USACO: Everything You Must Know Before You Register 

usaco - all about it

Are you a high schooler aiming to become a coder? Are you a job seeker looking for programming-related jobs in top companies?

Either way, you need to clear USACO contests. This will enhance your programming skills and prepare you to create better codes.

Here’s everything you need to know about USACO. From preparation to application, I have covered it all.

USACO | What is it?

USACO stands for the USA Computing Olympiad. It’s a series of national-level computer programming tests targeting high-schoolers or even younger students.

This contest assesses a student’s computer programming skills by focusing on algorithm problems. Please note: it’s conducted online.

The USACO is conducted four times a year from November to April.

USACO Levels

The national computing olympiad is divided into five levels.

  1. Bronze
  2. Silver
  3. Gold
  4. Platinum
  5. Advanced

Participants begin with the Bronze level, which constitutes basic algorithms. Once they clear this level, they can move on to Silver, then Gold, and so on.

While the Platinum level challenges the candidates with complex algorithms, the Advanced level is the hardest to clear. This is the last level to attend the training camp.

Read: Is USACO good for college?

Level-wise Topics

Level Important Topics
Bronze Rectangle Geometry, Simulation, Basic Complete Search, Introduction to Graphs, Introduction to Data Structures, Basics of data structure, (dynamic) arrays, pairs, tuples, etc.
Silver Introduction to Prefix Sums, Custom Comparators and Coordinate Compression, Operations on Sorted Sets, Greedy Algorithms with Sorting, Binary Search, Depth First Search (DFS), Introduction to Tree Algorithms, etc.
Gold Divisibility, Modular Arithmetic, Combinatorics, Introduction to DP,  Breadth First Search (BFS), Disjoint Set Union, Shortest Paths with Non-Negative Edge Weights, Sliding Window, Point Update Range Sum, etc.
Platinum More Applications of Segment Tree, Range Queries with Sweep Line, Binary Jumping, Sparse Segment Trees, Convex Hull, Convex Hull Trick, Matrix Exponentiation, etc.
Advanced Max Suffix Query with Insertions Only, Segment Tree Beats, Treaps, LineContainer, Slope Trick, BCCs and 2CCs, Euler’s Formula, Introduction to Fast Fourier Transform, String Searching, Extended Euclidean Algorithm, etc.

To learn about the topics in detail, go to the USACO Guide.

Must Reads for USACO EnthuZiasts

How hard is USACO Bronze? How hard is USACO Silver?
How hard is USACO Gold? How hard is USACO Platinum?
Best USACO Training Materials How USACO helps in college admissions?

Prize for the Finalists

There is NO CASH prize on clearing the Advanced level.

The candidates who clear the Advanced division are called Finalists.

The Finalists of the Computing Olympiad attend a training camp. The top 4 campers represent the USA in the International Olympiad of Informatics.

Who are Eligible

Anybody and everybody with a laptop and internet connection can take the USACO, including non-USA students.

However, every participant cannot be a part of the USA IO team.

Eligibility Criteria for USA IO Team

  1. Pre-college student
  2. Must be enrolled for one semester in a high school/junior high/middle school
  3. USA citizen or resident during the first half of the school year.

While anybody from around the world can participate in this computing olympiad, only US citizens and residents are eligible to join the team representing the country at the International Olympiad of Informatics.

This criterion includes students who have academic commitments in other countries.

As the test is aimed at high-schoolers, college students aren’t eligible to become a finalist. Only High-schoolers (including junior high students) and middle schoolers are eligible for the USA IO team. One must be enrolled at least for the first semester in a high school.

Enrollments for any part-time courses in other institutions, colleges, or universities during the said semester wouldn’t be a problem in the eligibility.

Format of the Tests


The contests are for 4 consecutive hours.

The contest window is always during the weekend, beginning on Friday and ending on Monday. You can sit for the contest at anytime of your choice. It can’t be stopped once you start the timing. The test ends automatically after 4 hours.

Number of Problems

As you already know, there are several divisions of USACO–Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Advanced. And, you can only appear for one level at a time. So, you can’t sit for Silver or Gold without clearing the Bronze division.

