Yes, I was a mathlete.
Of course, we didn’t call it that back then—”nerd” was the accepted nomenclature. Regardless, in the 8th grade I came in first place in the city’s annual mathematics competition for our grade level. (This was Colorado Springs, CO, so that hardly counts as a brag.) The top four qualifiers earned a bonus challenge: We were given an additional set of questions, one at a time, with a few minutes alone to work them out, and then brought in front of an audience to present your results to the judges. The idea of standing in front of an audience mortified me, and I spent the endless minutes until my turn trying not to throw up. But when I saw the questions, I begged them to let me surrender, walk away in shame instead of embarrassing myself in public—they were all about finding the volumes of shapes defined by a triangle rotated around an axis: various additions and subtractions of cones. I hadn’t learned the equation for the volume of a cone.
Jumping ahead to the punch line: I didn’t embarrass myself entirely, I got third place out of four (and a sweet HP 15C!) because the next mathlete couldn’t draw a picture of what these shapes looked like and I could. That was my “aha!” moment where I realized that tests aren’t always about seeing if you know the answer, but instead seeing how you get to the answer. When I look back on that, I like to think that if I’d been calmer I would have realized that the volume of a cone is proportional to its height and to the square of its radius, and gotten almost all the way to the finish line, just short some mystery constant. (1/3, I was told the second I stepped off stage.) But that’s maybe asking a bit much of 13-year-old me.
Most importantly: Be yourself. Be the person you’d be if you were working with them. Because that’s what they’re looking for.