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The William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition is the premier mathematics prize exam for undergraduate students in North America (U.S. and Canada). This page is an overview of MIT's participation in the competition, intended primarily for current or prospective MIT students, although some of the information may be of broader interest. For information about the competition not specific to MIT, see the official Putnam competition web site or the AMC Putnam site.



Results from the 2009 Putnam exam have been released; see this Art of Problem Solving thread. We are still awaiting the MIT individual results; those will eventually be available from Profs. Kedlaya and Stanley.

Exam mechanics

MIT's Putnam participation is coordinated by Prof. Richard Stanley, assisted by Kiran Kedlaya. Consult either of us for additional information about MIT participation. For more information about the competition as a whole, see the official competition web site.

One can sign up at the Undergraduate Math Office (room 2-108), usually for a couple of weeks in October. There is no harm in signing up even if you are not certain you wish to participate, as long as you notify Prof. Stanley if you decide not to take the exam. If you miss the signup period, contact the UMO to get on the waiting list. If all else fails, you may still be able to take the exam on standby, by showing up early for the first session.

The competition is held every year on the first Saturday in December, in two three-hour sessions consisting of six problems each. At MIT, the sessions are held in Walker Memorial (3rd floor) and run 10 AM-1 PM and 3 PM-6 PM. Between the two sessions, lunch is typically provided in the math department common room (2-290). Please arrive on time for the sessions, as otherwise your place may be given to a standby participant.

Aftermath and results

After the exam is given, solutions are typically discussed in the seminar 18.S34. Prof. Kedlaya also typically posts solutions and commentary to the AMC Putnam site.

Sometime in the spring (usually March), overall results of the competition, and individual scores for MIT participants, are mailed to MIT. (They are mailed from California, so you are likely to see overall results discussed at Art of Problem Solving and/or in other fora before we receive them here.) After the results arrive at MIT (an event which is announced on this web site), you can obtain your individual score (in person or by email) from Prof. Kedlaya or Prof. Stanley.

Beware that scores are typically lower than you might expect. Grading is rather strict, and partial credit is limited: out of a maximum of 10 points, the scores awarded on an individual problem usually belong to the subset {0, 1, 2, 8, 9, 10}.

Prizes earned by MIT students are usually presented at a dinner party sometime after results are announced. Eligible students will be contacted individually about this.

Team competition

Although students take the exam individually, there is also a team competition with its own prizes. Each school must designate three students in advance as the members of its team; the ranks (not the scores) of these students are added, and the lowest sum wins. (These factors combine to create a disconnect between the individual and team results. I believe this disconnect was an intentional design feature.)

MIT's team usually consists of the three participating students with the highest results on the previous year's exam (which would preclude first-time participants). However, the choice is ultimately at the discretion of Profs. Stanley and Kedlaya, whose decision is final.

Preparation for the exam

Profs. Kedlaya and Stanley run a 6-unit undergraduate seminar (18.S34) to prepare interested students for the Putnam. Enrollment is limited, with preference given to students with some prior experience with proof-oriented math competitions ("Olympiads").

The Undergraduate Math Association typically hosts some practice sessions in the weeks before the exam.

For those with some experience with proof-oriented math competitions, the first best step towards training for the Putnam is trying some questions from prior exams, to get used to the somewhat different style of the questions.

  • The best sources for past exam problems, with solutions and additional discussion, are the three Putnam books published by the Mathematical Association of America.
  • All of the problems were formerly available (without solutions) at John Scholes's site. This site has gone offline, but some mirrors exist (Google for "kalva putnam").
  • Problems and solutions from the last 10-odd years, plus results of the competition, are available at the AMC Putnam archive.

MIT past performance

MIT has historically been one of the schools with the most participants (well over 100 per year in recent years), as well as some of the best results. In the team competition, MIT has placed among the top 5 schools on 36 out of 65 occasions, including first place finishes in 2003 and 2004. At the individual level, in several recent years, MIT students represented over 50% of those ranked among the top 25 participants, and over 30% of those ranked Honorable Mention or above (approximately the top 75 participants). The corresponding data for the top 200 participants is also available, but I have not computed the percentage yet.

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