You will get 3 questions to solve in every test, no matter your division.


There are 3 questions, and for each question/problem, there will be 10 to 20 test cases. In other words, these are input data through which you’re going to run your program through.

So, the lesser the number of test cases to a problem, the more marks each test case carries.

Answer keeping this in mind. Remember that this Olympiad is about judging if you can thrive in a fast-working environment like the USACO camp. Therefore, learning lots of algorithms won’t help. You must practice enough to become an efficient coder.

Examining Process

A submitted program is run against a number of judging test cases. Following that, every participant receives feedback in a colored box. A green box appears for correct answers and a red box for incorrect ones.

For an incorrect answer, a letter pops up in the box explaining why’s the answer wrong.

The letters and the meanings are as follows:

  1. X for incorrect answer
  2. T  for time limit exceeded
  3. ! (exclamation mark) for the run-time error or memory limit exceeded
  4. E says empty output file.
  5. M says missing output file.

Scoring System

The highest mark that you can get in USACO tests is 1000 points, and there are only 3 questions.

It means each question is equal to 333 points.

Programming Language to write the Exams

The solution programs must be in C, C++, Java, or Python.

As the problems are algorithmic in nature, you will need advanced algorithms and data structures to attend to all the problems correctly in the given time.

Remember, the score for each problem depends on the efficiency of your program. The number of input cases it solves within the time limit should be higher because this is how USACO scores.

Your program should be able to solve a C and C++ input case within 2 seconds and a Java or Python input case within 4 seconds.

Dos & Don’ts of the Tests



  1. Consult with the contest director only in case of any confusion.
  2. Use the same login ID when participating in more than one division.
  3. Always submit the code via the interface on the website by clicking “submit solution” after selecting the file.


  1. Don’t take any help or share technical information or code related to the contest before its completion.
  2. Don’t use pre-written templates or code.
  3. Don’t submit any malicious code that can affect the grading machine’s performance.
  4. Never submit solution codes through other means than the USACO interface.



  1. A submitted program should compile in 30 seconds or less and must be within 100,000 bytes in size unless stated otherwise.
  2. The total memory of your programs must be within 256MB.
  3. Always read and write those files (both input & output) that problem specified.
  4. All the submitted programs should be deterministic and capable of producing identical answers every time they are run with identical input(s) unless stated otherwise.
  5. To save time, provide near-optimal solutions. You will receive partial credit, but you will be able to solve all datasets.
  6. Use C/C++/Java for your solutions. Python is comparatively slow, and you might run out of time. This is especially applicable for higher divisions.


  1. Don’t use `temporary’ data files for the contest.
  2. Don’t send programs consisting of unrelated, open data files.

Check out more dos and don’ts of this contest

How to Apply

This competitive exam for school children is completely online. From applying for the tests to appearing for them, you can do everything from your laptop at home.

Step-by-step process to apply for USACO.

  1. Go to
  2. Provide your email address in the given box.
  3. Fill out your first & last name on the respective boxes.
  4. Then, fill out your school name.
  5. Next, you need to provide your graduation year. If you have already passed high/secondary school, then fill in 9999. Remember: don’t put your graduation year if you’ve already graduated.
  6. Lastly, you need to mention your country name but with ISO 3166-1 alpha-3 codes before clicking on SUBMIT.

Application Fee

There is NO application fee for USACO. You can appear for this exam as many times as you want without paying a penny.

USACO Schedule | When do I take the exam?

The national computing olympiad takes place four times between November and April. Every test is held during the weekends keeping the students’ convenience in mind.

The dates for the year 2022-23 aren’t out yet. The following are the dates for the year 2021-22.

Dec 17-20: First Contest

Jan 28-31: Second Contest

Feb 25-28: Third Contest

Mar 25-28: US Open

May 26-June 4: Training Camp

Aug 7-14: IOI 2022 in Indonesia

As you can see, the first test is in December, the second is in January, the third is in February, the fourth is in March, and the training camp takes place in May.

