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What Is USABO? Complete Guide to the USA Biology Olympiad

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Are you a student with a love for biology? If so, then you should consider participating in the USA Biology Olympiad, or USABO! Nearly 10,000 talented high school students participate in the Biology Olympiad each year, and it’s a great opportunity to build your science skills and your college applications. 

 We’ll teach you everything you need to know about the USABO, including: 

  • What USABO is and who’s eligible to compete
  • The content and topics that USABO covers
  • The benefits of competing in USABO
  • How the USABO competition works
  • Four tips for getting involved in USABO

Let’s get started!

Feature image: (Center for Excellence in Education/USABO-TRC)

 

What’s the USA Biology Olympiad? 

The USA Biology Olympiad, or USABO, is a prestigious biology competition for high school students in the United States. Launched in 2002, USABO’s mission is to recognize and empower up-and-coming life science students through rigorous biology exams and international networking opportunities. 

USABO competitions are held on a yearly basis, so students can participate in USABO every year of high school as long as their school registers as a participating school. Students compete by taking a series of individual exams. 

There are four rounds of competition in the USABO

  • Round 1: USABO Online Open Exam
  • Round 2: USABO Online Semifinal Exam
  • Round 3: USABO National Finals Exam (in-person)
  • Round 4: International Biology Olympiad (IBO, in-person)

The first test, the USABO Open Exam, is open to any U.S. high school student who attends a registered school. Students who perform in the top 10% on the Open Exam will be invited to compete in the USABO Semifinals, and the top 20 scorers on the semifinal exam are invited to compete in the National Finals. 

The top four winners in USABO Nationals are then invited to represent the U.S. as members of the USA Biolympiad Team at the International Biology Olympiad competition, or IBO. While students compete against fellow U.S. students during the first three rounds of USABO, if they make it to the IBO, they’ll get the chance to compete against top biology students from around the world. 

So if you’re wondering, “how hard is USABO”...the answer is that it’s really competitive!

The good news is that since USABO competitions began, every member of the U.S. Biolympiad team has medaled at the IBO. Not only does this competition provide the chance to compete with top biology students, it also encourages forming global connections with future biologists! 

 

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Unlike the regular Olympics, the USABO is offered every year!

 

Who’s the US Biology Olympiad For? 

USABO is best suited for high school students who are interested in biology and enjoy a little friendly competition. The USABO is also great for students who want to learn more advanced biology concepts before going to college. 

While the USABO contest states that you don’t have to be currently enrolled in a biology course in order to compete, students who have experience with high school biology will have a head start on the knowledge they need to do well on the USABO exams. 

There’s no formal prep or training for USABO competitions, so students who want to compete should be prepared to plan and organize their own study routine. This means that USABO is best suited for students who are self-motivated and willing to put in the effort to excel in the competition. 

Having said that, USABO encourages any student who’s completed an introductory biology course to compete. As long as you want to learn and improve your biology knowledge, the US Biology Olympiad is for you!

 

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High schoolers in grades 9 to 12 can compete in the USABO. That means you have four years where you can compete in the Biology Olympiad before you graduate!

 

Who’s Eligible To Compete in the USA Biology Olympiad? 

Here’s a full breakdown of the eligibility requirements for competing in the USABO Open

  • Must be a U.S. high school student
  • Must be in grades 9, 10, 11, or 12
  • Must attend a USABO-registered school
  • Must register for the USABO Open Exam online
  • Must have a teacher who is willing to administer the USABO Open Exam
  • Must be US citizens or legal permanent residents of the US

Note that home-schooled students can participate in the USABO but must make arrangements to participate in the exam at a local high school. 

To make sure you meet all the eligibility requirements, start by talking to a biology teacher at your school. You can work together to get your school registered with USABO through the contest website

Once your school is registered, you’ll have to register as an individual student early in the school year, which you can do here. As long as you’ve registered and found a teacher at your school who’s willing to administer the USABO Open Exam, you’ll have everything you need to participate in this biology competition!

 

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What Is Covered on the USABO Exams? 

The format of each IBO exam is a little different, and the tests get more complex as students advance from round to round. Students can expect to tackle multiple choice, short answer, and hands-on practical questions. We’ll break down which types of questions are on each exam below!

