Getting started with USACO can be challenging. Here, we address some of the most common questions people have.
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Note: This article is written by past USACO Finalists and is not an official FAQ.
The USA Computing Olympiad is a national programming competition that occurs four times a year, with December, January, February, and US Open (March) contests. The regular contests are four hours long, and the US Open is five hours long. Each contest contains three problems. Solutions are evaluated and scored against a set of predetermined test cases that are not visible to the student.
There are four divisions of contests: Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. After each contest, students who meet the contest-dependent cutoff for promotion will compete in the next division for future contests.
USACO Contests are scored out of 1000 points. Each contest typically has 3 problems (some old contests have 4); each problem is weighted equally, and is typically worth points. Each problem then has a number of test cases (usually 10...20), and each test case is weighted equally. For example, if a contest has three problems, and problem A has 10 test cases, then you will get points for each test case that you get correct for problem A.
At the end of the contest, a "cutoff score" for each division is determined based on the difficulty of the contest. If your score is above the "cutoff score" for your division, then you get promoted to the next division. The cutoff score varies significantly and is typically around points.
If you get a perfect score during the contest (ie. you solve all three problems correctly), then you get an in-contest promotion, where you immediately get promoted to the next division. You can start the next division's contest whenever you want during the contest window; your four-hour timer resets when you start the contest.
In general, we recommend the following:
Don't overthink choosing a language -- you can always change languages later!
We cover choosing a language in more detail in our "Choosing a Language" module.
Learn algorithms, do practice problems, and reflect on why you're missing problems. Make sure you learn from every problem you do, and you'll improve over time. If you're looking for a guided roadmap to improve at USACO, check out the USACO Guide (that's this site!)
If you want to get better at USACO, the key thing is to do more practice!
We made the USACO Guide specifically to provide high-quality resources to help people get better at USACO; we encourage you to give it a shot! We also list additional resources that you may find helpful. Additionally, USACO has its own resources page.
We recommend you go to the (unofficial) USACO Forum to get help when you're stuck. Alternatively, you can join the (unofficial) USACO Discord Server. They have channels called
#cp-help dedicated to questions about competitive programming.
It really comes down to personal preference; there's no right or wrong answer -- do what works for you! With that being said, we've asked numerous top USACO competitors what they think about this question. This module lists their thoughts on how to effectively practice for USACO.
Usually, yes (unless the problem is significantly too easy for you). Solving competitive programming problems consists of two parts: coming up with the algorithm, and implementing the algorithm. You should implement so that you practice both parts.
While there is no official USACO syllabus, we've compiled topics for each division from historical contests:
CodeForces rating and USACO divisions shouldn't be compared since CF emphasizes solving problems quickly (5-8 problems under 2 hours time constraint), while USACO has harder problems and more time (3 problems in 4-5 hours). However, here are some very rough estimates:
Again, CF problems and contests are significantly different from USACO!
We hope you've found this FAQ useful! If you have any additional questions, please feel free to ask on the USACO Forum and we'll do our best to answer them.
Best of luck on your competitive programming journey!