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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

MIT Olympians, Part 2 by Matt McGann '00

This time, I am talking about science olympiads.

Trivia: Which MIT Professor was the top scorer for the first US International Math Olympiad team in 1974, and what freshman class does this professor teach?
[answer at the end of the entry]

I remember sitting in my MIT freshman calculus class back more than a decade ago (wow, I feel old) next to a friend of mine from Singapore. At the time, he was the only person I had ever met from Singapore. He was very nice and extremely helpful in our math problem set group.

Later, I learned that he was the top scorer for Singapore at one of the international science olympiads. I had never heard of an international science olympiad. My high school wasn’t really big in that sort of stuff.

Rather than be intimidated, I took this as a really cool thing. Being at MIT meant that I was going to school with the best and brightest from around the world. I didn’t care that I wasn’t the smartest person in the class — it was great to have friends who were super-brilliant, future Nobel Laureate-types.

Sometimes incoming MIT students or prospective MIT students ask questions implying that if they’re not one of these international award winners, that they shouldn’t be at MIT. I say, rubbish. Take the attitude I had — that it’s awesome to go to school with über-geniuses, even if (especially if) you’re not one. Every class at MIT does have a share of über-geniuses (some, but by no means most, of whom have done these olympiads), but most of MIT is filled with people who are just plain-old really smart, motivated, creative.

This year’s class, the Class of 2012, will formally begin their Orientation on Sunday. Among them will be a number of students who represented the United States in the international olympiads.

There are 5 major math and science international olympiads, in math, chemistry, physics, informatics, and biology. In each country there’s a selection process to try to find the best student representatives. (For example, the US begins selecting their International Math Olympiad teams with the AMC and AIME exams, the former of which is taken annually by more than 300,000 students each year.) Once the national teams are selected, they gather at a site for the international olympiad, and medals are awarded to the top participants.

This year, the US fielded teams in each of the five olympiads, with a total of 23 students representing the nation (the team sizes differ between competitions from 4 to 6). Of the 23 participants, 13 were seniors/rising college freshmen. And of those 13 seniors, 10 are in the MIT Class of 2012. They are:

  • Andrew Liu ’12, Chemistry: Bronze
  • Colin Sandon ’12, Math: Gold
  • David Benjamin ’12, Informatics: Gold
  • Jacob Steinhardt ’12, Informatics: Silver
  • Krishanu Sankar ’12, Math: Gold
  • Paul Christiano ’12, Math: Silver
  • Rui Hu ’12, Physics: Silver
  • Shaunak Kishore ’12, Math: Gold
  • Tucker Chan ’12, Physics: Gold
  • Yuxin Xie ’12, Chemistry: Bronze

(n.b. There were no seniors on the US International Biology Olympiad team this year, but Gold medalist Mark Shteyn ’11 from last year’s US team is at MIT)

Of course, these weren’t the only MIT freshmen at the olympiads, as a number of our international students also represented their home countries (as my Singaporean friend had).

Congratulations to all the participants!

Trivia answer: MIT Professor Eric Lander, then a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, scored 34 out of a possible 40 points to win a silver medal at the 1974 International Math Olympiad, the first in which the US participated. After participating in the IMO, Lander went on to Bachelors and Doctoral degrees in math, but then taught economics at Harvard Business School. Finally, after a long academic journey, Lander ended up in biology/genetics, was the first author on the publication of the Human Genome Project, and teaches introductory biology (7.012) at MIT each year. This fall, the class will be every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10am.

35 responses to “MIT Olympians, Part 2”

  1. Ivan says:

    @ Matt
    Great post, this is how MIT is mainly seen in other countries (I’m living in Brazil now).

    2 questions:
    1. You said that you don’t need to be an Olympian to get into MIT, does that go just to American students or to international students as well?

    2. My school didn’t have any of that stuff either (math or science competitions) but I did compete on the 8th grade team, I just didn’t in high because I didn’t have the possibility.
    Would something like this be relevant enough to use on my application or only high school information is allowed?

