The Putnam Mathematical Competition at ISU
our PUTNAM BLOG
What is the Putnam Competition?
The Putnam Exam
(officially known as the William Lowell Putnam Math
is a very challenging, six-hour mathematics exam administered by the
Mathematical Association of America. This prestigious exam is taken by about 3,600
undergraduates in the United States and Canada each year. It is given
on the first Saturday in December, and is composed of two 3-hour sessions,
one in the morning and one in the afternoon, each with six
questions. Each question is worth 10 points (for a total of
Putnam, a graduate of Harvard in the class of 1882, believed strongly
in the value of academic competitions. To this end, Mrs. Elizabeth
Lowell Putnam, the wife of Mr. Putnam, created a trust fund for
competitions in memory of her husband. Two experimental competitions were held, one in English,
and one in mathematics, before the competition assumed its present
form in 1938.
Scholarships and cash prizes ranging from $250 to $2,500 for the
top students and $5,000 to $25,000 for the top schools are given by
the Putnam committee.
Am I eligible?
If you are an undergraduate student and enjoy solving math problems, then
YES, you are eligible to take part in this exam. There is no
registration fee, and we submit your registration on behalf of the ISU
mathematics department. There are a couple of
minor restrictions. You should not have received a college degree and
you may not participate more than 4 times. Keep in mind that
Putnam is a very hard exam. Typically, the median score for all
contestants is approximately one (out of 120).
But let that not discourage you! It is fun to try and solve hard
problems. Even a partial success after a long struggle with a hard problem can make you feel like a million dollars!
Preparing for a Putnam competition can be an
enriching mathematical experience for a good student, and success in
the competition is definitely something students should proudly
mention in their resumes. So why not give it a try?
What topics does this exam cover?
The examination is constructed to test originality as well as
technical competence. It is expected that the contestant will be
familiar with the formal theories embodied in undergraduate
mathematics. It is assumed that such training, designed for
mathematics and physical science majors, will include somewhat more
sophisticated mathematical concepts than is the case in minimal
courses. For instance, the differential equations course is presumed to
include some references to qualitative existence theorems and
subtleties beyond the routine solution devices.
Questions will be included that cut across the bounds of various
disciplines, and self-contained questions that do not fit into any of
the usual categories may be included. It will be assumed that the
contestant has acquired a familiarity with the body of mathematical
lore commonly discussed in mathematics clubs or in courses with such
titles as "survey of the foundations of mathematics". It is also
expected that the self-contained questions involving
elementary concepts from group theory, set theory, graph theory, lattice theory, number theory, and cardinal arithmetic will not be entirely foreign to the contestant's experience.
Here are some old
Putnam exams which will give you a better idea of the nature and
standard of this competition.
How can I participate?
Each year the Putnam exam will be held on the first Saturday in the
month of December.
If you wish to participate (I hope you will), you must register by
There will be two sessions on the day of the exam. Sesssion A from
9:00 am - 12 noon and Session B from 2:00 pm - 5:00 pm.
Free lunch will be provided between the two sessions (courtesy
of the ISU Mathematics Department) for those who take
Putnam Competition Sites
Putnam Preparation Web Sites
Here is a selection of Putnam
Preparatory Seminars at various colleges. Note that some of these sites move
Some Useful Problem Books
can be obtained from the library through ISHARE
Collection of Putnam probems:
Putnam level and some easier problems grouped by subject.
Collections of elementary problems appropriate for freshmen:
A classic on problem solving strategies:
College Mathematics Journals with Problem Sections
Horizons (MAA) is a magazine aimed at undergraduates with a
very accessible problem section.
Magazine (MAA) is an expository journal of undergraduate
mathematics, with an a good problem section for the undergraduate.
- The College
Mathematics Journal (MAA) provides lively, well-motivated
articles that can enrich undergraduate instruction and enhance
- The American
Mathematical Monthly publishes articles about mathematics and the
profession. Its readers span a broad spectrum of mathematical
and include professional mathematicians as well as students of
mathematics at all collegiate levels. The problem section is quite
challenging, and often contains unsolved problems.
Other Online Problem Competition and Sources
Online Mathematical Resources
by Sunil Chebolu
Last Updated: Sep 20, 2010