The Putnam Competition

By Robert Godkin (ChE ’18) and Daniel Galperin (ChE ’18)

The Putnam Mathematical Competition, founded in 1927 by Elizabeth Lowell Putnam in memory of her husband William Lowell Putnam, is considered one of the most prestigious mathematics competitions in the world. 

Held every December, the competition consists of twelve problems of varying difficulty, with problems typically requiring creative, well-structured and well-defined solutions. Historically, the competition has had a special place at Cooper, with several of our professors having taken the exam as undergraduate students. 

This semester, there have been meetings and study sessions to prepare for the upcoming 2015 exam. The preparation has largely been coordinated by Professor Smyth with  the help of Professor Mintchev, along with several upperclassmen who have more recent experience with test questions and solving strategies.

Because questions can be confusing and challenging, Professor Smyth says that students should be proud of getting “a single point” on the exam. The average score is a 0 or a 1, out of a total of 120 points, showing that getting even a single question correct proves to be ever so difficult. Professor Smyth explains, “the graders are allowed to give partial credit out of 10 points, but they really only use the numbers 0, 1, 9 and 10, so it’s possible to get three quarters through a problem and only receive one point of credit.” 

In the past, only one Cooper Union team has placed 3rd (1951), with Peter John Redmond (‘51) being named a Putnam fellow after placing in the top 5 scores in that year. Some of the students that are preparing for the exam say they take the exam to become more confident in both their mathematics, and their test-taking abilities. Qing Xu (ME ‘18) says that “confidence is really important — especially in exams; being able to not freak out when a hard problem is encountered will help in scoring [highly].”

Normally, close to 10-20 Cooper Union students will register to take the exam, however this year Professor Smyth noted, “there is a larger interest from younger students, first year students particularly.” He also mentioned that there are always a few ‘no-shows’ every year, however those that do take the exam are in for an all-day ordeal. The exam is given in 2 parts, each part lasting 3 hours with a 2- hour break in the middle, during which the students are treated to lunch with the professors. 

Some of the highest scores to come from Cooper in recent years have been in the 20’s and 30’s range, which is certainly a feat worth admiring. On behalf of The Pioneer, we wish the students taking the exam in December the best of luck. Break a leg!

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