A trio of MIT math undergrads has claimed the top team spot in the 78th annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. MIT students dominated the competition, taking 17 of the top 25 spots from among 4,638 test-takers from 575 institutions last December. Five of the six top scorers, who are named Putnam Fellows, four were from MIT. A total of 38 out of the 100 top scorers were MIT undergraduates.
With the announcement of the results, MIT can now claim the highest rank for four out of the past five years. Last year, the MIT team came in fourth.
"I am delighted that MIT undergraduates have again won first place in the 2017 Putnam Competition,” says Michael Sipser, the Donner Professor of Mathematics and Dean of Science at MIT. “This stunning performance reflects the extraordinary talent of our students and the superb coaching that they receive here. Kudos to all participants and to the Department of Mathematics.”
The Putnam is one of the most prestigious mathematical competitions in the U.S. and Canada, requiring competitors to attempt to solve 12 brutally challenging problems in six hours. The highest exam score was 90 out of a possible 120 points. Only 20 percent of participants earned a score above 13.
The school with the first-place team receives an award of $25,000. Each first-place team member receives $1,000. Putnam Fellows receive an award of $2,500.
On the MIT team were Putnam veterans Allen Liu, who is in his third year, and seniors Sammy Luo and Yunkun Zhou. This year’s Putnam Fellows are Omer Cerrahoglu, Jiyang Gao, Junyao Peng, Ashwin Sah, and Yunkun Zhou. Zhou is a three-time Putnam Fellow, in as many competitions.
The Institute's Putnam exam preparation was run by Yufei Zhao SB '10, PhD '15, who was recently appointed as an assistant professor in the MIT Department of Mathematics. Zhao was named a Putnam Fellow in 2006, 2008, and 2009. He also ranked seventh in 2007.
"I am incredibly proud of MIT students' amazing performance," says Zhao. "The success reminds us that the level of enthusiasm and strength of our math undergraduates is unmatched by anywhere else."
Students can prepare for the Putnam by taking 18.A34 (Mathematical Problem Solving Seminar), which last fall was taught by Zhao. As a freshman, Zhao had taken the class with professors Richard Stanley and Hartley Rogers. Each week in his seminar, Zhao presented a lecture on a specific topic for the students to solve in the next class.
“I get to see a lot of interesting and creative solutions presented by the students, and I think they had a fun time coming up and presenting their proof, often containing pretty cool and creative ideas,” Zhao says. “To be honest, there's very little that I can teach the group in a semester. The time is short, and they're all already so amazing. What I hope the seminar accomplished is to keep them interested in math problem solving, form a group so that they have friends to talk to, so that they don't end up getting rusty at solving math competition-type problems. Most of the top-performing students have had much more intensive competition training from their high school math contest days.”
Mathematics interim department head Michel Goemans offered his congratulations “to all participants and to Yufei Zhao.”
“It is a delight to have such a talented pool of students at MIT who are so passionate about mathematics,” Goemans says. “And let me also recognize the tremendous work of the admissions office, without whom this would have not been possible."