A because I simply misread the problem. I had done every step correctly but just had the wrong initial values. It was a tough idea to accept: I knew all the content needed to qualify, but I didn't because I wasn't careful enough.

"It's so unfair!" I thought. Perhaps it was. I had spent a good portion of my time studying for this test—these two annual chances. I took classes, read textbooks, did practice problems, yet it culminated in me missing the qualification by 1.5 points. Consequently, I started thinking: Did I slack off too much? Was my study plan bad? Why did I get food with friends that one time instead of studying?

Amid my panic-stricken questions, I suddenly remembered what I gained: an appreciation for math. It wasn't necessarily that I didn't like math before, but I liked math more. The better I got at it, the more it became enjoyable. Even in classes tangentially related to the AMC, I still found myself solving problems faster than my peers or thinking in a slightly different way. That in and of itself was a reward, albeit not one that I was expecting when I decided to go for an AIME qualification.

So, when your debate mentor (it's crazy how advice from one discipline translates to an entirely different one) from the summer before tells you, "Process over product," they're really not lying. It applies to everything. You can't just seek the end; you have to find joy in the means to the end.

I'll end the suspense now—I qualified with the 2021 Fall AMC 12A. I got a 94.5, and the cutoff was a 91.5. I was ecstatic when I received the email from the contest manager, but the bliss went away. Truly, all I am left with is the process of knowing how to learn and enjoy it.

By the way, I still sillied a problem on this test. I got the 12th problem wrong, which was similar to problems I've done before. I chose the answer choice that was one off the correct answer because I mentally did the math instead of writing it down on paper. So, there's always room for improvement. Moreover, if I had worked faster, I could've done problems 1 through 17, which would've given me a score of 114.

Oh, and I still missed the cutoff on the 12B by 1.5 points this year. I guess it's just a reminder for me to continue working and come back next year with the highest score I've ever gotten.

Regardless, the point is: enjoy the process because you only achieve the end goal once—the process is continuous.

Michel Liao

Michel Liao

Boise, Idaho, United States
Hello! I'm a sophomore studying computer science at Princeton. I like reading, rock climbing, and running.