While many Yalies took the opportunity to catch up on sleep, more than 150 undergraduates sat for six hours starting Saturday morning, pen to paper, for a math exam — voluntarily.
The William Putnam Lowell Mathematical Competition, better known as the Putnam, is widely considered the most prestigious undergraduate math exam in the country. The exam, organized by the Mathematical Association of America, tests a wide variety of mathematical skills — including counting problems, calculus, linear, abstract algebra and geometry. Held in Leet Oliver Memorial Hall, the test consists of two parts, three hours each, with a two-hour break in between. A cadre of volunteers from the math community, led by professor Patrick Devlin and encouraged by the Yale Undergraduate Math Society, administered the test.
Of the over 150 Yalies — the largest number ever — who sat in LOM Saturday morning, some test-takers may have been drawn to compete by professor Patrick Devlin’s promise. The beloved math teacher told students that if more than 100 students took the test, he would dye his hair whatever color the students chose.
“Yale has always done well [on the exam],” Devlin said. “Since I’ve got here it has changed in size. Before I got here, it was very solidly at about 20 students the whole time [taking the exam].”
Last year, 4,638 students from 575 institutions across North America took the Putnam. 1,145 of those students achieved a score of zero out of a possible 120 points, and only 1,274 students scored more than 10 points. At Yale, 92 students took the test, 20 of them placed in the top 500, ranking fifth-highest for any institution that year. Carnegie Mellon, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and the University of Waterloo were the only institutions who did better according to this metric.
However, in the team score, Yale’s result was only good enough for 20th. As required by the association, Devlin selected three students prior to the test whose individual scores determined that team score.
The top five scorers each year are designated Putnam Fellows and receive $2,500 each for their achievement. They are also accepted to graduate school at Harvard, with tuition fully covered. Many Putnam Fellows have gone on to lead distinguished careers in math and physics and several have won Nobel Prizes for their work.
For some, the competition may also serve as a resume-booster. Students can also add their Putnam scores to their graduate school applications, Devlin noted.
“I think my Putnam score got me in to graduate school,” Devlin said. “The Putnam is cool because it’s another sort of equalizer.”
Many students took the test after months of preparation. About 80 students who took the exam also took the Putnam Seminar, MATH 199, a Credit/D/Fail course designed to prepare students for the test, according to Devlin, who teaches the course alongside fellow professor Ross Berkowitz. The class, in its second consecutive year, meets once a week for one and a half hours to solve previous exam questions and identify strategies that would be helpful on the test. Others students prepared for the test in “Vector Calculus and Linear Algebra I,” known among math students by its course number MATH 230, where students occasionally complete Putnam problems on their problem sets.
Matt King ‘22 had taken the so-called “mini-Putnam,” or the Virginia Tech Regional Mathematics Contest, in October as a warmup for the test.
“I got two points out of 70 on that one,” King said. “The questions were really hard, but I was able to finish about half of them. I kind of expected the same out of the Putnam, but the Putnam is worse. I did not end up finishing any of the questions.”
For Charles Kenney ’19, this year’s exam was more difficult than last year’s. Despite its difficulty, students still emphasized that the test was a fun way to spend their Saturday morning.
“There’s so many times when it’s just ‘We’re trying to finish the problem set and we have to get it done by Monday,’ that it’s nice to just sit down and for three hours think about nothing but one problem,” said Nancy Xu ’22, a student in Devlin’s calculus and linear algebra class. “Even if you can get an inch further on that problem, then you know you put everything into it.”
On a test with a minimum score of 0, Grace Zdeblick ’21 said she’s just hoping for a nonnegative score.
Students who took the exam will receive their scores in late February.
Jose Davila IV | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Dec. 3: Because of misinformation given to the reporter, a previous version of this article stated that the Putnam Seminar meets for two and a half hours a week. In fact, it only meets for one and a half hours a week.
Correction, Dec. 3: A previous version of this article stated that the top scorer of the Putnam exam received acceptance to graduate school at Harvard, with tuition fully covered. In fact, all the Putnam fellows are given this prize. In addition, the exam does not have a top scorer. The top five scorers are all designated Putnam fellows, but they are not given their actual scores.