Universiteit Leiden

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Math students win medals for clever proofs on elegant problems

Mathematics students Pim Spelier and Bob Zwetsloot both won a medal at the International Mathematics Competition for University Students (IMC) 2018 in Bulgaria. Spelier talks about the competition, his preparations, and a mistake that almost costed him his good ranking.

Golden boy

Although Spelier is only nineteen years old, he already finished the double Bachelor Mathematics & Informatics. He is currently enrolled in the Master Mathematics in Leiden. It wasn’t his first time IMC: ‘I also participated last year. Both years I have won a gold medal; this year I had a slightly higher ranking.’ Spelier adds that a gold medal doesn’t necessarily imply a first place. ‘There are three types of medals: gold, medal, bronze. But they do not correspond to the first, second, and third place. The first so many people get gold, then a larger number silver, and an even larger number bronze.’

Elegant problems

Spelier ranked 20th this year, which earned him a gold medal. A great achievement and a personal improvement compared to last year, when he became 24th. How did he prepare himself this year? ‘I've took about nine five-hour practice tests', the mathematician says. Spelier says he enjoys solving the kind of problems that the IMC consists of. ‘An elegant problem with a clever proof. I've also gained a lot of experience, which I hope to use next year to get even higher', says the motivated Spelier.  


‘There were two five-hour match days, each with five tasks', says Spelier about the competition. ‘The first day it went very well, then I finished sixth. The second day unfortunately went a lot less and eventually I became 20th. Spelier owed a large part of his 20th place to his supervisor Peter Ypma. ‘At the IMC they don't always check very carefully. That's how those who check Problem 4 first thought I hadn't solved it. Peter then convinced them of their mistake, and they added seven points. Without Peter I would have ended up in 38th place.

Image from left to right: Bob Zwetsloot, Peter Ypma en Pim Spelier

The International Mathematics Competition for University Students is organised annually by University College London. The 25th edition was hosted by the American University in Bulgaria from 22 to 28 July. This year 351 students participated. The participants are up to 23 years old and are in the first four years of their education. The questions consist of the themes algebra, analysis (real and complex), geometry and combinatorics. In the past 24 years there have been participants from 200 institutes and more than 50 countries.

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