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MIT students dominate annual Putnam Mathematical Competition

Participating MIT students make history by taking all top five spots — the first time this has happened for any school.
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MIT students set records at this year’s Putnam Competition: (left to right) Shengtong Zhang, Yuan Yao, Kevin Sun, Daniel Zhu, Qi Qi, and Dain Kim. Not pictured: Ashwin Sah.
MIT students set records at this year’s Putnam Competition: (left to right) Shengtong Zhang, Yuan Yao, Kevin Sun, Daniel Zhu, Qi Qi, and Dain Kim. Not pictured: Ashwin Sah.
Photo: Sandi Miller
MIT students in Walker Memorial were among 4,229 test-takers from 570 U.S. and Canadian institutions taking a six-hour exam on December 7, 2019.
MIT students in Walker Memorial were among 4,229 test-takers from 570 U.S. and Canadian institutions taking a six-hour exam on December 7, 2019.
Photo: Sandi Miller

Each December, thousands of undergraduates participate in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, the premier math contest in the United States and Canada. The 80th annual exam was held on Dec. 7, 2019, and results were announced Feb. 18. For the first time in Putnam’s history, all five of the top spots in the contest, known as Putnam Fellows, came from a single school — MIT.

MIT students also dominated the rest of the scoreboard: nine of the next 11, eight of the next 12, and 33 of the following 80 honorable mention rankings. Among the top 192 test-takers overall, 76 were MIT students.

The 2019 Putnam Fellows, listed in alphabetical order, are seniors Ashwin Sah and Kevin Sun, junior Yuan Yao, sophomore Shengtong Zhang, and first-year Daniel Zhu. Yao and Zhang were 2018 Putnam Fellows, and Sah was a 2017 Putnam Fellow. Among the three top scorers — Sah, Zhang, and Zhu — two earned a nearly perfect score, and one (who prefers not to be named) earned a perfect score of 120 points. This is only the fifth time in Putnam's history that a test-taker received a perfect score.

Competitors were also ranked by participating institution. Starting in 2019, the ranking is based on the three top scorers from each institution (while in previous years, it was based on the scores of three preselected individuals). MIT came in first as a team since the three top scorers, Sah, Zhang, and Zhu, are all from MIT. This is the MIT team’s fifth first-place win in the past seven years. This year, Harvard University came in second and Stanford University came in third.

The Department of Mathematics will also honor two top-scoring female students, first-year Dain Kim and junior Qi Qi, at an awards dinner that will be held in the spring. Qi was one of three recipients for the 2019 Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize, given to top female contestants. She is the fourth MIT student to receive this honor since the award began in 1992. 

The honors come with cash awards. The institution with the first-place team receives $25,000, and each member of the team receives $1,000. Each Putnam Fellow receives $2,500, the next 11 highest-ranking individuals each receive $1,000, and the next 12 highest-ranking individuals each receive $250. The Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize carries a $1,000 award, and the Department of Mathematics will also give a $1,000 special prize to Dain Kim.

“This was unprecedented,” says Yufei Zhao, Class of 1956 Career Development Assistant Professor of Mathematics, who coaches first-year students for the competitions via the Putnam Seminar in the fall, and also oversees the competition at MIT. “It was a pretty surreal result. I am extremely proud of our students’ phenomenal performance at the Putnam Competition. We are very happy to see that our undergraduate community is home to such an exceptional group of students.”

The Department of Mathematics’ PRIMES program, which attracts many top high school math-inclined students to its STEM classes, also boasted of many alumni among the top scorers, including Zhu and 15 other MIT students, and three Harvard students — including a "next-12" finisher, Franklyn Wang, and an Elizabeth Lowell Putnam co-winner Laura Pierson.

Many MIT Putnam competitors have prepared for the exam by participating in the first-year Putnam Seminar 18.A34 (Mathematical Problem Solving, Putnam Seminar), taught by Zhao, who was a three-time Putnam Fellow when he was an undergraduate at MIT. Through the seminar, Zhao encourages students to “use their experience in math competitions as a springboard onto higher mathematics,” and emphasizes the importance of good communication and presentation skills.

A number of Putnam competitors go on to have successful research careers. Several faculty members of the Department of Mathematics were Putnam Fellows: Davesh Maulik, Bjorn Poonen, Peter Shor, David Vogan, and Zhao. In Putnam’s history, only eight participants were four-time Putnam Fellows, including Poonen, and three of them were MIT students. In fact, the first four-time Putnam Fellow was former MIT student Don Coppersmith '72, who went on to have a successful research career in cryptography.

Success at math competitions “is neither necessary nor sufficient to becoming a good research mathematician,” according to Zhao. Nevertheless, he believes that the skills promoted by math competitions can be useful in research mathematics. Zhao regularly works with MIT undergraduate students to produce cutting-edge research results. “I am very fortunate to work with these amazing students,” says Zhao.

Administered by the Mathematical Association of America, the competition included 150 MIT students among 4,229 test-takers from 570 U.S. and Canadian institutions. The six-hour exam, taken over two sessions on the first Saturday of December each year, consists of 12 problems worth 10 points each. Fewer than a fourth of all participants of this competition scored more than 10 points total, and the median score was 2.

Complete results from the competition can be found on the MAA website. For more history on the competition, former MAA President Joseph A. Gallian wrote an interesting 2015 overview

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