The 2022 IOI took place in Indonesia, and the 2023 venue is yet to be declared.

Take an idea about the USACO schedule from the previous year’s timetable and keep an eye on the official website to know about the upcoming contests’ dates.

Even though the contest window remains open for almost 3-4 days, one must take the exam for four consecutive hours.

Preparation | All You Need To Know

Select a Programming Language

Selecting a programming language is the first step of USACO preparation. It can be little confusing for beginners but don’t get caught up with this step. Pick a language and move on.

Python for Bronze Competitors

If you’re appearing in the contest for the first time, pick any language of your choice. It doesn’t really matter if you’re preparing seriously. This suggestion is for students who have enough time on their hands.

Also, you can go for the programming language you used in your APCS classes.

However, if you’re someone who’s swamped with other commitments like extracurriculars, AP classes, clubs, etc., then go with Python.

Python is the best choice for Bronze candidates for its handy built-in data structures.

There are many reasons why Bronze candidates with less time in hand should pick Python as their programming language.

  1. Firstly, it is easier than C++ and Java. You can easily write and execute Python codes. The entire process takes much less time than in other programming languages.
  2. Secondly, Python emphasizes more on natural language more in comparison to other programming languages, which helps beginners learn it faster.
  3. Thirdly, you will find its data structures such as list, set, dictionary, and string split without much hassle. It’s one of the most accessible languages with a way more simplified syntax.

Java or C++ for Gold and Higher Levels

Don’t worry if you have cleared the Bronze using Python; you can always change. Many USACO campers have changed their languages as they reach a higher level.

Here are lists for both Java and C++. You can go through the points and pick the language you think is right for you.

Pick C++ because:

  1. It has easier input and output.
  2. C++ runs faster than Python and Java.
  3. It comes with handy library functions such as lower_bound(), upper_bound(), next_permutation(), STL deque, multiset, multimap, etc.

Pick Java because:

  1. It’s a commonly used programming language in APCS classes.
  2. Convenient if you need big integers.
  3. It comes with HashSet and HashMap.

Remember, C++ and Java are the best options if you’re aiming for the USACO camp.

Gather Resources | USACO Guide

Preparing for this computing olympiad is nothing but learning to code. So, anything remotely related to the question-type of USACO is potentially resourceful.

However, you don’t have to waste any more time looking around for material. Everything’s almost covered in the USACO guide.

What is this Guide?

“USACO Guide” is a website dedicated to helping you get ready for USACO tests.

Don’t mistake this website with the official USACO website. Created by USACO finalists, it’s a one-stop solution for your preparation.

You will find modules for various topics divided according to the levels. Besides getting high-quality information on the topics, you will also get sample problems to practice.

The best part of this “guide” is its progress-tracking tool. This helps students to stay productive and see how much they learn every day.

Go ahead and check out USACO Guide. Remember, it’s not just a resource; it’s a platform from where you will find links to other important study material as well.

List of “resource” options you will find on USACO guide website:

  1. Groups: It’s a learning management system for the candidates.
  2. USACO IDE: It’s a real-time collaborative IDE created for these contests and also for other competitive computing exams.
  3. Forum: It’s the best online forum to clear your coding doubts.
  4. Contests: This option will lead you to other similar tests aimed at pre-college students.
  5. Classes: This option sounds exactly like its name suggests. Here, you will find high-quality study material provided by previous years’ finalists.
  6. Clubs: It’s the best option for you to find peers who’re on the same journey. Also, you will find a tailored curriculum for competitive programming clubs.
  7. Workshops: This option is solely focused on USACO. You can know anything and everything about how to clear USACO levels by clicking on this option.

******You will need to sign up on the website to access these options.

Practice Old USACO Test Questions

After one month or so, uploads the test questions on the website. You can view the problem, the test data, and also the solution by login into the website.

Remember, you can access all of these without paying any fee.

Practice the previous years’ problems to get a grip on the type of problems that comes on USACO tests. This will not only enhance your skills but also prepare you for professional coding.

If you need more information on how to prepare for USACO, check out this video. In the end, there’s Nathang Wang, five times USACO finalist, giving tips for aspirants.

