Over 150 Yale students are registered for The William Putnam Lowell Mathematical Competition, which has been called both the most prestigious and most difficult math competition in the United States.
This year’s Yale contingent is more than three times as large as any year since 2009, and may be the largest ever, according to math professor Patrick Devlin, who is organizing the exam at Yale this year. Devlin told the News he expects around 115 of these students to sit for the exam, which will be administered in Leet Oliver Memorial Hall, on Saturday. They will join thousands of other undergraduates across the country.
Devlin attributed the vastly increased turnout this year to the efforts of the Yale Undergraduate Math Society.
“The [Math Society] has been revitalizing a lot of the community stuff here and people are rallying around that,” Devlin told the News.
Dating back to 1999, the group of 154 students from Yale who have registered for the exam this year is more than three times as large as any other year’s group, except those is 2007 and 2009 — and it is still twice as large as those years’ groups. The same statistics indicate that since 1999, no more than 27 students have actually sat for the exam, as opposed to just registering, in any given year.
Taking the exam is “definitely a special experience,” Devlin said. Organized by the Mathematical Association of America, the exam consists of two three-hour parts separated by a two-hour lunch break. It challenges students’ comprehension of a range of mathematical concepts from counting problems to calculus to linear and abstract algebra and geometry.
The highest scorer on the exam nationally receives free tuition for graduate school at Harvard, which was William Lowell Putnam’s alma mater. The top five students on the test are designated Putnam Fellows and, according to the Putnam Competition, “recent cash prizes for the top five individuals have been $2,500 each.” According to the MAA’s website, several Putnam Fellows have gone on to successful research careers in mathematics and physics, with several fellows winning the Fields Medal, often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of mathematics,” and the Nobel Prize in Physics.
The exam has a universal reputation for difficulty. The median score on the exam in 2014, for example, was a mere three points out of 120 — last year, according to MIT News, the median was just one point. On at least seven occasions over the course of the last 50 years, more than half of the people who took the test received a score of 0.
Aaron Berger ’18, co-president of the Yale Undergraduate Mathematics Society, was Yale’s highest scorer last year.
“Keep in mind that it’s also a self-selecting group of students who end up taking it so even given that self-selection, the median is sometimes zero,” Berger told the News. “So it’s hard, but that’s not to say that it’s necessarily unsolvable. I think especially for people who have had experience in competition math in high school, you can feel more confident about being able to … attack the problems.”
This past fall, the Mathematics Department has also offered a training seminar for the Putnam examination, called “Mathematical Problem Solving,” taught by Devlin. According to Yale’s online course selection demand statistics, 45 students enrolled in the course for credit this semester. Professor Devlin estimated, however, that typically around 55 students come to the seminar any given week. Many more students audit it informally.
This year marks the first time the math department has offered a formal seminar or training course for the exam since 2014. In fall 2015, the course was canceled due to low demand, and in fall 2016, it was not listed. Berger recalled that, three years ago, the last time the seminar was offered, there were only three regular enrolled undergraduate attendees, with around three more students who audited the course regularly throughout the semester.
Matthew Larson ’19, an intensive mathematics major at Yale, said he is hoping for an honorable mention this year.
The Putnam “was definitely a motivating factor to study math, especially freshman year,” Larson said.
Kueho Choi ’21, meanwhile, is taking the Putnam exam for the first time. He said he will be happy with whatever score he gets, and is excited to be around so many other people interested in math.
Putnam graduated from Harvard in 1882.
Keshav Raghavan | firstname.lastname@example.org