In terms of content, the USABO exams cover all domains of biology and ask students to apply their biology knowledge to analyze advanced biological situations. The vast majority of IBO exam questions deal with the application of biological knowledge in contexts that are taken from real-world biological research

It’s helpful to know what the USABO exam covers when studying for the test. Here’s how the material breaks down by percentage: 

Biology Topic
Percentage of Exam Questions
Animal anatomy and physiology 
25%
Cell biology 
20%
Genetics and evolution 
20%
Plant anatomy and physiology 
15%
Ecology 
10%
Ethology 
5%
Biosystematics 
5% 

 

While we generally know what content areas are tested on USABO exams, there’s currently no syllabus or curriculum for USABO or IBO competition prep. In other words, there’s no pre-set list of biology topics that you can memorize in order to achieve a high score on USABO exams. 

However, IBO does have to follow a set of regulations that dictate what content must be tested on the exam. These regulations are in place so there’s some degree of consistency between different years of IBO competition, and you can view them here to get a sense of how the exams are designed. 

Since the USABO Open, Semifinal, and National Final exams are modeled after the IBO exam, these regulations can give you an idea of what to expect from the USABO exams as well. 

If you’re wondering how to study for USABO, IBO recommends that USABO contestants develop a deep understanding of biology by using general biology textbooks. IBO endorses the Campbell Biology textbook, and USABO’s official textbook is Biology, 8th edition or higher. 

While simply memorizing content from these textbooks won’t be enough to put you ahead in the competitions, they’re crucial resources for background knowledge that will help you make practical applications during the exams. 

Also, if you hope to make it to USABO Nationals and the IBO competition, you’ll need to prepare to complete three to four laboratory experiments in a Practical exam in addition to the Theoretical Exam, which is a standard paper-and-pencil test. The USABO Open and Semifinals don’t include a practical exam, but if you’re serious about competing, you should start preparing for the Practical exam as part of your study plan. 

 

What Are the Benefits of Competing in USABO?

While USABO doesn’t award scholarships or any other kind of financial prize, there are still lots of perks to participating in USABO. 

First, the USABO allows students to deepen their knowledge of biology beyond what they may  learn in a classroom. For students who want a career in STEM, having strong biology fundamentals can help them succeed in college and beyond. 

Because it’s part of a prestigious international science competition, USABO is also a great choice for students who are aiming for a science-based spike approach on college applications. Similar to other prestigious science competitions like the Regeneron Science Talent Search and National Science Bowl, USABO looks great on college applications because it’s a highly competitive, national science competition. 

Not only does participating in USABO show your passion for science, it also shows that you’re willing to put in lots of hard work to learn and grow as a science student. These are qualities that college admissions value and look for in applicants. 

But you don’t have to take our word for it. Here’s what past participants have to say about the value of the USABO. 

Judson Lam, 2021 USABO National Gold Medalist and IBO Challenge Gold Medalist says this about participating in USABO

Through the competition, I not only learned a lot of biology, but also gained a new appreciation for the world around me. The USABO taught me how to think and learn from the fantastical world of biology. I will never forget my experiences at the National Finals, whether it is listening to guest speakers, lecturers, or problem solving with other finalists. I am truly grateful for this opportunity that USABO has given me.

 

2021 USABO National Gold Medalist Greycen Ren said: 

The USABO has been an important part of my life since I discovered its existence freshman year and has become one of my greatest passions throughout high school. Not only have I been able to deeply explore and enrich myself and my interest in the field, but also I was able to meet many of my fellow high schoolers deeply involved in the world of biology. Perhaps that, the community that has been built around the Biology Olympiad, that is my greatest reward from the USABO. I know that the experiences that I have gained will undoubtedly play a role in my life at college and beyond, whether in a biology-related field or not. 

 

As these quotes from real USABO participants show, the gains you’ll receive from this biology competition go beyond boosting your college applications. USABO also helps students explore their passions and experience what it’s like to learn and collaborate in a community of fellow biology enthusiasts

 

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There are multiple steps to competing in the USABO. We'll break them down so you don't feel like you're stuck in this meme. (shevyrolet/Know Your Meme)

 

How Does the US Bio Olympiad Competition Work? 

