Yale team places fifth in prestigious Putnam mathematics competition
A Yale team ranked in the top five of the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition for the first time in 30 years, earning $5,000 for the department.
Zoe Berg, Senior Photographer
For the first time in 30 years, a Yale team placed in the top five of the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition — the most prestigious mathematics competition for undergraduates. The University received a cash prize of $5,000, with additional prize money awarded to the individual competitors.
Yale’s delegation competed against 455 other institutions. The four that bested Yale were — in descending order — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Harvard College and the University of Maryland.
“Preparing [for the Putnam] really comes down to truly understanding mathematics and training your mathematical intuition to better see the crux of a problem,” wrote Richie Hsiung ’25. “This intuition takes a very long time to develop. This makes it more of a problem solving exam, with math as a vessel, rather than a math exam.”
A total of 3,415 competitors sat individually for a six-hour mathematics exam, which entails 12 rigorous problems. The test is split into two three-hour segments of six questions each, with 10 possible points per question. Hsiung was Yale’s top scorer, placing 20th overall.
Cash prizes are given on both an individual and team basis. The five students with the highest individual scores are named Putnam Fellows, and they each receive a cash award of $2,500. The next 11 highest-ranking individuals receive a cash award of $1,000, and the next nine are awarded $250. Putnam grants individual honorable mentions to students who fall between rank 25 and 100 but no associated cash prize.
In addition to these individual awards, the winner of the Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize is recognized as a woman competitor who demonstrated “particularly meritorious” performance, according to the tournament website, and receives $1,000.
All five Putnam Fellows and the winner of the Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize competed with MIT. Hsiung was the only Yale student to place among the top 25 individual scorers, and fellow Yalie Andrew Milas ’24 received an honorable mention for placing in the top 100.
To determine team awards, the top three individual scores from each institution are summed, and the schools with the five highest totals earn a seat in the team rankings. The top three Yale scorers — Hsiung, Milas and Deyuan Li ’24 — secured Yale a seat as the fifth-place team overall, winning $5,000 for the school, and as the top three in their delegation, each took home $200 for themselves individually.
Competitors can score up to 10 points for each of the 12 exam questions. Hsiung said that although scores of five and above on each question are extremely difficult to attain, the difference between a five and a perfect score can oftentimes be a short justification. While Hsiung expressed his frustration with the grading system, he also noted that he was happy one of his solutions earned nine points — close to full credit.
“I had 30 seconds left to write up a solution to that problem, and realized that it would simply be impossible, so I repurposed my scratch work for that problem. … I thought I’d get one or zero points, because the Putnam graders are known to be harsh, so I was quite pleasantly surprised,” he wrote.
The top-ranked team — which was MIT this year — earns a prize $25,000, with each individual competitor receiving an additional $1,000. Honorable mentions are awarded to teams who come in sixth through tenth place.
Jeffrey Brock, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science, told the News that Hsiung, Milas and Li all are majoring in Computer Science and Mathematics, which is an interdepartmental major that falls both within SEAS and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. To Brock, the team’s recent win reflects the positives that can emerge from interdisciplinary collaborations across SEAS and FAS departments.
“I like to imagine that the openness of the CS department of supporting and collaborating with students who have these math interests is just all-around good news,” said Brock. “It’s that spirit of inclusion that probably led to our doing better [on the exam].”
Dean Brock noted the role of creativity in helping students succeed on the exam, explaining that a large number undergraduates are “creative in some way,” regardless of their major. He explained that SEAS has since made several efforts to incorporate this sense of creativity into engineering, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Brock also credited former Gibbs Assistant Professor of mathematics Patrick Devlin, who left the University’s mathematics department after the spring of 2022, with popularizing the Putnam. He added that after Devlin’s departure, professors Miki Havlíčková and Mihai Alboiu continued to foster a “participatory” and “fun” community around the exam.
“It’s something that people are proud of and want to participate in,” Brock said.
Li placed in the top 200, as did Ran Wang ’23. Eleven more Yalies — Seojun Lee ’26, William Ning ’26, Andrei Parfeni ’25, Tushar Patel ’25, Vismay Sharan ’25, Jason Wang ’25, Stephen Yin ’24, Michael Ying ’24, Aaron Yu ’25, David Zeng ’24 and Grant Zhang ’26 — placed in the top 500 of over 3,000 competitors.
The highest scorer on the exam this year, an MIT student, earned 101 of 120 possible points.
“I would like to congratulate each and every student participant in this year’s Putnam Competition,” said Putnam Competition Director Daniel Ullman in a press release. “No matter how well a student performs in the competition, the experience of engaging intensely with challenging problems develops the student’s mathematical power and creativity. Kudos to every participant.”
A total of 3,415 students participated in the 2022 Putnam Competition, which was held on Dec. 3, 2022. Results were announced on Feb. 13, 2023.