Wednesday 1st August 2018

Andrew Chen: IMO 2018 Romania Report

About IMO 2018

The International Mathematics Olympiad, widely regarded as the most prestigious mathematics competition worldwide for pre-university students, was held in Cluj-Napoca, Romania this year from the 3rd to the 14th of July 2018. Each participating country sent up to six contestants, selected after an intensive training process.

The contest itself consists of six problems spread over two days. On each day, the contestants are given four and a half hours to work independently on three problems. These problems are rather difficult – even the most experienced competitors may spend hours on a single problem and still not solve it. In fact, the modal score this year was zero.

Each problem is marked out of 7, so total scores out of 42. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded, as well as honourable mentions. I scored 1, 1, 0, 7, 2, 0, a total of 11, gaining an honourable mention. This year, New Zealand placed 45th of 107 participating countries, one place ahead of last year.

1st July

We depart Auckland in the evening, prepared for the three flights it will take us to get to Cluj-Napoca (it’s on the other side of the world and not too well connected by plane). We’re not too sure when we should be sleeping. The first flight is to Los Angeles and takes 10 or so hours. It is also delayed. We get further delays at the airport, waiting over an hour to clear passport control (even though we are ‘in transit’). Resultingly, we miss our next flight and must take an extra transfer flight. Many sleep-deprived hours later, having passed through Frankfurt and Munich, we finally arrive in Cluj in the early hours of the night, and go to sleep.

2nd – 7th July

We have booked some accommodation and do some training there, consisting of mock exams in the morning and problem sessions in the afternoons. I solve at least one problem in the mocks each day. We also do a bit of exploring, visiting the old city and marveling at how old the buildings are. The team gets to know each other better as well. The weather is very warm – too warm for many of us.

8th July

We have moved to the official accommodation at the Hotel Victoria. Several other teams are also staying here, including the Australians and the Dutch, who we get to know quite well over the course of the week.

Today is the opening ceremony, which the organizers have taken extremely seriously. There is over an hour of speeches from the organizers and about five different politicians, including the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis. They became quite repetitive towards the end, but the main messages still got through. Being good at math can get you places. We are incredibly fortunate to have had access to such amazing opportunities. We are part of the worlds’ intellectual elite and should use our talents and abilities to innovate and bring about a better world. In the evening I write that everything feels all too surreal – I find it hard to come to grips with the fact that after several years of doing Olympiad Mathematics, my time as a contestant at the IMO is about to come to an end.

9th July – Competition Day One

In short, I continued my terrible record with IMO day ones. The first question was geometry, and it was somewhat strange. I am usually quite good with geometry, but I struggled with this particular problem. I didn’t seem to ‘understand’ the deceptively simple diagram. My intuition, usually reliable, led me astray, and I constructed lots of lines, but none that were useful. I stared at the many diagrams I had drawn, seeing results that had to be true, but I just couldn’t prove them. After 2-3 hours of this, I was somewhat exasperated. I was disappointed in myself, stressed out, and all in all in a poor state of mind. Unsurprisingly, I did not solve the problem. The other NZ team members struggled to varying extents but all managed to solve it in the end.

The second question was algebra (my least favourite area). I didn’t spend much time on it but was still deemed to have made one mark worth of progress. The third problem was combinatorics, my favourite area. Having spent (wasted?) most of my time on problem one, I didn’t manage to make much progress.

After the exam, unbelievably simple (but unintuitive, at least in my opinion) solutions to problem one started appearing online. I feel that this reflects the nature of some of the problems at the IMO.

10th July – Competition Day Two

Problem four was combinatorics (my best area) and I had it solved and written up within 1.5 hours, which helped improve my state of mind. Even with three hours, however, I did not manage to solve problem five, which was a little disappointing. Problem six was a very difficult geometry problem beyond most contestants’ ability.

11th and 12th July – Excursions

A feature of IMOs is that contestants get to go on excursions after the exams while their marks are being coordinated. I think that this is a great way to relax, discover some places, and make friends with contestants from other countries.

On the 11th we visited the Turda Salt Mine. No longer operational, it had been transformed into some sort of amusement park deep underground, with a (small) Ferris wheel, table tennis, mini golf, bowling, a lake, and shops. It was very unique and a great chance to mix and mingle with other contestants while out of the heat.

One the 12th we went to Alba Iulia, which had a distinctive star-shaped old city of historical significance. There, we were treated to a traditional military parade and show which ended with cannon being fired!


A feature of IMOs that is becoming tradition is having a conference where people working in STEM fields, many of which mathematicians who have participated in the IMO in the past, speak about what they are currently doing, be it work or research. In doing so, we students not only gain a greater understanding of current career paths in science and technology, but also how they are likely to develop and evolve in the future. For example, Gerrit Timmer, a past IMO team leader and founder of ORTEC, a company heavily reliant on science and technology, spoke of the vast range of real life situations they worked on optimizing, from routing of delivery vehicles to plane ticket pricing. Ciprian Manolescu, now a professor of mathematics at UCLA and the only contestant to date with three perfect scores on the IMO, talked about some of his more ‘pure’ math research about knots. Victor Nistor, another professor of mathematics, spoke of the crucial role mathematics plays in physics and economics.

In this way, attending the IMO has enabled me to better appreciate the quantity, quality, and diversity of careers in STEM related fields. I feel that regardless of where my exact interests in STEM lie, there is likely to be something I’ll enjoy and can pursue a career in.


Although this was my third IMO, the experience undoubtedly helped further my personal growth and development. Interacting with exceptional like-minded students from all over the world in itself was something extraordinary, and greatly enjoyable. We bounced ideas off each other and inspired each other to ‘be more’. We bonded over mathematics, talked about future plans, and enjoyed several late nights of card games. We came to appreciate our shared humanity, that people around the world aren’t all that different – a critical message for the world today.

Be it through disappointment or success, there has been a tremendous amount of learning over my IMO journey. This year, it hit me hard that all good things come to an end. As a Year 13 student, this has made me carefully consider the role of this pivotal year in the course of my life, what I want to achieve in the next six months and in the future. My disappointing performance, far from what I expected, taught me that the unpredictable happens, and served as a timely reminder to never take anything for granted. I have learnt that I will always hold myself to the highest of standards, and struggle to accept anything that does not reflect the best of me.

In reality, flying to the opposite side of the world for the remarkable event that the IMO is, requires significant funding to be possible. As such, we are gracious for the generosity of our sponsors, especially the Royal Society of New Zealand and the New Zealand Mathematics Enrichment Trust. We hope for your ongoing support so talented New Zealand students can continue having the highly rewarding opportunity of attending the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Personally, my time as an IMO contestant has come to an end. I’d like to ‘give back’ by teaching students at training camps and submitting problems. Finally, I challenge all future contestants to not sell themselves short, appreciate the opportunities they have, and cherish every moment they spend at the IMO.