As we’ve mentioned, the USABO competition is structured into three rounds of competition that culminate in a fourth and final round, known as the International Biolympiad (IBO). Since there are so many steps to competing in USABO, we’ll break them down one by one.

 

Step 1: Register Your School

Before you can compete in USABO, your school must register with the competition. This is a required step because the first round of USABO exams, the USABO Open, is administered totally online by individual schools and teachers. By registering, your school will have access to the USABO Open exam and be able to administer it to students at your school.  

 

Step 2: Register as a Participating Student

After your school has registered, you'll have to register as an individual student. Your school can’t register for you! You can register yourself for the USABO through the registration page on their website.  

 

Step 3: Compete in the USABO Open Exam (Round 1)

Once you’ve registered, you’ll be eligible to compete in the first round of USABO: the USABO Open. Any U.S. high school student who has registered and attends a registered school is eligible to take the USABO Open Exam

Here’s what you can expect from the USABO Open exam:

Administration
Online; proctored at a registered school or authorized USABO Test Center (classroom or location designated by the teacher/test administrator) within the online date and time period designated by the Center for Excellence in Education (CEE).
Length
50 minutes
Format
Multiple choice questions will one correct response
Additional Requirements 
No penalties for guessing. 
(US Citizenship and green card are not required for the Open Exam, but are required for students to progress to the Semifinal Exam.)

 

The top 10 percent of scorers on the USABO Open Exam qualify to progress to round two: the USABO Online Semifinal Exam. 

 

Step 4: Compete in the USABO Semifinal Exam (Round 2)

Like the USABO Open, the Semifinal Exam is administered online at your registered school or a USABO Testing Center. This test is almost twice the length of the Open exam. Additionally, this exam has short answer and/or essay questions, unlike the Open exam. 

Here’s a full breakdown of the USABO Semifinal Exam: 

Administration
Online; proctored at a registered school or authorized USABO Test Center (classroom or location designated by the teacher/test administrator) within the online date and time period designated by the Center for Excellence in Education (CEE).
Length
120 minutes
Format
An online exam containing three parts:
  • Part A is primarily multiple choice questions with one correct answer.

  • Part B has more complex, sequenced multiple choice questions that may have multiple correct answers and may require extensive calculation or interpretation of graphs.

  • Part C may be short answer or essay and multiple true/false choice questions. 
Additional Requirements 
No penalties for guessing. 

For Part B multiple choice questions with more than one answer, the question value will be 2 points if all correct responses are selected. 

Part C contains Short Answer and Multiple/True False (MTF) Questions. MTF questions will be scored as follows: 4 correct responses = 1 point; 3 = .6; 2 = .2; and 1 or 0 = 0. 
(US Citizenship and green card required for the Semifinal Exam.)

 

Students with the top 20 scores on the USABO Semifinal Exam will progress to round 3: the USABO National Finals. This is the round that determines whether you’ll make the USA Biolympiad Team that competes at the International Biolympiad (IBO) each year. 

 

Step 5: Compete in the USABO National Finals (Round 3)

The National Finals are a bit more intense than the first two rounds of USABO competition. Students who qualify will be invited to attend a ten-day training period at a host university, then will spend two days taking exams. Training activities are led by university professors and experts, so making it to this round of competition is a great opportunity to learn biology from the best. 

The exam format is also a bit different in the USABO National Finals round. Students will take both a Theoretical and a Practical Exam during this round of competition. The Practical Exam is essentially real-time laboratory tasks involving conceptual understanding and problem-solving; the Theoretical Exam will be very similar in format to the USABO Open and Semifinal exams. 

If you’re wondering, “How hard is USABO National Finals?”, here’s the full breakdown of this exam:

Administration

Held at a host university over a 12-day period with 10 days of instruction and two days of testing.

Length

Practical Exams are approximately six hours long.


Theoretical Exams are approximately three hours long.

Format

The National Final Exam is divided into two parts: a Theoretical Exam, and a Practical Exam. 

  • Practical: laboratory-based skills, techniques, data interpretation, and real-time laboratory competency exam involving conceptual understanding and problem solving.

  • Theoretical: multiple true/false choice questions and multiple choice involving interpretation of diagrams and graphs, integration of information, and data analysis.

Additional Requirements 

Room and board are provided for all National Final Exam participants, but students are responsible for their own transportation to and from the Finals.

