United States National Chemistry Olympiad
The United States National Chemistry Olympiad (or USNCO) is a contest held by the American Chemical Society (ACS) used to select the four-student team that represents the United States at the International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO).
Each local ACS section selects, in whatever way it chooses, eight students (or more for larger ACS sections) to take the USNCO National Exam. More than 1000 students participate in the National Exam annually. One way to select these students is with the USNCO Local Exam, which is a significantly easier version of the National Exam consisting of 60 multiple choice questions. Thus, the first step on the path to the USA IChO team is usually the local exam, which attracts around 12,000 participants each year.
The National Exam consists of three parts.
The first part contains 60 multiple-choice questions. Each question has four answer choices. The questions are loosely grouped into 10 sets of 6 items; each set corresponds to a different chemistry topic. Typically, the topics are, in order, descriptive chemistry/laboratory techniques, stoichiometry, gases/liquids/solids, thermodynamics, kinetics, equilibrium, electrochemistry, electronic structure/periodic trends, bonding theories, and organic chemistry. There is no penalty for guessing; a student's score is equal to the number of questions answered correctly. One and a half hours (90 minutes) are allotted for this first part.
The second part contains 8 free response questions. Complete written explanations and calculations are required for full credit on a question, and partial credit is awarded. More thorough knowledge of basic theories is required, and often there are questions on less-emphasized portions of normal high school chemistry curricula, such as organic chemistry and coordination chemistry. One hour and 45 minutes (105 minutes) are allowed for this section.
Beginning in 1994, the lab practical was added to the National Exam. It contains two tasks to be performed by each student with only the specified materials, and students are expected to describe their procedures and organize their findings. Past tasks have included chromatography, titration and qualitative analysis, and 90 minutes are allotted to complete the two experiments.
Limitations to participation
USA representation limits
As the USNCO is seen as a process in which potential candidates for the USA IChO team, only United States passport-holding residents may proceed to the training camp from the USNCO. Further, those who are deemed not fit to represent the United States for discipline reasons during the training camp may be barred from selection for the IChO team, although such cases are extremely rare. A maximum of two students from the same educational institution are allowed to participate in the USNCO, even if more students qualify for the USNCO in a local section based on score. This rule prevents a science-oriented school from sending excessive numbers of people to the training camp.
USNCO Study Camp and other recognition
The top 20 scorers on the USNCO National Exam are invited to participate in the two-week USNCO Study Camp at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At the camp, the students are tested (both free response and lab testing), and the top four students are selected to comprise the U.S. IChO team. Two alternates are also selected, although no alternate has ever actually been called up for duty.
In addition, the top 50 students are recognized as achieving "High Honors", and the top 150 students earn "Honors" designation.
Scope of the test as compared to the IChO
The purpose of the USNCO is to stimulate all young people to achieve excellence in chemistry. Therefore, the focus of the exam is not necessarily to select the top twenty students, and instead to present a wide selection of basic questions. Therefore, the scope of the USNCO is different than the scope of what would be expected at the training camp or IChO.