Steve Jobs once said – “Competitive Programming teaches you how to think.”
That’s what competitive programming does to you. It makes you a thinker and a problem solver.
When programming becomes a contest, it is called competitive programming. And one such contest is the USACO or the USA Computing Olympiad.
Popular among pre-college students, let’s look at the best ways to prepare for USACO.
6 Best Ways To Prepare For USACO
The USACO contest happens four times a year for all the divisions. The contest concludes in March or April by conducting the USACO championship.
Thousands of students appear every year, on average.
A student might need six months to a year of preparation for every division. Every student approaches exam preparation differently.
1. Work on the basics
You might already be familiar with sets, hashmaps, and variables, but you need to set yourself as per the USACO contest pattern.
For instance, pick up the programming language that interests you even before you start programming.
Go through the explanations given for algorithms. It helps you to organize your problem-solving strategy as per the USACO contest.
Also, a fundamental practice includes keeping the class name and the source name the same for the given problem.
Make a note of the potential use of the topics you learned. It would help you quickly place your learnings when solving the contest questions.
2. Know the Ws
The data structure is a dynamic entity. Know the what, where, and when of the data structure application. Once you know it, you can perfectly blend it with the correct algorithm for coding.
3. Know the programming languages
Those already well versed with the programming languages or algorithms should do a quick revision of the same.
In contrast, those with little knowledge of C++, Python, and Java must learn about them in detail. Your hold in a programming language will help you write the code more easily using syntax.
4. Practice makes you perfect
One way to do this is by practicing random problems and test cases. The other way is setting a timer and solving a problem. This practice prepares you to solve three problems in 4 hours. Your dedication and consistency would reflect how you would solve the contest problems.
5. Get optimum answers
Most questions have one or more solutions. With practice and understanding of the algorithm’s space, you should be able to zero down on the best solution. It will help you later during the USACO contest to balance between the time and length of a problem.
6. Attempt a USACO contest
There is no such thing as you are competition ready!
Take up as many USACO contests as possible. Every contest will add a new learning experience. Making mistakes is another way to practice. Self-review is the best critique. Refer to learning resources, improve yourself and reappear for the contest.
Every division has a set of topics which, anyhow, you have to know to care. But
knowing how to prepare for the contest differs from what you learn in the books. Practice these above steps, and you will see the impact.
Why Should You Participate In The USACO Contest?
The idea of computer programming is to prepare yourself for challenges and work on your problem-solving skills and logical ability.
On the career aspect, competitive programming contests like USACO play a significant role when top companies hire people based on these skills.
Good practice in Queue, Stack, Tree, Array, Graph, etc., accompanied with proficiency in Java, C++, or Python, will give you the base for competing in the contest. It will become your base as an efficient programmer.
Also, for those aiming for the International Olympiad of Informatics (IOI), the USACO contest is where the journey begins.
Is USACO Contest the Right Choice for Me?
Do you enjoy solving puzzles and quizzes?
Does creating a program and testing it excite you?
Do you enjoy competing?
If your answer is yes, then you have more than one reason to accept that the USACO contest is the perfect fit for you.
So if you know algorithms and have an in-depth knowledge of computer-related topics, taking a USACO contest is your ticket to making it big in the programming world.
Below are the tips that will help you prepare well for the USACO contest.
1. Do the Big-O analysis
Check the run time is not intensive because you want to avoid seeing your code ending abruptly due to time out, which would force you to rewrite the code again.
2. Revisit the previous year’s contest problems
One at a time. Keep this approach while practicing problems for USACO. Take references from earlier contests and try solving them. It might take more time than usual but hang in because you are here to practice and learn.
3. Refrain from seeking answers from Google
While it is acceptable to recheck your solution in google to understand where you lack, it’s equally important to rely on something other than google for answers. It impacts your thinking and the way to approach a test case.
4. Visualize the solution
Computing is one field where visualizing is the correct way to understand a concept and solve a problem. Just reading about it will only help a little. Thus, imagine what the solution might look like before working through the process of solving it.
5. Accept the challenge
Even after so much practice, it can be overwhelming at the beginning. You might doubt your capability. But take up the challenge, accept what you see, and trust your thinking ability.
6. Become a part of the USACO Community
How to register for the USACO contest?
Here are the exact steps to follow for USACO registration. Register for a new account on the USACO website. During the contest, log in through your account, and you will find all the details and instructions about the competition.
All the divisions test their programming skills. Then how are they different from each other?
All four divisions differ in the level of the programming language used. For instance, the Bronze division tests the foundation of computing. Silver test the basics of data structuring as well as programming. The Gold division tests the advanced levels of mathematics, data structuring, and algorithms.
Lastly, the Platinum division requires layers of optimization of test data which involves complex programming, much more detailed than all the previous levels.
What is the cutoff for promotion to the subsequent division?
The cutoff is between the range of 650 to 850, based on the level of difficulty of the problem. You will see the result announced on the USACO website on Thursdays post the contest.
What is the role of the programmers’ community in the USACO contest preparation?
The role of the computer science community is enormous. The tips and tricks shared by mentors and contestants enhance the skills and knowledge of those at different levels of the USACO contest. The learning happens in a space backed by motivation and inspiration.
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Finally, many ways and processes are varied, but what is more important here is to prepare as per your goal.
Be precise about your goal, and the preparation will follow.
Commit yourself to practice and learning but do not stress by overthinking the scores.
Be consistent, and the scores in the USACO contest will automatically display your caliber.