International Competitions

Posted On: Jan 10, 2022


International competitions in physics are fantastic opportunities to broaden and expand your knowledge and perspective. Not only will you be faced with the mind-bending problems, you'll also be competing with the strongest students from all over the world. Use the table of contents below to quickly navigate the sections of this guide.

Table of Contents

Before You Start...

Keep in mind that once you qualify for an international competition, in addition to self-studying, your country will most likely host a training program (this is usually the case for Canadian national teams). If you would like more information on how to qualify for international competitions, visit our beginner guide here.

Contests and Opportunities

  1. IPhO (International Physics Olympiad)

  • Most prestigious and recognized physics olympiad

  • Held annually in July in a different country each year

  • Qualify through the CAP

    • Usually, the top 5 scorers are selected for Canada's IPhO team

    • For more information on the qualifying process, see here

The competition consists of two parts. The 5-hour theoretical section, which includes 3 questions that typically have multiple parts, and the experimental section where the competitors have around 5 hours to complete one or two experimental problems in a laboratory. Not only do you have to have comprehensive theoretical knowledge of physics, but you must also have sufficient laboratory skills and experience in order to do well at IPhO. Click here to get an idea of what the experimental problems are like.

  1. IOAA (International Olympiad On Astronomy and Astrophysics)

  • Usually held annually in August in a different country each year

  • Qualify through the CAO

    • Top 5 scorers on the CAO are selected for Canada's IOAA team

    • For more information on the qualifying process, see here

The IOAA consists of 3 sections: theoretical, data analysis, and observation. While the theoretical section is similar to the IPhO in terms of structure, data analysis and observation are unique. Data analysis involves the utilization of statistical methods (e.g. linear regression, standard deviation) to process and graph data in conjunction with theoretical concepts, while observation tests participants on parts of the sky, such as constellations, stars, and celestial objects.

  1. IYPT (International Young Physicists' Tournament)

  • Usually held in mid-July

  • Unlike the IPhO and IOAA where students are selected for the national team but compete as individuals, the IYPT is a true team event (team of 5 students)

  • Participants have almost a year to work on 17 open-ended inquiry problems.

Unlike the IPhO or IOAA, the IYPT is a team-structured competition that culminates in a physics "debate", where teams present and evaluate their solutions. Instead of solving theoretical physics problems, participants have to design and perform experiments, and to draw conclusions argued from the experiments’ outcome. During the tournament, teams present their reports and discuss and defend their solution against an opposing team and are evaluated by an international Jury. For more information on the actual format of the tournament, see here.


IPhO Resources

In order to qualify for IPhO and potentially achieve a medal, mastering calculus-based physics is mandatory. After doing so, completing a few subject-specific textbooks is recommended and of course, completing past IPhO problems is extremely helpful to understand the difficulty and style of questions. You will simply not have enough time to complete all of these textbooks and problem sets, so choose which areas you are weaker on or want to improve on and work on those first.

Note: click on the book name to see where you can buy/access these books.

  1. Official IPhO Syllabus

  • goes over everything that can be covered in IPhO problems

  • Check out this unofficial guide on topics that are usually covered in IPhO

  1. Physics by Halliday, Resnick, and Krane (HRK) 5th Edition

    • Covers a majority of fundamental concepts needed for IPhO

      • e.g. Mechanics, EM, Thermodynamics, Optics, Fluids, Sound and Waves and Modern Physics

    • Great book to learn calculus-based physics from

      • Make sure to do the problems in the book as well

    • Recommended by past IPhO contestants and coaches

  1. An Introduction to Classical Mechanics by David Morin

  • Focuses on mechanics at the IPhO

  • Quite math intensive: need to know calculus very well

  • Has many classic mechanics Problems

  • Includes great relativity chapters as well

  1. An Introduction to Mechanics by Kleppner and Kolenkow

  • Focuses on Mechanics

  • Similar in difficulty and topics covered to Morin

  • Not as well-presented as Morin

  • You should look through Morin and K&K and decide on which one you like better. There is no point in doing both textbooks.

  1. Electricity and Magnetism (E&M) by Purcell and Morin

  • Focuses on Electricity and Magnetism

  • USAPhO-IPhO level

  1. Optics by Eugene Hecht

  • Focuses on Optics

  • USAPhO-IPhO level (leaning more towards IPhO)

  1. Concepts in Thermal Physics by Stephen J. Blundell, Katherine M. Blundell

  • A very good and in-depth book on Thermodynamics at the IPhO level

  • Concise and short

  1. Vibrations and Waves by A.P French.

  • Great revision of concepts

  • Lots of interesting problems

Problem Sets

  • Past IPhO problems and solutions: found here and here

    • This is the most important resource you can have

    • Start from the earlier years (easier) and work your way up

    • If IPhO problems is too difficult at first, check out past USAPhO problems

  • 200 Puzzling Physics Problems by Gnadig (USAPhO/IPhO level)

  • Problems in General Physics by I.E Irodov.

  • Jaan Kalda's Handouts by Jaan Kalda

  • F=ma to IPhO Level Problems

  • Handouts found here

  • Solutions found here

IOAA Resources

For the International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics, many of the same resources (such as HRK) may be used to develop preliminary knowledge in astrophysics. However, there are some unique concepts in the IOAA syllabus that are covered in astronomy-based textbooks. Particularly, the IOAA consists of 3 sections: theory, data analysis, and observation.

Note: click on the book name to see where you can buy/access these books.

  1. IOAA Syllabus

  • Crucial document that details all testable content on the IOAA

  • Refer to the syllabus to probe what you know/don't know

  1. Problems and Solutions by Aniket Sule

  • Past IOAA problem sets from 2008-2014

  • Each problem is covered extensively with detailed solutions

  • Contains data analysis and observation problems as well

  1. Fundamental Astronomy by Karttunen

  • Suitable transition textbook from physics to astrophysics & astronomy

  • Note that not all the concepts covered here are necessary for the IOAA

  • Refer to the syllabus to decide which chapters to pursue

  1. An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics by Carroll & Ostlie

  • Nearly all the concepts covered in this textbook are crucial to the IOAA

  • Covers important formulae and derivations that build up intuition

  1. Astronomical Problems by Vorontsov

  • A crucial component of IOAA's theoretical component is spherical trigonometry

  • This textbook consists of hundreds of problems ranging from beginner to advanced difficulty

Problem Sets

  • Aside from the textbooks mentioned above, you may find more past IOAA problems from more recent years here

IYPT Resources

As the IYPT is not a standard competition that is based upon a common syllabus, the questions each year vary in scope, depth, and subject area. Although it certainly isn't a bad idea to use many of the IPhO resources to develop preliminary knowledge, the problems on the IYPT require extensive research and experimentation. To get an idea of problem structure, you can find the past problems here.