    Thanks in advance

  2. Sh1fty says:

    I was on the tech committee at the IOI last year, here in Zagreb. I talked to a lot of contestants and I have to say, working at IOI seemed like a lot more fun than being a contestant smile 18 of us had to set up a network of over 400 computers in 2 different locations, and we had to do it all in 2 and a half weeks :D Unfortunately, I didn’t stay in touch with many of the contestants, but I do occasionally talk to a girl who won a silver medal last year and is now a freshman at MIT smile
    If you have a chance to work at one of these events, take it. I promise you’ll learn a lot and have a lot of fun wink

  3. Ivan says:


    How do you get involved with these events?
    Do you need to be a college graduate?

    thanks in advance

  4. Anonymous says:

    are there any international students who were in the olympiads that are now part of class of 2012?

  5. Ivan says:

    What do you need to do get involved with IOI?
    How do you tell them that you are interested in helping them?

    thanks in advance

  6. Anonymous says:

    Jacob Steinhardt got silver at IOI!

  7. Ahana says:

    Wow… I would certainly want to be in the company of such accomplished young people, it is so motivating. Also, it weird that this entry comes as I am en route to Math Camp!

  8. etc says:

    Aaaah I’ve been wanting to try for physics so long but my school seems determined to not let me take it.
    Oh well.

    Out of pure curiosity, have you ever rejected an International Olympiad-er?

  9. Omar says:

    The USACO and USNCO competitions rock my world haha. I hope to have Dr. Lander as my professor. That’ll be really cool

  10. Piper says:

    I took Lander’s class and absolutely loved it! I was very surprised to find out that he was a math major =D.

  11. Efolse '11 says:

    Nobel Prize winner H. Robert Horvitz (another Course 7 professor and expert of apoptosis) was also an undergraduate math major – at MIT, no less. When he entered medical school, he was quoted as “not knowing what a ribosome was.” smile

  12. @Ivan’s questions from the second post
    (i’m not Matt, but i can help too!)

    1. You said that you don’t need to be an Olympian to get into MIT, does that go just to American students or to international students as well?
    Being an Olympian is definitely not required to get in (but it helps), check out this helpful post for international students by Matt:

    2. My school didn’t have any of that stuff either (math or science competitions) but I did compete on the 8th grade team, I just didn’t in high because I didn’t have the possibility.
    Would something like this be relevant enough to use on my application or only high school information is allowed?

    I don’t think something from 8th grade like that is too relevant in the application. But, it doesn’t mean things you’ve done before highschool aren’t considered at all. For example, stuff you’ve done your whole life can show passion smile, which is a word commonly emphasized by admissions officers.

    i dont work for the admissions office in any way, so for anyone who knows better, i welcome correction.

  13. i am so sorry for the above
    if anyone could edit my failed HTML tag, i would be very grateful

  14. han says:

    I believe there is actually a IMO club at MIT lol.
    In class of ’12 there is at least 10 international students who went IMO more than twice. I met some of them at Madrid this year grin

  15. Ivan says:

    @ Cabbage,
    Thanks for you help with those questions, I thought those were the answers to them but I wanted to make sure.

  16. JU says:

    Wait a minute, am I judging the genders of those names wrong, or are there no girls on that list??

  17. Sh1fty says:

    I worked at the IOI between my junior and senior year in high school, but I was in a tech school. IOI is usually organized by the same people who organize the national informatics competition.

  18. Bryan M says:

    Does your brother and or mom work at ft monmouth NJ?

  19. Great post, and many congratulations to all of these olympiad winners!

    I’d like to point out that recently, the US has started competing in the International Linguistics Olympiad (ILO). This year the US teams did very well, getting several individual and team awards. The NSF has a nice summary of the results.

    The qualifying test for the ILO in the US is the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO). Anyone interested can find more information and problem examples on the NACLO website.