NOTE: Each Finalist and guardian signs an agreement that prohibits participation in any other national academic Olympiad or summer program, such as the Research Science Institute.

(US Citizenship and green card required for the Final Exam.)

 

If you compete in the USABO National Finals, you’ll find out your results and standing at the competition. The students with the top four scores will be invited to join the USA Biolympiad Team, which moves on to compete in the IBO. 

 

Step 6: Compete in the IBO (Round 4)

If you make the Biolympiad Team, you’ll stay at the National Finals for an extra two or three days after the competition for additional training and prep with personal instruction for the IBO competition. 

The IBO itself is an eight-day competition where the Theoretical and Practical Exams are broken up over the course of multiple days. (The good news is that they follow the general format of the National exam.) 

Here’s what students can expect from the IBO competition: 

Day 
Activity
Day 1
Arrivals and welcome ceremony
Day 2
Social program, excursions, laboratory safety briefing
Day 3
Practical exams (typically 4x1.5 hours) 
Day 4
Social program, excursions 
Day 5
Theoretical exams (typically 2x3 hours), cultural events with jurors (at night) 
Day 6
Social program, excursions
Day 7
Social program, excursions, awards ceremony and gala dinner
Day 8
Departures

 

One of the fun aspects of the IBO competition is that students have the opportunity to spend time getting to know each other and the jurors who help judge the exams. It gives students time to decompress (and network!) beyond the competition! 

 

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4 Tips for Getting Started With USABO 

Now that you know the ins and outs of the USABO competitions, you might be wondering how to get involved! Getting into USABO competitions takes lots of initiative; to give you that extra push, we’ve put together four top tips for starting your USABO journey at your school. 

 

Tip 1: Get Teacher Support

The easiest way to get started with USABO is to have a trusted teacher in your corner. Seek out a biology teacher at your school to make sure your school is registered to administer USABO exams. 

If your teacher isn’t familiar with USABO, you can walk them through the USABO website, registration fee (it’s $95 for a one-year school registration), and the USABO exam schedule. Once you and your school have registered, you’ll be able to compete in the USABO Open Exam by simply taking it on-site at your school with a teacher administering the exam!

 

Tip 2: Register Early

Since your participation in USABO is contingent on your school’s registration, it’s important to start the process as early in the school year as possible. Both student and school registrations open in August, so learning about the registration process the summer before school starts will ensure all the pieces are in place once the school year is underway. 

Getting the logistical parts of USABO out of the way early will allow you to move on to the fun parts more quickly, like planning out how to study for USABO and recruiting other biology students to participate too!

 

Tip 3: Create a USABO Club

We’ve already mentioned that there’s no formal prep or training for the early rounds of USABO competition. That’s why USABO encourages interested students to form a USABO club at their high school!

Forming a USABO Club at your school is a great way to collaborate and prep with other students who are enthusiastic about biology competitions. USABO even provides some tips for how to start a USABO club, including helpful videos with advice from past USABO club members. Working with other students who want to compete can help you stay on track and serious about your USABO exam prep–and make the whole process a little more fun!

 

Tip 4: Use USABO’s Study Tips

Even though there’s no formal USABO curriculum, the contest still provides links to several helpful study resources on their website. When it comes to how to study for USABO, these are the best materials you can use to supplement all your school-based biology learning. 

Under USABO’s Student Corner, you’ll find links to general study resources, books recommended by USABO finalists, and links to past USABO exams with answer keys. Similar to prepping for the SAT/ACT and AP exams, using past exams to get familiar with the USABO exam format and content is the best way to get a leg-up in the USABO competition. 

 

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What’s Next? 

If you’re serious about the USABO, you might consider enrolling in either AP or IB Biology classes to help you prep. Check out this guide to IB Biology (and this guide to AP Biology!) to learn more about the curricular and course structures. 

Since there’s no official study guide for the USABO, finding good study materials is key. Our experts have put together a list of the best Biology study guides you can use to keep your study plan on track. 

Our blog has breakdowns of key biology concepts to help you understand them. For example, don’t miss this explanation of mitosis and this explainer that goes over the differences between mitosis and meiosis




These recommendations are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links, PrepScholar may receive a commission.

 

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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