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The Complete Guide to the Singapore Mathematical Olympiad (SMO)

It’s widely known that Singapore boasts one of the most mathematically proficient populations in the world. Its curriculum is the subject of envy in countries all over the world, be they developed, or developing. Stemming from Singapore’s glowing mathematical flair, the Singapore Mathematical Olympiad was founded as a yearly competition to test the mathematical aptitude of its school-going population.

Organised by the Singapore Mathematical Society, the competition’s demographic includes junior school pupils, senior school pupils, as well as pre-university entrants. The winners of this competition are handed prizes ranging from cash handouts and trophies to honourable mentions, depending on their result.

In 2020, the first round is held on 7 and 8 September 2020, details on the SMO competition schedule 2020 page.

For those that display exceptional talent through high scores, a special Open Invitation Round exists for hand-picking contestants to represent Singapore in the International Math Olympiad. All in all, thousands of students from all age categories join the Olympiad, and eagerly chase the esteemed and prestigious award at the end.

In this article, we shall firstly uncover the ‘nuts and bolts’ of this premier event, and secondly, discuss the cultural and social implications that such competitions have on wider society. As hinted above, the competition is broken into three distinct tiers, sequentially outlined below.

Junior Level

The Junior Level comprises of lower-secondary students, who sit a two-round test consisting of 20 multiple choice questions and five open questions.

Round two presents a six-question essay to complete within three hours. Both rounds test a student’s ability to utilise mathematical logic to solve a series of problems. The skills tested include geometry, calculus, number theory, algebra and the like.

At least 30 top scoring participants can expect to receive an award, depending on their final tally of scores in both rounds.

Topics Tested: Simple Combinatorics, Algebra, Pattern Recognition, Number Theory, Geometry

The first section of the exam paper begins with multiple choice questions, followed by open questions in the next section. Each question carries one mark and no calculator is allowed. For the essay questions, you must show your formulas and calculations.

Senior Level

Raising the bar with the Senior Level test, upper-secondary students sit a test of 20 multiple-choice and five open questions.

For top-scorers, this is followed by a second round comprising of an essay with 5 open questions to be completed within 4 hours. Measurably harder than the Junior Level, the Senior Level also includes trigonometry as part of the skills it aims to test. 

At least 30 top scoring participants can expect to receive an award, depending on their final tally of scores in both rounds. Additionally, awards are given to the “top three scorers” from the top 20 secondary schools that participated as teams in the Olympiad.

Topics Tested: Simple Combinatorics, Algebra, Pattern Recognition, Number Theory, Geometry, Trigonometry

For the essay questions, you must show your formulas and calculations.  

Each question carries one mark and no calculator is allowed. For the essay questions, you must show your formulas and calculations.

Open Level

The Open Level test is a two-round test aimed at pre-university students. This level mirrors the Senior Level in skills assessed and the structure of the test but takes it a step further in its level of difficulty.

Once again, a minimum of 30 top scoring participants can expect to receive award, depending on their final tally of scores in both rounds. Ten schools will also be awarded based on their team rankings after the first round.

Topics Tested: Simple Combinatorics, Algebra, Pattern Recognition, Number Theory, Geometry, Trigonometry

For the essay questions, you must show your formulas and calculations.  

Each question carries one mark and no calculator is allowed. For the essay questions, you must show your formulas and calculations.

There, that’s the structure of the Singapore Mathematics Olympiad in a nutshell. However, as high-flying as it sounds, the debate on its merits is still ongoing. We sum up the main arguments in the section below, categorised into ‘upsides’ and ‘downsides’ for the sake of simplicity. Let’s begin with the former and uncover the biggest reasons as to why it remains a popular competition.


The Upsides

Nourishment of Vital Skills

Given the scale of difficulty that’s threaded within the questions, tackling them requires a combination of razor-sharp analytical skills, critical thought and a deluge of creativity. As the battle though the questions, many of them come out of the examination hall with a sharpened set of cognitive faculties, like those mentioned above.

The development of sharp critical and analytical skills leads to many positive spill-over effects in other facets of life, including ones we shall explore below.

Ability to Thrive in High-pressure Settings

The days prior to the Olympiad are often packed with plentiful revision coupled with a drive to succeed in the upcoming challenge. On the day itself, the minds of the contestants are squeezed of every drop of mathematical insight as their pens hastily jot down their formulations.

At the same time, their eyes maintain a careful glance on the ticking clock to ensure that they answer as many questions as they can within the time allotted. Furthermore, the sense of competition amongst peers is buoyant. Therefore, it is of little surprise that riding the Olympiad wave breeds a generation of pupils that are accustomed to thriving in such highly intense environments.

Increased Opportunities for High Achievers

For those that score highly and bring home tingling trophies, a wide array of opportunities awaits them. These include businesses that are eager to hire their talent, universities that offer handsome scholarships, or opportunities to travel abroad and partake in international competitions.

The Olympiad, therefore, becomes an effective tool to identify a cluster of gifted young people, to then showcase their talents and raise their fortunes as a result.

Reinforcement of Mathematically Friendly Culture

With wide levels of participation across different age-groups, and the importance that many people place on it, students grow up with the understanding that ‘maths is important’. This strengthens any existing cultural norms that value the mastery of mathematics. Not only does this help nurture a numerically literate population, but also a population that is endowed with a high degree of thinking skills like those mentioned above.

