It took me a long time to realize that I had a passion for math. From elementary school to high school, I was always a top math student, but I didn’t always enjoy it. Classroom math is boring; plugging numbers into formulas just isn’t very interesting. I did competition math as well, but I didn’t always find that enjoyable either.
In Florida, there’s a high school math competition called MAO. It’s the premier math competition in Florida, so most of the kids who enjoy doing math competitively compete.
But MAO sucks. The focus is on rote memorization and drilling. Most of the time, the problems are solved by using one trick that was memorized from a formula sheet. It’s okay that there’s no understanding of the problem, just apply the formula. It’s also hugely relient on speed. There are 30 questions and just 60 minutes to do them. There’s no time to think about how to solve problems, there’s just finding answers. In this kind of competition, there’s no creativity, there’s no room for play. To be good, kids have to just sit and memorize solution methods.
I was never very good at MAO. I would occasionally place in the top 20, and if I got lucky, in the top 10. But I was just an average competitor. MAO bored me. I was even thinking about quitting the competitive math scene all together — sitting and memorizing equations didn’t suit me.
I thought that memorization was all there was to math — it was this way in the classroom and when I went outside of school to look for something more stimulating, it turned out to be the same classroom math just packaged differently.
Luckily in 2009, one of my best friends, Eli Ross, invited me to ARML. ARML is a national competition that requires much more creativity and problem solving skills than MAO. Memorizing a formula isn’t enough, there needs to be an understanding of the problem and an ability to think about the problem creatively to solve it. I was lucky to have this chance to compete at ARML; I didn’t have many accomplishments in math while most everyone else on the team were top competitors in MAO.
When I started solving the problems on test day, things just clicked. Instead of plugging and chugging, I actually had to think. Still, everyone expected me to be one of the lower scoring members based on my average performances at MAO. You can imagine their surprise when I ended up being one of the higher scorers from Florida. It surprised me as well. I knew much less “math” than my peers, yet I was able to score higher than most of them.
But what surprised me the most was how fun it was. Solving the problems was exciting! It was no longer about “knowing” the most math, but it was about how you apply what you knew. The focus changed from the results — I didn’t really care for my score — to the process of solving the problem. The fun wasn’t in doing well, it was in attempting problems and solving problems. Finding a beautiful solution to a very tricky problem is one of the best feelings in the world.
For those who don’t enjoy math, don’t give up on it. Try previous ARML tests, try previous AMC tests. Join your local math team, join this online math community. Who knows, you might just fall in love.