Recent AMC changes

…and how some ambitious students can reap huge benefits

There have been some major shifts in the college admissions landscape over the last few years. These shifts have changed the value of the AMC for certain students, and they have also changed how a student should prepare.

Brief recap: what’s the AMC?

It’s an annual exam run by the MAA for high-school math fans and “mathletes” featuring much more difficult questions than the SAT/ACT. Therefore it does a farbetter job of identifying early talent. It is also the “feeder” exam for the US Math Olympiad team.

Why do I care?

Because the way students get into top colleges has changed so much that our intuitions about what “ought to be enough” no longer apply.

How has the AMC itself changed?

  • It’s now given in November instead of January
  • It’s now given online as well as at schools
  • It’s become consistently more difficult over the past five to ten years
  • Participation by students outside the US has skyrocketed

These changes don’t make a huge difference yet, but what they imply about the future of the AMC does.

How has its importance changed?

I should probably write a longer essay about this, but in a nutshell: The ACT/SAT can easily distinguish between a mediocre student and a good one. But they can’t distinguish between good and great. Instead, these tests inadvertently distinguish between hard-working and very-hard-working, with little focus on talent beyond a certain moderately high level.

Talent—i.e. potential future success—is what’s most important to colleges, but the ACT/SAT isn’t giving colleges the insight they need into this dimension. (This underlies some of the recent shifts in the testing industry.) That task is increasingly falling to other sources, and the AMC is quickly becoming one of the main ones.

How has preparing for it changed?

The same way that preparing for the ACT/SAT changed about 20 or 30 years ago: it’s becoming professionalized. What used to be an exam that you could just decide to take cold on test day has become something you prepare for for an extended period.

Also, the way you prepare has changed, because there are really two routes to success on the AMC:

  1. Pretend it’s the LSAT, and just work dozens and dozens of past exams until you have pretty much seen it all
  2. Pretend it’s a “thinking competition,” and learn new problem-solving skills that work in a wide range of situations

Option #1 is more popular, especially outside the US, because it’s easier to plan out how to do it, and for many international students, simply spending hundreds of hours coming to master the test is a viable option.

Option #2 is a better choice for many US students because they have less time to devote, have more resources to devote to developing true expertise, and need more of the general problem solving skills this training develops. 

I’ll say that last part again in a different way: the US has been lagging most developed countries in critical thinking and general problem-solving for quite a while now. The AMC helps our best and brightest learn the critical skills that are necessary for high-level competitiveness in future markets, and which most of the student population increasingly lacks.

What should I be asking in response?

If you haven’t considered the AMC, you should ask these questions:

  • Do I enjoy math (or at least, do I enjoy it when it’s interesting)?
  • Is it important to me to attend a top school and/or to have a challenging and rewarding career in technology, science, and/or research?
  • Could I see an academic study becoming for me what varsity sports are for student athletes?

If you’re already planning to prepare for the AMC, or have started preparation, you should ask these questions:

  • Do I have a concrete, realistic plan for success?
  • Historically, have I gained at least ten points per month of preparation on my practice tests?
  • Am I continuing to improve?
  • Is what I’m learning still both helpful and interesting?

What should I be doing?

Behind-the-Scene Wisdom: Navigating the High School Math Journey with Your High-Achieving Student

This summer, Julia Gooding of One Sky Education interviewed me in order to introduce me to her clients.

We had a much more powerful conversation than I expected! Find it here.

In particular, there’s a lot of valuable but hard-to-find advice here for parents who want to help but don’t want to helicopter, as well as parents of AMC competitors.

(It’s 26 minutes in all, so check the top comment to skip to the part that’s most interesting to you.)


Also, here’s a paraphrased transcript of the 21st-minute question that inspired this post today:

Julia Gooding:

What guidance can you offer to parents who may feel uncertain about their child’s academic progress and how to support them effectively? Are there ways for parents to assess their child’s situation and determine how best to address any specific challenges they may be facing?

Wes Carroll:

So, I want to start by emphasizing that a moderated conversation, especially in the initial session, can be exceptionally impactful. It’s challenging to make broad generalizations about every family because each conversation is unique. One of the main reasons for this, and perhaps some general advice I can offer, is that parents often face two, maybe even three, distinct challenges.

Firstly, they’re not just trying to support the student who lives in their household; they are also the parents of a nearly adult child. This dual role can sometimes lead to conflicts between the parent-child relationship and the student-helper dynamic. I’ve encountered situations where parents are fully qualified to assist with math, for instance, but due to their parental role, they can’t have the necessary conversations to foster academic growth effectively.

Secondly, parents often understand this intellectually, but deep down, they might lose sight of how much their child has evolved, even in just six months. Evolution happens in fits and starts, making it challenging to track in a linear fashion.

Another factor is that, generally, the parents of my students tend to be successful themselves. Much like their children, they’ve achieved success by leveraging their own unique strengths and working around their weaknesses. The issue arises when the parent’s strength and weakness profile differs significantly from the student’s. This can lead to frustration and the belief that “if you’d just listen to me, you’d succeed.” However, success depends on profile compatibility, which doesn’t always align.

Dealing with a child who has a vastly different profile can feel strange, especially since it’s your own son or daughter. Yet, it can and does happen. Additionally, we must remember that our success as parents with our specific profiles doesn’t make us masters of all possible profiles.

There’s no easy fix, but recognizing the complexity of the situation is a significant first step. In my experience, families that have succeeded in this dynamic share a common blend of patience, competence, and humility. Patience is crucial because when the student is ready, seizing that moment can lead to great success. Until then, we must lay the groundwork.

Competence is essential too, as we all have different strengths to offer the student, and we should be ready to assist as soon as they are ready to accept help. However, humility plays a critical role because, when done correctly, students will often pleasantly surprise us with their capabilities, even in areas we didn’t think they were prepared for.

This creates a harmonious dynamic where we all look toward the future while appreciating the present and the rapid progress being made. It’s a truly beautiful thing.

Other Key Takeaways from the Interview

These are mostly facts for our audience to get to know Wes Carroll Tutoring and Coaching:

Wes Carroll runs a small team specializing in tutoring high-achieving students in math and sciences, primarily high school level, with a STEM focus. We also help students develop essential skills beyond subject matter expertise.

We work with high-achieving, serious, and gifted students, often those who struggle to connect with traditional teaching methods. Our focus is on middle school through undergraduate education and we specialize in math and science subjects.

We assist students not only with subject matter but also with various skills like time management, motivation, and emotional engagement with the material.

I initially started tutoring because I personally experienced challenges in traditional education and wanted to help students overcome similar obstacles.

We also prepare students for competitions like the AMC (American Mathematics Competitions) but emphasize the importance of developing problem-solving and analytical skills beyond memorization.

Ready to unlock your full potential in math and science?

Whether you’re a high school student aiming for the stars or an undergrad seeking mastery, we’re here to guide you. We understand that you’re capable of high-level work, but you’re not getting the guidance or developing the specific skills you need to perform at that level. Reach out to us.