Wednesday 1st August 2018

Keiran Lewellen: IMO 2018 Romania Report


The International Mathematical Olympiad was the first science Olympiad to be founded and remains the largest with 116 countries participating this year. The IMO focuses on mathematical problem solving rather than content, having only six extremely difficult problems to solve during the nine hour exam. This is my third time attending the IMO, having done respectably in both the 2017 IMO held in Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 IMO held in Hong Kong.

Living in Romania:

Unlike the previous two times that I attended the IMO, the NZIMO team completed the pre-event training on-site in Romania rather than in Auckland. This was probably my favourite part of the IMO, giving me the ability to explore the city of Cluj without the stress of the actual exam occurring immediately after flying in. We stayed for the first week in an apartment located near the cultural centre of the town. This allowed us to easily explore a lot of the scenic parts of Cluj with nothing more than an easy ten-minute walk. I loved the intricate late-18th century style with old Churches and cobblestone streets. We ate at local restaurants that had beautifully displayed and delicious food. We had a lot of fun exploring the world of flavoured lemonade which, until I arrived in Romania, I did not know existed. For the first week, we generally started the day off with a 4.5 hour mock IMO, followed by lunch in the apartment and a short excursion into the city to give Peter Huxford time to mark our solutions. We then worked on some joint problem sets between the NZ and Dutch teams before leaving for a nice dinner in city.

On Saturday of the second week, we transferred to the IMO hotel where we spent the remaining time while in Cluj. Because the hotels in this part of Cluj were smaller, the 600 IMO contestants and associated leaders were housed in several different hotels. The NZ team was housed with a number of European teams, and the Canadian, Australian, and Singaporean teams. Although we did not get an opportunity to meet with the other teams other than the opening and closing ceremonies, all of the teams in our hotel spoke English well which made it easy to socialise. After the IMO, we went on two formal excursions to a historic village and to a salt mine. The salt mine was unexpectedly massive with caverns whose ceiling reached 50m above the mine floor. It is long since inactive and now houses a museum, a Ferris wheel, and boat rentals on a small subterranean lake.

The Competition:

We took four 4.5 hour mock IMOs in the days leading up to the actual event. Each of these mock IMOs consisted of problems from the 2017 IMO shortlist – problems that could have appeared in the IMO in Rio. As part of our joint training, these mock IMOs were also given to the Dutch team. Even though I was jet lagged and sick with a cold, I managed to score very highly – solving 7 problems out of the 12 earning me a 9, 15, 11, and 14 points for each day. These scores increased my confidence going into the exam and demonstrated to me that my problem solving ability had increased significantly from last year and I could almost always solve the first two problems on any single day.

The IMO itself was held in a large enclosed stadium, a 15 minute bus ride from our hotel. Due to security reasons, all the teams arrived about an hour before the exam which gave us the opportunity to socialise with teams not housed in our hotel. Despite my excellent scores on the mocks, in the IMO proper, the testing environment got to me and my problem solving ability decided to take a short holiday. Although I only completely solved one problem, I had the right approach for three additional ones, earning me 14 points in total and an Honourable Mention.


Through the Maths Olympiad Programme, I have travelled the world and met 100s of fascinating like-minded individuals. Because of my interest in maths and science, this network of friends and colleagues will likely be essential to my career given the collaborative nature of modern day science. The IMO experience has further convinced me that I want to pursue a career in theoretical physics which will use my deep mathematical knowledge and problem solving skill.

Attending the IMO in previous years convinced me to apply to elite American universities so that I could be surrounded by more students like the ones I met at the IMO. In August this year, I will be attending MIT in Boston, and the significant achievement of competing internationally in mathematics, no doubt helped me to secure a position in this prestigious university.

I would like to thank all of our sponsors for this amazing trip, in particular the Royal Society of New Zealand and the New Zealand Mathematics Enrichment Trust. Without your generous support, attending this event would have been impossible. The IMO and the Mathematical Olympiad program run by the NZMOC have had a huge impact on my life, and for that I am deeply appreciative.