Tao exhibited extraordinary mathematical abilities from an early age, attending university-level mathematics courses at the age of 9. He and Lenhard Ng are the only two children in the history of the Johns Hopkins' Study of Exceptional Talent program to have achieved a score of 700 or greater on the SAT math section while just nine years old; Tao scored a 760. Tao was the youngest participant to date in the International Mathematical Olympiad, first competing at the age of ten; in 1986, 1987, and 1988, he won a bronze, silver, and gold medal. He remains the youngest winner of each of the three medals in the Olympiad's history, winning the gold medal shortly after his thirteenth birthday.
At age 14, Tao attended the Research Science Institute. When he was 15, he published his first assistant paper. In 1991, he received his bachelor's and master's degrees at the age of 16 from Flinders University under Garth Gaudry. In 1992 he won a Fulbright Scholarship to undertake postgraduate study in the United States. From 1992 to 1996, Tao was a graduate student at Princeton University under the direction of Elias Stein, receiving his PhD at the age of 21. He then (in 1996) joined the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1999, when he was 24, he was promoted to full professor at UCLA and remains the youngest person ever appointed to that rank by the institution.
He received the Salem Prize in 2000, the Bôcher Memorial Prize in 2002, and the Clay Research Award in 2003, for his contributions to analysis including work on the Kakeya conjecture and wave maps. In 2005, he received the American Mathematical Society's Levi L. Conant Prize with Allen Knutson for a proof of the Horn conjecture, and in 2006 he was awarded the SASTRA Ramanujan Prize.
For this and other work Tao was awarded the Australian Mathematical Society Medal of 2004.
He was awarded a Fields Medal in August 2006 at the 25th International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid. He was the first Australian, the first UCLA faculty member, and one of the youngest mathematicians to receive the award.
In 2007, Tao and Van H. Vu solved the circular law conjecture.
In December 2008, he was named the Lars Onsager lecturer of 2008, for "his combination of mathematical depth, width and volume in a manner unprecedented in contemporary mathematics". He was presented the Onsager Medal, and held his Lars Onsager lecture entitled "Structure and randomness in the prime numbers" at NTNU, Norway.
Tao was also elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.
In 2010, joint work with Ben Green culminated in the proof of the Hardy-Littlewood prime tuples conjecture for any linear system of finite complexity.
In 2012, in joint work with longtime co-author Ben Green, proofs were announced for the Dirac-Motzkin conjecture and the "orchard-planting problem" (which asks for the maximum number of lines through exactly 3 points in a set of n points in the plane, not all on a line). That same year, Tao published the first monograph on the topic of Higher Order Fourier Analysis.
Tao also made contributions to the study of the Erdős–Straus conjecture in 2011, by showing that the number of solutions to the Erdős–Straus equation increases polylogarithmically as n tends to infinity.
In 2014, Tao received a CTY Distinguished Alumni Honor from Johns Hopkins Center for Gifted and Talented Youth in front of 963 attendees in 8th and 9th grade that are in the same program that Tao graduated from. That year, Tao presented work on a possible attack on the notorious Navier–Stokes existence and smoothness Millennium Problem, by establishing finite time blowup for an averaged three-dimensional Navier-Stokes equation. That year he also, jointly with several co-authors, proved several results on short and long prime gaps.
In September 2015, Tao announced a proof of the Erdős discrepancy Problem, using for the first time entropy-estimates within analytic number theory.
By 2016 Tao had published about 300 research papers and 17 books. He has an Erdős number of 2.