Is USACO helpful?

Every year high schoolers go through a lot to prepare themselves for this contest. After 8 hours of classes at school, after-school classes, clubs, volunteering services, etc., young students still manage time for extensive preparation.

So, the question is: is it worth it? Even if they manage to clear USACO levels, is it going to help them?

We’ve talked to students who cleared USACO Gold and Platinum, and they say it’s definitely worth it.

Make Your College Application Stand Out

Young coders are ambitious. While some of them are planning to enroll in places like MIT, Stanford University, and Tsinghua University, many dream even higher. They not only want to land good jobs but also revolutionize the programming world.

So, here’s how USACO helps.

Clearing the Gold division brings you amongst the top 1000 applicants. For Platinum candidates, the number decreases to the top 200 applicants. In case you become of the finalists, you’re going to MIT for sure.

USACO certificates not only make your college application stand out from the crowd but also make you one of the top applications. By doing so, it definitely increases your chances of getting into one of the best colleges in the world.

Check out this video of Riya Arora, 3 times USACO camper, talking about how she managed time.

Ace Tech Interviews

Tech interviews can be challenging even for computer science graduates. Although many aspire to land jobs in companies like Google and Facebook, only a handful manage to achieve to do it.

Clearing USACO divisions can make it easier to ace tech interviews in top companies. Questions in the tech round for these jobs are of the same level as the questions in the Silver and Gold divisions.

In other words, if you clear even the initial divisions of USACO, you are half ready for future tech interviews. This is applicable to both high schoolers and job seekers.

If you’ve passed high school or cleared college already, you can still sit for USACO to gain experience in programming.


1. Is USACO only for high school students?
Anybody and everybody can sit for USACO, but only USA-resident high schoolers are eligible to reach the top level–the USACO camp–and become a part of the USA IO team.

2. Is USACO competitive programming?
Yes, this is one of the best competitive programming experiences for high schoolers. It stands for the “United States of America Computing Olympiad” and takes place four times a year. Each test has three algorithm-based problem-solving questions to solve in 4 hours.

3. Is USACO prestigious?
Yes, it’s the most prestigious competitive programming contest for pre-college students in USA.

4. Where can I take USACO tests?
You can appear for USACO contests from home if you have a laptop and internet.

5. When are the USACO contests held?
The Computing Olympiad contests take place 4 times between November and April.

6. What topics should I cover for USACO tests?
Visit the USACO Guide and checkout the topics and necessary resources for the division you’re in. While studying from the “guide”, you should also practice previous years’ problems and solutions.

7. How do I begin a USACO contest?
Go to the official website of USACO and you’ll see a button during the contest weekend. Click on the button to begin your contest.

8. How long does it take to complete the contest?
It will take 3 or 4 hours to complete the contest. Please note that once you start the test, you can’t pause it. The contest will automatically after 4 hours.

9. How much does it cost to apply for USACO?
It doesn’t cost anything to appear for the contest, regardless of the level you are in. USACO contests are absolutely free for everyone.

10. Can I solve the problems as a team?
No, you’re not allowed to sit for the contest as a team. Taking both online and offline help during the contest is considered cheating. If caught during the process, you will be disqualified.

11. Who is eligible for USACO tests?
Anybody is eligible to sit for USACO tests till Advanced level. However, only pre-college USA citizens and residents are allowed to attend the camp and be a part of the IO team.

12. Is there any prize for competing?
The finalists get the opportunity to attend a camp hosted by the USACO. The top four candidates from the camp represent the USA in the International Olympiad in Informatics.

Even though it’s competitive programming, there is no prize for top candidates.  However, clearing the USACO divisions helps students stand out in their college applications and increase chances to get hired by top companies.

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USACO is undoubtedly one of the best opportunities to get into competitive programming. If you’re a high-schooler with coding ambitions, this is the doorway to your dreams.

Students who aspire to get into MIT or Stanford University should also take USACO seriously. It will not just make your college application stand out but make it one of the best ones.

All the best for your programming ventures!

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