British Mathematics Olympiad 2: One Person’s Story of Perseverance

The second round of the British Mathematics Olympiad is, without doubt, the most difficult exam aimed at school-age pupils in Britain. It is the primary tool used to select the six best young mathematicians who will go on to represent the United Kingdom in the International Mathematics Olympiad. The level of difficulty of BMO2 can be best explained by the statistics, of the thousand or so Mathematicians who qualify for the first round of the British Mathematics Olympiad (an outstanding achievement in its own right) only about 100 are invited to take the follow-on paper. In spite of the calibre of these candidates, many of whom will have scored close to full marks on BMO1, the most common single mark on BMO2 in most years is zero out of 40, and usually fewer than half of all candidates get any of the questions correct. It is very rare for anyone to solve all four problems completely.

The adjective most often used about BMO2 is ‘gruelling’ and I think that is fair. The paper takes three and a half hours, which is not dissimilar to the time taken to run a marathon, but whereas a marathon runner may be expected to ‘hit the wall’ after 20 miles, almost all BMO2 candidates are stuck and struggling from the very beginning. When Wing Lam took the paper last year, she made virtually no progress, scoring just one mark out of the available 40, a result that at first glance looks like a ‘failure’.

However, as the former Master of Trinity College Cambridge, William Whewell said, “every failure is the first step towards success” and when Wing Lam sat BMO2 again this year she performed exceptionally well. She was awarded a Certificate of Merit, which is normally reserved for the top 45% of scripts, which corresponds to somewhere around the top 50 of all candidates in the country. This is an outstanding achievement and a wonderful culmination of Wing Lam’s Olympiad career. Her solution to question one was near perfect, scoring nine marks out of ten, and the ability to write up sophisticated arguments so well will no doubt stand her in good stead for all her future Mathematical studies.

The level of achievement stands for itself, but I would like to return to the quote from Whewell, as I feel that it debunks some of the myths that surround success in general and Mathematics in particular. Many people reading about Wing Lam’s achievement will be tempted to attribute it to a ‘natural gift’, whereas in fact, like all things, mathematical success is based far more on character than ability. Nobody is born being able to do BMO2 problems, just as nobody is born an Olympic Athlete or a great artist. What is true in all fields however is that eventual success is almost always founded on effort, and on the ability to work through setbacks. Steve Jobs describes how “the thing which separates the successful from the unsuccessful is pure perseverance.”

As we congratulate Wing Lam for her achievements this year, let us make sure that we focus not just on the final result, but also the journey of how she reached this high level. At the heart of the story was the way she was able to come back stronger after the frustration of last year’s result. Instead of giving up, she redoubled her efforts and her level of preparation, and spent much of this year striving to work beyond her previous level of capability. Steve Jobs again: “Embrace every failure. Own it. Learn from it, and take full responsibility for making sure that next time things will turn out differently.”

Advice on Olympiad Competitions for Pupils by Wing Lam (UVI)

Mr David Vaccaro
Director of Innovation and Learning