  20. - says:

    Yeah, Rebecca, there’s an earth science one too(IESO) :D
    but it doesn’t happen until September and because it’s so new it’s not yet as difficult as the others… hopefully next year it’ll get up there! Though there were four pretty tough essays required for the training team…
    Global Challenge runs the US competition.
    I wonder why MIT doesn’t mention it? What’ll make it grow and improve is the participation of skilled students… and don’t we all want to promote interest in earth science? After all, it is most important in understanding environmental issues…

  21. Anonymous says:

    The full list is here – – several of which the US does not yet participate in.

  22. Reuben says:

    You missed at least one person: David Benjamin got a gold at IOI. (He wasn’t a senior, though he is a rising freshman.) Congratulations to everybody!

  23. David says:

    Actually, I think I am counted as a senior as far as USACO is concerned; Rob told me to change my status to that.

  24. Tristam says:

    There may be quite a few people who are not geniuses but I don’t think that the world’s premier institute for science would admit those kind of international students no matter what they say.

  25. Delong says:

    If an international student in the US is a USAMO winner, but he got around 2000 on the SAT. How’s his chance compare to non-Olympiad people who got 2400 on the SAT.

  26. JU says:

    @ Delong: You really can’t say based on just that. It depends on what else each student has.
    But, okay, for speculation’s sake, say both those students have the same extracurriculars, essays, recs, etc; same app, but one has the 2400 and the other has the math olympiad achievement.
    What MIT wants to see in your academic record, test scores, and achievements, I think, is 1) something that shows you’re smart enough (not at all necessarily a genius, but capable of thriving on the rigor of MIT) and 2) That you’re capable of sustaining it and doing the work; i.e. that you’re not just some really smart kid who slacks off and doesn’t do his homework (as a combination of great test scores but poor grades and reccomendations might suggest).

    The math olympiad and high SAT, if supported by other strengths in academic record, both indicate the first criterion… and the math olympiad is undoubtedly more difficult than the SAT.
    If your TOEFL is satisfactory and your grades are outstanding enough, I don’t suspect the low SAT would hurt much at all. You’d get every benefit of the doubt — maybe you got a headache during the test, for all they know. (I have a few health issues that have lowered my school grades a lot by acting up during tests, and took a toll on my PSAT, too… and I’m hoping that colleges take this possibility into account when they look at my app, especially when recs and other scores indicate that I’m capable of better). I think MIT would ignore the score and turn to other parts of the application in that case.
    However, if the poor SAT score is backed up by a too-low TOEFL, and notably weaker in reading and writing than in math, it will likely hurt the applicant.

    As for the guy with the 2400 and no math olympiad? That certainly doesn’t hurt him. Maybe he doesn’t even know math olympiad exists. Again, MIT would look at other parts of the application. The 2400 isn’t nearly enough to get him in, and the lack of olympiad medals isn’t nearly enough to keep him out.

    Neither standardized test scores nor olympiads are the be-all, end-all of any of this.

    I hope that helped. (Others, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong — I’m no admissions officer).
    Good luck!

  27. Im 2nd class Indian student struggling with my school life. I thought i should share it with mit comm as here many would understand me.

    The concept of Olompiad is good. But what about those who are maddly counting stars in night sky. Those who really end up with something new and strange which is beyond human perception. Is their any olompiad for them?

    Ok I find myself little bit good in phy and maths. But I am really not interested going to a center giving exam. Its very much hectic. One thing I would like to do is the original maths and phy. Like doing any thing whatever fasinates me and my mind.

    I find myself coldblooded, I dont care of what world says? see i dont even know the accurate spelling of olompiad as i have never given any one. Im passionate but belongs to the other side of the world.

    Do you think a personality like me deserves to be at MIT or I really need some PSYCHICTRIC HELP??

