I stumbled upon an old blog post on the Lesswrong weblog that quotes several famous mathematicians on the connections, or lack thereof, between mathematics competitions and mathematics research. Let me tell you how a seventh grade math contest altered the course of my life.
In 1975 I attended seventh grade in a middle school in upstate New Jersey. The school divided the students into three tracks, honors, standard and remedial, and I was an unexceptional student in the standard track. We all took a math pretest to determine who would represent the school in a state-wide competition. To everyone's surprise, especially my own, I killed on the test scoring twice as many points as anyone else. The school adjusted my course schedule but because of my not-so-great English skills I became the only student taking honors math and science and standard English and History (with a racist history teacher but that's another story). I think I came in 12th in the state competition.
I never did well in math contests after that, doing okay but not particularly strong in high school competitions. But the experience drove me to what we now call STEM. I got involved in computers and math in high school which led me to study engineering, briefly, at Cornell. I did make the Putnam team as a freshman at Cornell, but scored a zero which pretty much ended my career in math competitions.
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