By Krishna Kandala
Most AP Biology students who receive Campbell’s Biology at the beginning of the school year stare at it in shock. It’s obvious that they expected a smaller and lighter textbook, even though they will later realize only certain sections are relevant to the course and the AP exam.
But high school students preparing for the United States Biology Olympiad? For them, biology is a religion, and Campbell’s is their Bible.
The open exam is administered every year in February, and anyone can take it if they have a teacher or club willing to sponsor the test (hence the name “open”). Several thousand students across the United States sign up to take this test, usually during or right after they take the AP Biology course. Yet despite the fact that all participants have solid foundations in biology, the test is challenging, as it requires a comprehensive and thorough knowledge of Animal Anatomy and Physiology, Cell Biology, Genetics, Evolution, Plant Anatomy and Physiology, Ecology, Ethology, and Biosystematics.
The general rule for students who take the Open Exam is to memorize Campbell’s, in order to make the cutoff, which, generally hovers around 25/50, or 50%. The average score for the 2013 test was a 17 out of 50, while the highest score in the nation was an outstanding 42 out of 50. Most test takers agree that generally the material is not foreign to them; they state that the presumed difficulty comes from how detailed the questions are. The Biosystematics is especially challenging because it requires knowledge of a multitude of taxonomic groups.
Becoming a semifinalist isn’t the end of the road for the ambitious, however. There’s a round two, another exam that only the semifinalists take. And this time, the stakes and the difficulty are increased substantially. The several hundred semifinalists compete to gain status as finalists, an honor granted to the top twenty scorers on the semifinalist exam, a longer, harder, more exhaustive biology exam that includes normal multiple choice questions, fill-in, and one free response question.
It’s a highly challenging process, but the awards are worth it; being recognized as a Semi-finalist is a great honor, something that catches the eye of quite a few colleges during the admissions process. Being chosen as a finalist, meanwhile, makes one eligible to compete at a camp at Purdue University for a spot on the United States Biology Team. The team consists of four students and one alternate, who compete in the International Biology Olympiad, the highest level of competition in the world for high school biology enthusiasts.
It’s quite intimidating to imagine the amount of studying required just to get past the first cut. But it’s a rewarding ordeal, and there are few moments of satisfaction that can triumph the feeling experienced upon qualification for the next round of USABO. It’s an outlet for those who have exhausted their school’s biology curriculum; an opportunity to put their true knowledge of the biological sciences to the test.
The 2014 open exam has already been administered; registration for the 2015 exam will open during fall 2014 and will close January 2015. For more information, visit https://www.usabo-trc.org/.