Growth in Singapore’s Tertiary Economy

Building on the cultural point above - A culture which prizes useful skills will be far more likely to host a skilled population. This will make it an attractive destination for businesses to invest in. Furthermore, Singapore will gain an asset in its export market, with all the high-technology services and skills it can offer the world. Whilst this theory is untested, the argument remains convincing, and therefore worthy of consideration for policymakers and educators alike.

In summary, Singapore’s Mathematics Olympiad leads to fruitful outcomes in multiple areas ranging from individual career prospects to broader socio-economic assets. However, at the same time, the Olympiad comes packaged with its less-than-positive outcomes, which are equally important to consider before taking part. Let’s unravel them below and discuss some solutions to mitigate against their negative outcomes.


The Downsides

Mental Health

Like any other competition that has winners and losers, the Olympiad is no different, it rewards only a few and discards the remainder. The latter includes many contestants who make a notable effort and wish to be awarded for it. When their hopes are slashed, their mental health and self-confidence can take a hit. There are of course, ways to manage these problems if they arise e.g. online psychology to deal with behavioural health.

This is an unavoidable reality of any competitive activity, be it a maths challenge or a soccer tournament. However, we can all agree on the fact that everything is a learning experience, and this rule doesn’t exclude the Mathematics Olympiad either. Approaching a proactive and constructive mindset can help take the focus away from “winning” and divert the focus instead towards “growing”.


It’s not uncommon for participants to become overworked and exhausted. This is understandable, as many are serious about achieving a high score. After all, nobody would partake in a competition to simply fail. As a result, some participants will end up biting more than they can chew and over-exert themselves.

If not kept in check, this can lead to exhaustion and burnout, much like what happens during exam seasons. To remedy that, it is important to value your self-care, but also to remember that your life’s success does not rest on the outcome of a single competition.

Loss of interest

If the process of mastering a skill becomes a “chore”, then pupils may begin to lose interest in the subject. In this case, mathematics may become associated with burden and pressure, which may lead to declining levels of interest in the subject. This doesn’t bode well for students who may have, otherwise, enjoyed this subject. 


Having discussed the upsides and downsides, it’s undisputable that the Olympiad promises numerous benefits to its contestants, despite some costs along the way. Much of the balance between the upsides and downsides is determined at an individual level, based on the specific context of the test-taker, as well as their unique distribution of talents and strengths.

For a small minority of people, embarking on a ‘Maths’ Olympiad may be an incorrect way to measure and rank their truest abilities. For most people, however, the Olympiad can prove to be a healthy learning experience. It provides an opportunity for people of both average and advanced mathematical aptitudes to practise and enhance their understanding of the subject.

So, if you are convinced that you or your child can extract a fair amount of nourishment from the Maths Olympiad, then read on to discover some useful tips to demolish the test.


Mastering the Maths Olympiad

Firstly, before we delve into the tips to succeed, let me make one thing clear. That is, that you (or your child) do not have to be a natural “maths geek” to succeed in the Olympiad. There is no special DNA or gene that determines your ability to shine in this realm.

The key skills needed to master the problems can be learnt by almost anyone, with a reasonable amount of practise. Some may need to spend a little more time to master the thinking patterns and techniques, but that doesn’t preclude you from any achievement! In other words, embark on this journey armed with full confidence and self-belief.

Great, now let’s get our hands dirty with some tips and tricks:

Practise questions - This is the most obvious one. But, avoid generic practise tests and instead opt for questions that test your reasoning and critical thinking.

Online resources – The world of online education is brimming with courses, Math Olympiad resources and videos on mathematics, mathematical logic, and critical thinking tools. You can choose a course based on whatever weaknesses you are aware of, or explore open-source videos and tutorials as you deem necessary

Tutoring – This one is self-explanatory, too. Just one tip, and that is to make sure that your Maths tutor knows that they are being tasked with helping you succeed in the “Singapore Maths Olympiad”, and not some ordinary Monday morning maths test.

Games and puzzles – There’s a multitude of mobile Apps, websites, puzzles and board games (e.g. Chess) that exercise your cognitive faculties and thinking skills. Many of the skills sharpened in these activities could come handy in solving mathematical problems.

Enjoy the process – You have nothing to prove, but everything to gain. Give yourself the chance to learn and grow. So, relax and give it your best shot.


Now that you know what to expect in the Olympiad, the next steps belong to you. Find out how to register for the Maths Olympiad here. Also, feel free to explore the links below to discover further resources to prepare like past papers and revision material.

On behalf of Tutor City, we would like to wish you (or your child) the best of luck!

Further Reading Resources:

Past papers: https://eduinfinite.com/smo-2017-previous-year-math-olympiad-paper-with-solutions/

Tackling Olympiad Style Questions: https://eu.edugain.com/articles/8/How-to-tackle-Math-Olympiad-questions-Part-1/

Revision Notes: https://www.cliffsnotes.com/study-guides

Online Courses: https://www.khanacademy.org/math

Recommended YouTube Channels:

Mind Your Decisions: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHnj59g7jezwTy5GeL8EA_g

Coach Veer: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_R0-qBEmL96n7UUB6jD_yw

Chen Hongming: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKoZgtOxC5T99jIQyepWS6g

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Tutor City's blog focuses on balancing informative and relevant content, never at the expense of providing an enriching read. 

We want our readers to expand their horizons by learning more and find meaning to what they learn.

Resident author - Mr Wee Ben Sen, has a wealth of experience in crafting articles to provide valuable insights in the field of private education.

Ben Sen has also been running Tutor City, a leading home tuition agency in Singapore since 2010.