Standing in front of more than 20 teenagers in a classroom in Haidian district, a hub of China's best colleges and middle schools, Zhang Mingyu attempts to decode and elaborate on a question posed by the American Mathematics Competitions (AMC). He also helps his students understand the questions which were originally written in English, by breaking down the sentence structure and decoding the grammar.
Zhang is a young coach working with the Beijing Mathematical School Team, an organization devoted to honing the math brains at middle school, by preparing students for domestic and international competitions.
"An increasing number of parents and students in Beijing have been drawn to math contests in the U.S.," said Zhang.
"The achievements in these contests demonstrate students' excellent academic ability, increasing their opportunities for admission to America's elite academies and colleges."
Preparing for contests
Li Aolong, a math enthusiast, entered the AMC in 2011 when he was a high school student at Sun Weigang Math Experimental Class at Beijing No.22 Middle School [Sun Weigang is considered the father of China's math education]. At the time, all his classmates were encouraged by teachers to enter the competition.
"It was a fresh and interesting experience because it was quite different from China's math contests," said Li.
"The questions were set in intriguing circumstances, different to China's questions which usually follow a rigid format."
Preparation for the AMC requires a lot of self study. Li became accustomed to the American style of posing math problems by reading and practicing.
A good understanding of the English language is also vital for entering these competitions. One should be familiar with English math vocabulary, said Li.
For Chinese students fortunate enough to go to the U.S. to compete in math contests on elite campuses, the importance of team work is another lesson.
In 2013, Zhang was among the coaches who led a group of about 40 students to the U.S. for the Exeter Math Club Competition (EMCC) of the Phillips Exeter Academy [a top American high school that has produced top achievers in math and science, as well as Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg].
Apart from taking part as individuals, students were also required to form groups of four for the team competition.
"We group students of different specialties together to optimize their performance. For example, each team had a contestant who was good at English," said Zhang. At that time, four Chinese students were ranked among the top 10 in the individual competition, while one Chinese team placed fifth.
Math in the U.S.
Besides the AMC of The Mathematics Association of America and the EMCC, there are several other appealing math contests in the U.S. among Beijing's young math-lovers, including the Harvard-MIT Mathematics Tournament (HMMT); the Princeton University Mathematics Competition (PUMaC) and the Stanford Math League Competition.
The most popular one is the AMC, which is divided into three categories for students in different grades.
Competition venues were allocated in Beijing after test papers were delivered from the U.S.. All answer sheets are sent back to the U.S. for marking and final results.
"In Beijing alone, approximately 2,500 students compete in each category of the AMC," said Zhang. "Chinese students are usually at an advantage in the contest because the questions mainly focus on basic math knowledge."
Dan Flegler, co-founder of the Stanford Math League Competition, was quoted by a New York Times website article in September as saying that "the only students who ever got perfect scores in the speed round [in which contestants need to solve 60 questions within 45 minutes] were two fraternal Chinese twins, a boy and a girl."