1000/1000! I beamed at my camera as my student proudly showed me his perfect score in the most recent USA Computing Olympiad (USACO) contest. I thought back to when I saw my own perfect score years ago, and how my love for computer science has only grown deeper since. My student had put in hours of hard work in our sessions throughout the year, dedicating himself to honing his algorithm analysis, design, and coding skills–and they finally paid off. This is a feeling that I loved, and one that I hope to give countless more students through Breakout Mentors.
My Experience Competing in USACO Gold
I first began competing in USACO after searching for exciting problems to solve. I had just taught myself Java and was eager to find nails for my shiny new programming hammer. At the time, there were no comprehensive competitive programming resources and thus I pieced together how to solve USACO problems piece by piece. After weeks of trial and error, I managed to pass USACO Bronze with a perfect score.
Silver certainly was a step up in difficulty; I could no longer brute force problems but had to optimize my solutions to run within a problem’s constraints. Gold required even more dedication and perseverance; solving the problems required a deep understanding of core algorithms in dynamic programming and graph theory and the creativity to identify modifications of these algorithms quickly. I spent countless hours trying to solve problems at each of these levels, sometimes only to concede defeat and try to decipher the organization’s highly technical solutions.
While this process certainly pushed me to quickly acquire myriad programming skills ranging from algorithm design to implementation tricks, I was certain that I was not alone in this process. I regularly discussed practice problems with my classmates who also competed in USACO, and always walked away with new insights or perspectives on those problems. As such, I knew that I wanted to continue to be involved with the competition after entering college.
My Experience Beyond USACO
Even after retiring from USACO, my experience as a contestant has carried me far in research, industry, and beyond. The contest provides an excellent opportunity for high schoolers to explore their interest in computer science. Nearly all of the skills required to succeed in this competition, such as debugging, runtime analysis, language-specific knowledge, and more, are fundamentals for pursuing higher-level studies in CS. I regularly use these skills as I continue to pursue my degree and foresee them being useful throughout my career. At Breakout Mentors, we seek to be a guide for all who strive to develop these skills. Our mentors are seasoned veterans of the contest and are well-suited to deliver personalized education for anyone interested in the contest and in any programming experience.
This foundation prepared me to excel in all my computer science pursuits. This past summer, I was a CURIS Scholar with the Stanford Theory Group, where I leveraged computational models to prove conjectures regarding the optimality of election algorithm — sounds complicated right? The analysis skills I gained from USACO, however, set me up perfectly for this project. I systematically broke down the problems into discrete cases, which I solved individually and then combined into my final solution — a paradigm every contestant is all too familiar with. My algorithmic design background in the Gold division allowed me to excel in technical interviews as well, which are a ubiquitous part of nearly every software engineering (SWE) application nowadays.
Beyond simply building fundamental skills, USACO contestants often stand out in college applications. USACO is a national competition that is highly regarded by colleges and universities. Participating in USACO and performing well can help students stand out in college applications and put them ahead with regard to programming prowess and demonstrated interest in the field.
Competing in USACO also sets students up to achieve lucrative career opportunities. Competitive programming opens the doors to software engineering roles at prestigious firms such as Apple, Amazon, Google, and more; our own mentors have received offers from these companies and more. Recruiters often use programming competitions as a concrete benchmark for identifying talented individuals. Moreover, participating in USACO helps students build strong skills that can often translate into a stronger portfolio of programming projects and achievements. All in all, these factors combined make nearly every contestant a stronger applicant for the roles of their dreams.
Upcoming Breakout Mentors USACO Initiatives
As the Director of the USACO Division at Breakout Mentors, my mission is to make the contest and its veritable treasure trove of experience readily available to all who are interested, regardless of previous background. To this end, my experience progressing through USACO has been invaluable. When constructing curricula and initiatives, I am able to draw upon my background to create a better student learning experience and help those who are just starting out effectively navigate the challenges of the competition. These design choices range from including material for tackling commonly covered topics in each division to tips for managing their time during the competition itself. These areas are all important skills that I had to acquire on my own, but ones that I hope to pay forward to the next generation of budding computer scientists.
Breakout Mentors will be rolling out a couple of initiatives for the upcoming USACO season. We will continue to offer our top notch 1-on-1 mentoring, but will also offer a group lesson format for the first time. The curriculum will be designed to cover all the essential topics required for USACO, and sessions will include weekly classes, homework assignments, and practice problems to help students build their skills gradually. Sign up here to receive notification when we launch.
We also will help all our students to train outside of the sessions through mock contests and contest review sessions. Mock contests will help students get accustomed to the format of the competition and learn how to manage their time effectively. Then after real USACO contests, a great way to learn is to fully understand what you got wrong. We host review sessions for our students and occasionally open them to the public.
These initiatives help Breakout Mentors students prepare for and excel in the USACO competition. By providing a comprehensive group lesson curriculum, mock contests, and problem review workshops, we will help students develop the skills and confidence they need to succeed in USACO and beyond.
I’m also excited to explore how we can encourage younger students to try competitive programming, even if they aren’t yet ready for USACO Bronze. We don’t have anything to announce here yet, but we’ll make an announcement to this email list in the coming months.
I offer a free USACO consultation phone call if you are interested in finding out more about the contest, if it is the right fit for your child, or even if you are just looking for tips. Please schedule a time here if you are interested.