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Four-peat: MIT students take first place in the 84th Putnam Math Competition

MIT undergraduates win top five spots for the fourth year in a row and capture the Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize.
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19 students standing in Building 2 hallway
Putnam Fellows of the 84th Putnam Math Competition (front row, left to right) Ankit Bisain, Papon Lapate, Jiangqi Dai, Brian Liu, and Luke Robitaille stand with Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize winner Isabella Zhu (front row, right). In the background are MIT students recognized for finishing in the top 26.
Photo: Sandi Miller
Walker auditorium filled with rows and columns of desks with students taking tests
MIT students are seen taking the notoriously difficult Putnam Competition exam in December 2023. The exam is given in two three-hour sittings on a Saturday.

Photo: Sandi Miller
chart showing the progression of MIT students' performance in the Putnam from 2003 to 2023. With some fluctuation, the bars — which measure top 5, top 25, and honorable mention performances — get progressively higher, with a dramatic increase, from about 30 students in 2016 to about 60 in 2023
This chart shows the historical performance of MIT students.
Image: Yufei Zhao

For the fourth time in the history of the annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, and for the fourth year in a row, all five of the top spots in the contest, known as Putnam Fellows, came from a single school: MIT.

Putnam Fellows include three individuals who ranked in the top five in previous years — sophomores Papon Lapate and Luke Robitaille and junior Brian Liu — plus junior Ankit Bisain and first-year Jiangqi Dai. Each receives an award of $2,500.

MIT’s 2023 Putnam Team, made up of Bisain, Lapate, and Robitaille, also finished in first place — MIT’s eighth first-place win in the past 10 competitions. Teams are based on the three top scorers from each institution. The institution with the first-place team receives a $25,000 award, and each team member receives $1,000.

The competition's top-scoring woman, first-year Isabella Zhu, received the Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize, which includes a $1,000 award. She is the seventh MIT student to receive this honor since the award began in 1992.

In total, 68 out of the top 100 test-takers who took the exam on Dec. 2, 2023, were MIT students. Beyond the top five scorers, MIT students took eight of the next 11 spots (each awarded $1,000), seven of the next 10 after that (each awarded $250), and 48 out of a total of 75 honorable mentions. 

The contest also listed 29 MIT students who finished in the 101-200 spots, which means a total of 97 of the 200 top Putnam participants — nearly half — were MIT undergraduates. There were also 52 MIT students in the 201-500 finishers. 

“I am incredibly proud of our students’ amazing effort and performance at the Putnam Competition,” says associate professor of mathematics Yufei Zhao ’10, PhD ’15. Zhao is also a three-time Putnam Fellow.   

This exam is considered to be the most prestigious university-level mathematics competition in the United States and Canada. MIT students filled Walker Memorial in December to take what is notoriously a very difficult exam; while a perfect score is 120, the median score this year was just 10 points. But even just coming out to take the six-hour exam was applauded by the Department of Mathematics.

"Beyond the truly stellar achievements of our undergraduate population, it is also amazing to see the participation rate, another sign that MIT students love mathematics!" says Professor Michel Goemans, head of the MIT Department of Mathematics.

“Our performance is historically unprecedented and astonishing,” says MIT Math Community and Outreach Officer Michael King, who has also taken the exam. “The atmosphere in the testing room, with hundreds of students wrestling intensely with challenging problems, was amazing. Any student who participated, whether they made some progress on one problem or completely solved many, should be celebrated.”

There are several ways that students can prepare for the grueling test. The Undergraduate Mathematics Association hosts fun Putnam practice events, and Zhao teaches class 18.A34 (Mathematical Problem Solving), known as the Putnam Seminar, which brings together first-year students who are interested in the annual competition. Zhao notes that his seminar, and the competition in general, also helps new students to form a supportive community. 

The math department offers other ways to encourage students to bond over their love of problem-solving, such as Pi Day and Puzzle Nights. “MIT is truly a unique place to be a math major,” says Zhao.

Half of the top scorers are alumni of another STEM-student magnet, MIT math’s PRIMES (Program for Research in Mathematics, Engineering and Science) high school outreach program. Three of this year’s Putnam Fellows (Bisain, Liu, and Robitaille) are PRIMES alumni, as are four of the next top 11, and six out of the next 10 winners, along with many of the students receiving honorable mentions.

“Every year, former PRIMES students take a prominent place among Putnam winners,” says Pavel Etingof, a math professor who is also PRIMES’s chief research advisor. “For the third year in a row, three out of five Putnam Fellows are PRIMES alumni, all of them from MIT. Through PRIMES, MIT recruits the best mathematical talent in the nation.”

Many of the Putnam competition officials have MIT ties, including the Putnam Problems Committee’s Karl Mahlburg, a 2006 MIT math postdoc, and Greta Panova ’05; and among those contributing additional competition problems were math professor and former MIT Putnam coach Richard Stanley, Gabriel Drew Carroll PhD ’12,  and Darij Grinberg PhD ’16.

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