Competitive Subjects?

When I chose my AS subjects about a year ago I chose based essentially on three main criteria: whether I enjoy the subjects, whether I’m any good at them (this immediately ruled out History), and whether they’d be any use in the future. I also appear to have managed to choose the most competitive subjects available: right now, almost every subject I’m doing has some competition which I’m involved in (voluntarily or not!). In fact, most of the things I’m involved in at school are highly competitive at this time of the year, including extra-curricular activities such as music and young enterprise. Here’s a run-through of the competitions I’m in:

Maths: BMO (early December), BMO2 which I failed to get into (January), Hans Woyda (throughout the year more or less)
Chemistry: Olympiad (early February)
Physics: Olympiad (late February)
Economics: Barnett Economics Essay (mid February)
Music: Strings competition (late January), Piano competition (early February), Music competition finals (late April)
Computing: BIO (mid December), BIO2 (mid March)

So December had two, January had two and February will have four. Having said that, it’s not all bad. In fact I’m not even complaining, especially considering the conversation I had with this person in Slovenia:

Person: got an English competition coming up :)
Person: a competition tomorrow…
Person: the day after tomorrow
Person: the day after that
Person: and 2 days after THAT
Person: and a day after that
Person: so I got… 4 competitions coming up
Person: English competition, then amateur radio, then physics then chem
Me: holy crap
Person: 2 competitions tomorrow, actually
Person: but due to the lack of communication between the organizers, I won’t be able to attend them both
Person: there’s computer programming and English
Person: but English is regional, computer programming is school
Me: does this level of competitioning happen on a weekly basis?
Person: no
Person: always on the start of Feb
Person: except for logics, which is sept
Person: and maths, which comes later
Person: everything else, around this time
Person: dunno why
Person: it’s idiotic

Instinctively one’s reaction is just like mine: ‘holy crap!’ (or ‘holy Xenu!’ or ‘his noodly appendages!’) but it’s not all bad.

Competitioning is certainly rather stressful. In the junior school it was really all a bit of fun: everyone knows the Maths olympiads are hugely difficult and nobody is really expected to get a vaguely decent mark. However at this stage of my education, expectations are beginning to rise from “5% is _really_ good, well done!” to “anything above 60% is OK I guess” to “you lost _one_ mark!? you muppet!”. And you really know things are getting serious when the entire Chemistry department give up an hour or two after school to train the L8 to do olympiad problems. The pressure really starts to mount, and I increasingly stop to reconsider my involvement in extra-curricular activities as I toil ever-further into the night to finish olympiad-related homework after a night’s editing of articles. To make things worse, some of these olympiads will be the last we sit before applying for university so it is absolutely imperative for some of us to do well in this round of olympiads to have much hope of getting into Cambridge. As you can imagine, my stress levels are high as a result.

On the other hand, I am still completely in favour of olympiads. Although I’m attending one of the best schools in the world, there are still far too many homeworks and lessons in which the entire class ends up mechanically hammering out answers to the same question over and over again using a formula: as Mr Toller put it, “bashing things doesn’t take any thought”. Olympiads actually rarely involve bash methods, and many of the problems require a large amount of lateral, diagonal and (often on my part) convoluted thinking which tends to result in a deeper (or more confused) understanding of how the subject works, which in my opinion is an opportunity which should never be missed. I guess that’s why I appreciate Dr Leversha’s homeworks so much!

The question still remains I guess of why the subjects I’ve chosen seem to be the most competitive. I never hear anything of a Geography or English olympiad – why must Physics and Chemistry have them? In fact, until this year a Biology olympiad was unheard of. I suspect is has something to do with my taste in subjects. I love anything in which there are a few fundamental principles/ideas from which a huge amount of theory and thought-provoking thinking (and stuff) stems. I also can’t resist a good challenge, even if I completely fail. Olympiads tend to be all about testing the depth of one’s understanding of very basic principles and tough challenges. I notice a connection here… It’s true that I’m just inexorably drawn towards anything with the words ‘off-syllabus’ attached – maybe that’s the reason? Or perhaps there really is a History competition that I’m not aware of, in which case it must be just coincidence and what I’m saying is complete nonsense, as always :P

I feel I need to conclude somehow like Farhan does with ‘Pax’ but that would just be copying. I think have a better substitute:



5 Responses to Competitive Subjects?

  1. Will says:

    I wouldn’t say that it is the case that “it is absolutely imperative for some of us to do well in this round of olympiads to have much hope of getting into Cambridge.” Out of the 640 starting NatSci last October (, at most 12 did olympiads over the summer (I know none came from maths and only one from physics). I think SPS’s ratio of 3/3 rather skews your perception. And, if my recollection is correct, none got through to BMO2, none attempted BPhO (or do you mean AS Physics Challenge?), and got 2 bronze and a silver in BChO (Funnily enough, the IChO team had the two people who got bronzes then).

