The results of the 2015 Putnam Competition were recently released, securing the MIT team’s first-place ranking–our team has finished in first place for three consecutive years. This year, the winning team consisted of Mark Sellke ’18, Bobby Shen ’17, and David Yang ’17. The Putnam Fellows from MIT are David Yang ’17 and Yunkun Zhou ’19.
Maybe you’ve heard of the Putnam–but for those who haven’t, it is a six-hour proof-based college math competition held on the first Saturday of December. The Mathematical Association of America (MAA)–the organization responsible for running the AMC, AIME, USAJMO, and USAMO high-school math contests–has administered the exam annually since 1938. The exam is notoriously difficult–the median score is frequently 0; in 2015, it was 2 points out of a possible 120.
Individuals are ranked based on their raw scores, and the five (or more, if there are ties) highest-scoring individuals are named “Putnam Fellows.” Each participating university also selects a team of 3 students to represent the university; schools are ranked according to the sum of the ranks of the team members. The school with the lowest sum of ranks is the winner.
In the MIT press release regarding the team’s 2014 win, 2015 team member (and 2014 Putnam Fellow) Mark Sellke remarked, “all six of [the 2014] Fellows have previously earned gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad for high-school students.”
Because the skills that lead to success in high school math competitions carry over to the Putnam, it’s no surprise that the top performers on the IMO go on to succeed in the Putnam. Math competitions are much less of a big deal in college than in high school, in part because college students are often the ones organizing the math competitions for high schoolers. The Putnam is the primary math competition for college students, and contestants don’t tend to do much to prepare–they might look over a few problems the day before, but that’s about it. Having taken the Putnam twice myself, and having spent time with some of the top performers, I can confirm that the exam is taken primarily for fun, for the pleasure of solving problems.
This is one of the best parts of the MIT experience–being surrounded by peers who are happy to get up at 9 AM on a Saturday in December to solve math problems for six hours. Also: learning alongside peers who can, with little to no preparation, score 99 points on an exam with median score 2.
Congratulations to the MIT team, to the Fellows, and to all contestants!