By Megan Kawasaki
Two sophomores competed in the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad and the United States of America Junior Mathematical Olympiad, the first students to participate in either in six years.
Larry Zhang ’14 qualified for the USAMO, after receiving passing scores on two initial rounds of testing, the AMC 12 and the AIME. Kevin Zhang ’14 qualified for the USAJMO, after scoring highly on the AMC 10B and the AIME. Both took the AMC 12 and AMC 10B to see if they could go on to compete in either test.
Each has participated in the USAJMO before, first when Larry was an eighth grader and later when Kevin was a ninth grader. This is the first time, however, that either participated in the USAMO, a two-day competition in which participants write proofs for six questions for four and a half hours each day. USAJMO was a contest developed by the American Math Competitions Committee two years ago, suited for students in 10th grade and below. It differs from the USAMO and is less difficult in that it “bridges the computational solution process of the AIME and the proof orientation of the USAMO,” according to the American Math Competitions website.
The last Harvard-Westlake student to qualify was David Phillipson ’06 in the 2005-2006 school year.
“It is a rare occurrence for sure,” upper school math teacher Kevin Weis, who also sponsors the Math Club, said. “I’m excited for it. It’s great for [the Zhangs]. It’s what they really love to do.”
The twins have competed in numerous mathematical competitions since the sixth grade. Both joined the Mathcounts club at their previous school, Suzanne Middle School, through which they learned about the American Math Competitions and were inspired to pursue taking more of such competitions.
“I took the regional round of Mathcounts and I did really well in that one,” Larry said. “That achievement kind of set the ball rolling because I saw that I was good at math, and once my Mathcounts teacher referred me to Avid Academy, I just continued on that path.”
Both practice intensively for tests such as the AMC and AIME each year, with the exception of two or three month off periods. They meet with a tutor and take classes from Avid Academy for Gifted Youth, which provides after school programs in math and physics, to improve their problem-solving and proof-writing skills. All of this work is to prepare them for the five or six official competitions they participate in annually.
“It’s fun to compete against other people and to know that once you’ve gone that far, you’ve actually accomplished so much,” said Kevin. “It’s also interesting and fun for me to take the tests.”
They each hope to achieve high enough scores on the USAMO and USAJMO to qualify for the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program, which trains students in areas of math such as graph theory and advanced geometry and which could earn them on a spot on the U.S. team for the International Mathematical Olympiad.
“It’s probably going to be tough,” Larry said. “The chances of me getting in are pretty low, but then again, you do have to try hard. If you don’t aim high, you can’t achieve a high goal.
Only six of the best students are chosen for the team from MOSP, which sets a high bar for them. There is not only stiff competition from other students but actually between one another. To Kevin, he and Larry are rivals.
“Every year since we started doing these competitions, we’ve actually alternated,” he said. “One of us has done better than the other one year. The next, it’s the other. We still study together, take the same classes, do the same things, but now it’s about us both making it to the IMO.”
After a six-year dry spell of Harvard-Westlake qualifiers for the USAMO, Weis says he has high hopes for the two “precocious sophomores.”
“I think they’ll do well,” he said. “If anybody has a shot of doing well, it’s them, without question.”