Hal Burch conducted an analysis over spring break of 1999 and made an amazing discovery: there are only 16 types of programming contest problems! Furthermore, the top several comprise almost 80% of the problems seen at the IOI. Here they are:
Recursive Search Techniques
Minimum Spanning Tree
Two-Dimensional Convex Hull
Ad Hoc Problems
The most challenging problems are Combination Problems which involve a loop (combinations, subsets, etc.) around one of the above algorithms - or even a loop of one algorithm with another inside it. These seem extraordinarily tricky to get right, even though conceptually they are ``obvious''.