    That said, I very much felt the pressure when sitting those exams, far more so than the compulsory public ones. The fact that the outcome didn’t really matter university-wise was irrelevant – it was more about living up to my and teachers’ hopes / expectations, and a gradual shift in the thought that started a few years earlier as “wouldn’t it be amazing if … , but it’ll never happen” towards “it actually could happen, I hope I don’t mess up.”

    Oh, and bad luck if you think your graph will fall off like that – stress levels ramp up several orders of magnitude for each round you progress as the “wow, getting close now” factor increases! Plus, BPhO 1 and Cambridge interview results came at pretty much the same.

    The chemistry department obviously liked their taste of fame – we were just told that we’d be doing something called the chemistry olympiad next tuesday in the data logging lab (no chair backs = very uncomfortable 3 hours later).

    There are definitely other olympiads out there – one of the physics team had previously been to the International Russian (!) Olympiad in Moscow. And a search for “International Informatics Olympiad” returns a page about the “International Olympiad of English Language” as the first result.

    So, in conclusion, what you’re saying is complete nonsense, as always! Good luck anyway!

  2. Bryant Tan says:


    Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad (!) you’re following my blog so closely

    It’s reassuring to know Cambridge won’t suddenly hate me if I accidentally fail at an olympiad – although I’m sure Zetie will :S As you said, the mounting expectations (as I mentioned) are getting rather worse over time. And I know exactly what you mean by personal expectations shifting to “it actually could happen, I hope I don’t mess up” – after realising I could _actually_ do some of the chemistry olympiad questions and that I had a chance of getting over 20 or so, I frantically attempted to finish the entire paper, hence a flurry of activity/dropping pens/papers from my desk in the last half hour… And a 2-hour olympiad in the datalogging lab? And I thought single lesson practicals were bad for my back!

    The stress level graph has number of olympiads along the x axis – I think I was referring to the hope that after nervous breakdown I’ll stop stressing over olympiads. Maybe you never crossed that critical point and your stress just increased as time went by! (you never looked very pressured in tutors – except for the water rocket challenge…)

    As for the other olympiads – of course there will be olympiads in every subject under the sun, including things like origami and touch-typing – I was talking about ones offered to us automatically at SPS. Normally you hear a panic tannoy saying ‘all boys involved in the ___ olympiad please start revising now/see Dr L as a matter of urgency/you are late come to the monty room NOW’ so I’d notice a history/english/art/geography/esperanto olympiad if there were one ;)

  3. Will says:

    I genuinely enjoy reading what you have to say, and iGoogle does all the following for me!

    I was also very keen for the Chemistry Olympiad in the L8th – I did 3 past papers over a week. It definitely paid off, as I had a much better idea of what to expect, and also what on earth nmr was. It also helped (very slightly) this year funnily enough – one of our chemistry supervision problems was the 2004 (I think) nmr question! But I couldn’t quite bring myself to write a URL as my answer…

    I quite liked to have a ‘time-out’ before exams where I just didn’t think about them, which is probably why I appeared calm. Quite nice to always start the day like that really, which is why I think it’s a bad idea to work in tutors on a regular basis.

    I would love to see what Gerry / Zetie would do if someone were to dump maths or physics for origami!!

  4. Bryant Tan says:

    I have a suspicion they would see the humour of the situation if such an incident were to happen!

    True – simply knowing what NMR is was worth about 6 marks this year (6 different questions). I ended up guessing what NMR was based on the wording of the actual olympiad question and rumours preceding the olympiad! We haven’t got our papers back, only the marks, so I’m still in suspense over whether I got those right in the end…

  5. […] the sense that those exams required me to think, and truly understand an aspect of the subject. As I said once, examples of such good exams are found in the field of competitions: olympiads, challenges, etc. […]

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