    In hope that I would get some REPLY/

    (please dont assume that I m discouraging int olompiads)

  28. Hi Matt,
    I am a great fan of Jeopardy. I heard one of the MIT sophmores is appearing on the show in Oct. Do you have any details

  29. JU says:

    @ Vikram: Many of us do the olympiads just because of that, actually. Taking an olympiad test is not like taking the SAT — you do it because the problems are a lot of fun and challenge you to think in new ways. You do it because you love physics and math, especially when the problems are as awesome as those on the IPhO exams. smile
    There are, of course, kids who do these olympiads just to get in to college. But I like to pretend that’s not true. Which, at least for the majority, I think, it isn’t.

    Unfortunately deserving to be at MIT isn’t enough to get in (though I’m sure everyone who does deserves to be there!). But worrying about admissions shouldn’t get you down. Where you go to school won’t affect who you are as a scientist or what you accomplish as drastically as you may think. Good luck!

  30. Anonymous says:

    about MIT: it’s inspiring what you people do. I attend medical school to learn pathology, you give a lecture called: How nasty diseases get through our immune system. Cool. But I wonder, given resource/faculty ratio, is MIT doing her best???(notice I called MIT a her,intellectually, it’s a piece of art with all the uber geniuses you mention)

  31. JU says:

    Hi Vikram,
    I wouldn’t give up hope. You may still find a place that you’ll be happy in. There are a lot of other schools that will provide aid to foreign applicants here in the states, and that don’t just look at your scores. They care about your interests and personality too.
    A lot of schools have teachers who don’t know how to teach or score – I’ve had some of them too. But I’ve also had some great teachers, and my high school isn’t one of the top in the country. I think that goes for professors, too — there are still some good ones at the “worse” schools.
    And of course, you *can* always learn on your own, no matter where you are. Which it sounds like you are capable of and like to do. Just do what you love, and if you love it enough there will always be a way.
    You may enjoy reading the biography of Leon Foucault – without any training as a physicist, without even really going to college, he just followed his interests and ended up proving to humanity that the world revolves around its axis. Even then, the French Academy of Sciences refused to accept him. He finally got in shortly before he died.
    If you’re born to be a psychologist, and your interest in it is strong enough, you’ll be a psychologist, wherever you go. Keep faith in that. Your school can only affect who you are if you let it.
    Good luck, and follow your heart :]

  32. Dear Matt,
    In two weeks, I’m launching a website,, which focuses on Boston and its goings-on told through the eyes of its young. Most of my writers are still in college, but I haven’t found one from MIT, and I was wondering if you knew of anyone who might be interested. The position would be pretty easy, and fun -4 short posts a week on upcoming events, restaurant/boutique/cd/movie/club etc…reviews, interviews with interesting Bostonians or fellow classmates, and I can offer college credit. Can you think of someone who might want to do this?

  33. @ JU: I understood what you said. Here in India date of reginal olym. is already outdated. Plus my school has never told me of international olym. So i m sure that in this acadamic session I wont be able to give any exams. Again, I m struggling for school exams. (believe me the teachers of my school even dont know what they are teaching ) As a result i never enjoy them. I m sure that I wont be able to have any good acadamic results and no body would love to write a recomendation letter to me.My interest in Art and my intuitive ideas will also not help me.

    My poor acadamic achievement will prevent me to enter MIT. Not only mit but any good university. Middle ranked university entirely depends on acadamic qualification. So i m left with poor unv. where the teachers would bully me and after that they will say- we are saying for your own benefit only. My life will again be under same condition as i have now. If I study in this condition I m sure I ll not do better any more. 2 things possibly can happen with – I could be the best psychologer or I would end up to a (mental disorder)psychologer. But what about my real interest. This is really worrying me. Getting not selected in MIT is ofcourse not the reason of my worry. (I mention above that I m coldblooded)

    T F R
    H O E
    A R P
    N L
    K Y
    S .

    I do expect another reply/

  34. wesh m says:

    Hi Matt
    Nice post.

    I am an international student.I once participated in a state-level science orientation camp and got a scholarship($25!) for it.Can I send an copy of the certificate for you to consider.

    And (I think) I have stumbled upon some inventions(I did them myself).Can I send some 3D models(Google sketch up format)in cds ?