As many people are busy preparing themselves for the [science/math] olympiads, I hope I can share a bit of my experience at how the teams are chosen.
The science olympiads are supposedly, difficult to do. Which is why they are called olympiads. They are also very long exams, usually 5 hours (twice somemore!). Not being able to do the olympiads doesn’t mean you’re lousy. It is often a misconception that being good at a subject means being able to do olympiad. While being able to qualify for the olympiads means you’re good, the converse doesn’t apply. The olympiad problems test more for creativity than for rigour.
Singapore teams at the olympiads have been doing pretty well these few years, and much credit has to go on to the team of trainers who train the national team every year. I’ll spend some time explaining a bit more of each olympiad, but because I’ve had more experience in the physics one, I’m going to be a little bit more biased and perhaps talk a bit more about physics.
The oldest olympiad, the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO) is also the biggest by far. 503 partipiants in the most recent one (in Germany). It’s also the hardest (widely agreed on)! Till now, Singapore has obtained only 1 gold medal since its first participation in 1988. While the syllabus says no university stuff (aka no calculus, solid geometry, and complex numbers), you need to know all those cheem (because I’m really not good at them) number theory, inequalities and etc. Singapore’s selection usually starts with the Singapore Mathematical Olympiad (SMO), which is split into junior, senior and open. The team is usually chosen from the winners of the Open team, while the winners of the junior and senior sections go through national team training and they can possibly make it to the national team (which they did this year, one sec 2 and one sec 4). It is one of the 2 olympiads that you can represent Singapore at any age, with the other being IOI.
The IMO itself consists of 2 days of 4.5 hours of papers, each having 3 problems. The first day’s first problem is usually the easiest question (which is still not easy), while the second day’s last problem is usually the hardest problem. The number of medallists are quite little, as the competition tries to cap it with a gold: silver: bronze ratio of 1:2:3, and about around half of all of the total participants will get a medal. So, it really is the most difficult olympiad.
Note: I know that many students who come to NUS High start by loving mathematics, with many winning awards at all the primary mathematical olympiads (NMOS, SPMO, etc.). It’s a good aspiration, but maybe you can start loving the other subjects too! SMO is not easy. Math is not easy, and the school curriculum doesn’t prepare for the olympiad syllabus, which is often more abstract. Although there’s school olympiad training, it’s often targeted at only the relevant level (like if you’re in junior, you train for junior). Not a lot of progress can be made. (I may be wrong given that there seems to be changes to the olympiad training syllabus. Can someone who knows inform me?)
Oh yes, you can get the past year SMO questions from the school library in books. Questions from the olympiads of other countries can be found online.
IMO 2010: Kazakhstan (Astana)
IMO 2011: Netherlands (Amsterdam)
The most non-’science’ of the lot. The IOI is often neglected when Singaporeans think about olympiads. I too don’t know much about the contest, except that Singapore does send its team of 4 every year! Selection is through the National Olympiad in Informatics (NOI), and the question tests students abilities to creatively think of solution to problems and coding them out. Thus, the code’s a tool and not the main point of the olympiad. More information can be found: http://www.comp.nus.edu.sg/~noi/index.html
IOI 2010: Canada (Waterloo)
IOI 2011: Thailand (Bangkok)
 Vanessa has an update about the new SBO format in her post![/edit]
The youngest olympiad of the lot. The International Biology Olympiad (IBO) tests students on first year university biology. Essential text here is Biology 8e by Neil A. Campbell and Jane B. Reece, which is a school textbook (yay! right?) NUS High students tend to be better at the classical biology (ecology, physiology, evolution, biodiversity) and weaker at the molecular and cellular biology (genetics, biochemistry, cell biology) aspect. For the syllabus, what I’ve heard is that you need to know the Campbell text from first to last, and have very good grasp of the feel of biology. Singapore Biology Olympiad (SBO) consists of 2 rounds, one theory, where there is 5 hours of 250 MCQ, and the second practical, only for the selected students. Awards given out are based on absolute score, and not relative ranking. Only JC1 students can participate. The school will have to choose a team of students to take part. Training for our school starts in Yr 5 semester 2, and I heard it’s always quiz time every period ):
The IBO has a similar format as SBO, so I won’t elaborate much. The selection process is that the top winners of SBO (usually only about 6 students) will be shortlisted for national team training, once per week, until May, where there’s one week camp and selection test. The final team consists of 4 main competitiors + 2 reserves. Then they go for intensive training everyday starting from the june holidays all the way till the olympiad.
SBO/IBO questions are not released to students, but they’re all application-based questions of biology.
