Approaching the AIME Strategically

Students should use a different strategy for the AIME than for the AMC. So students who are approaching the AIME for the first time need to question the habits they have developed after years of doing multiple choice tests. Here are some suggestions.

Checking. I’ve noticed that the accuracy level of students who take the AIME for the first time drops significantly. It seems that they are so used to multiple choice questions that they rely on multiple choices as a confirmation that they are right. So when someone solves a problem, they compare their answer to the given choices and if the answer is on the list they assume that the answer must be correct. Their pattern is broken when there are no choices. So they arrive at an answer and since there is no way to check it against choices, they just submit it. Because of this lack of confirmation, checking their answer in other ways becomes more important.

Timing. At the AMC we have 3 minutes per problem. At the AIME — 12. That means the timing strategies need to be different. Indeed, the AMC is so fast-paced that it is reasonable to save time by not reading a problem twice. If you read it, you either solve it or skip it and go on. The student who is not trying to achieve a perfect score can decide in advance not to read those final, highly-difficult problems.
For the AIME it is not expensive, in relative terms of time, to read all the problems. The student can read the problems and choose the most promising ones to start with, knowing that if there is time they can always come back to other problems.

Guessing. Guessing at the AMC is very profitable if you can exclude three choices out of the given five. Guessing for the AIME is a waste of time because the answers are integers between 000 and 999. So the probability of a random guess is one in a thousand. Actually, this is not quite right, because the problem writers are human and it is much easier to write a problem with an answer of 10 than one with an answer of 731. But the AIME designers are trying very hard to make answers that are randomly distributed. So the probability of a random guess is not one in a thousand, but it is very close. You can improve your chances by an intelligent guess. For example, you might notice that the answer must be divisible by 10. But guessing is still a waste of time. Thinking about a problem for two minutes in order to increase the probability of a correct guess to one in a 100 means that your expected gain is 1/200 points per minute. Which is usually much less than the gain for checking your answers. You can play the guessing game if you have exhausted your other options.

What saddens me is that the students who are not trained in checking use their first guess to make their life choices. But this is a subject for a separate discussion.


One Comment

  1. Ahaan Rungta:

    Thank you for posting this! This blog post is a lesson for those who don’t still don’t believe that they didn’t make the USA(J)MO in previous years.

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