IBO 2010: Korea (changwon)
IBO 2011: Taiwan (Taipei)
IBO 2012: Singapore
The Singapore team usually does quite well on the International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO). The IChO syllabus spans the entire NUS High syllabus (except biochemistry), and the school does provide a very strong foundation (at least in my time). So you don’t actually have to study that much more content. Creative applications of chemistry concepts is the most important actually. Some reference books that I find good are: Physical Chemistry by Peter Atkins, Organic Chemistry by Janice Gorzynski Smith, Analytical chemistry, though I don’t really have suggestions for inorganic chemistry, spectroscopy and analytical chemistry. Singapore Chemistry Olympiad (SChO) consists of 2 rounds, one theory and one practical. In the theory round, the school sends a team of 15-20 students JC1 to sit for a theory test at NUS in November that is 4 hours long. The top ~60 students are then selected to take the practical exams. For the practical round, the questions can start from titration, to analytic analysis, physical chemistry, gas measurements, inorganic and organic synthesis, and qualitative analysis. Medals are given out based on the composite scores of theory and practical, and the medal distribution is relative, meaning that a certain percentage will get gold, silver, bronze, or Honorable Mention.
The IChO is similar, except that they are 5 hours long each with more difficult problems, with 9 theory questions, and 2-3 experiment tasks. National team training will commence in the following February with 20 odd students. Only Singaporeans can take part in this training (sorry, no PRs!). It’s conducted every wednesday afternoon with various JC teachers and university lecturers coming in to crash-course the team on some higher level concepts. Selection test is in April, where the theory test is always a killer—the last I heard was 3 hours to finish 9 difficult problems. The practical test is usually taken from a NUS year 1 chemistry module, so ahem, it may be good if you can take them. After the team is chosen, with 4 main + 2 reserve, the team trains sporadically, with one week of camp. And off they go for IChO!
I really think that the IChO selection is the most competitive one. Everyone is very good to start with.
IChO 2010: Japan (Tokyo)
IChO 2011: Turkey (Ankara)
IChO 2012: USA (Washington DC)
IChO 2013: Singapore (tentative)
The International Physics Olympiad (IPhO) is probably the one the students know the most about. It perhaps is also the best olympiad in the school (considering medal count). The syllabus is supposedly high school physics, but it requires some applications of calculus (and sometimes advanced math and physics concepts). All the ‘necessary’ concepts can be found in the textbook the physics honors students use, University Physics 12e by Young and Freedman. However, there’re many difficult tricks to learn just as in other olympiads. Singapore Physics Olympiad (SPhO) is held in November for JC1 students, and around 15-20 students per school can participate. They will first take the theory test of 4 hours. The top 40+ will then make it to the practical round, which will consist of a simple experiment of around 2 hours. Medals are decided by relative scores.
From there, the national training team is formed with slightly less than 20 students (PRs can join for this olympiad), and training is held every wednesday afternoon. You can see that this clashes with the chemistry training sessions, as MOE put it on purpose so as to force you to choose one olympiad, since attendance is a potential selection factor if selection test scores are the same. JC trainers will come in to train, and there’s training every day during the march holidays. Training will usually go like 2 x mechanics, 2 x e&m, 2 x waves and oscillation, 2 x thermodynamics, 2 x optics, 1 x special relativity, n x random topics. I don’t think the training is very useful for NUS High students because the training is meant to let some students from other schools catch-up (those who have not already covered some of the topics). Should note that all those who have made it into the national team is good, not just NUS High students. End march there will be a selection test, of only theory (I heard it may be changed to theory + prac), and 8 will be chosen to take part in the Asian Physics Olympiad (APhO), either held end April or early May. The APhO consists of a 5 hour theory test, and a 5 hour practical test. Because of its difficulty, Singapore doesn’t do too well in this. APhO also serves as a training ground to sieve out the top 5 who will represent Singapore for the IPhO.
The national team will train from the start of their June holidays all the way till the olympiad starts. And then they fly! Medals for the IPhO are I think easier to get than the other olympiads as they don’t go by a relative score, but by an absolute score which you can hit after moderation.
IPhO 2010: Croatia (Zagrab)
IPhO 2011: Belgium
IPhO 2012: Estonia
After boring you so long about how the olympiad teams are chosen, let me talk about the experience! The olympiads are really very fun because 1) you get a fully paid holiday 2) meet people all over the world 3) do the most unique paper in the world. After sitting for 2 days of exams, you get to visit all the famous sites of a country and play, while your classmates slog it out in class (oops). I think the meeting people all over the world part is the most exciting. For me, when I went to Mexico this year for the IPhO, it was an eye-opener, for it is the first time I’ve taken a flight of more than 20 hours, seen Aurora Borealis (on the plane back above Greenland), and travelled to Mexico, especially during the H1N1 period. Once you reach there, the hospitality of the host country is very good, and you can expect to be eating a lot everyday, and playing a lot too. There’s the opening and closing ceremonies where I really saw the host country’s culture, and its also when I wore the red blazer for the first time. Despite the stress, have fun!
When I travelled there, the team travelled with 2 leaders and 3 observers (inclu. of one MOE official). They are there to vet and translate the papers into Singlish, and then help you moderate your marks up. And they are very nice people, because they really fight for your marks and your medal colours.
Inevitably, the olympiads can only choose that many people. Statistically, anybody’s chance is low. But I’ve told many people that you are not a statistic, you are an event, so it’s either you get in (100%) or you don’t (0%), so just go chase that dream!
PS. Fiona and Gregory both took part in the IChO, so they can share their experiences too!