Nov. 24, 2014 — This weekend marks the last few days before finals start and while most students will be flocking to the libraries, pulling out textbooks and flipping through notes, a few students will be sitting down to a different kind of test.
For six hours during the first Saturday in December, students across the nation sit down and compete in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition by taking a test.
The Putnam Exam is comprised of 12 math problems. Students work on the first six for three hours in the morning, then finish the last six for three hours in the afternoon.
“A lot of people really enjoy working on math problems and very hard math problems,” said Robert Moore, math professor and the University of Alabama’s Putnam Exam coordinator. “It’s a great deal of fun to exercise your mind and see what you can do.”
While each of these problems incorporate basic math that most undergraduate students with a few calculus classes could understand, each problem has a twist. The Putnam Exam has a reputation for being challenging and its prestige looks good on students’ resumes.
Last year the median score on the Putnam Exam was zero. The test is scored out of 120 points. It’s rare for students to break 100. So while the top scores may not seem high, the scores are looked at in percentiles. A committee creates the problems and then the same committee grades the tests and awards points for the entire solution, not just the final answer.
Matt Ferrell is a junior majoring in math and computer science. He took the Putnam Exam last year, getting a score of 10—one problem correct. He said he was absolutely thrilled that he got points last year, but he wants to improve his score this year. He said the problems are simple where anyone at the university could look at them and understand them, but there’s always a catch to them.
“It will give you a new appreciation for math,” Ferrell said. “If you ever did those little logic games as a kid, it’s just like a stepped-up version of those. I always thought those were the funnest things and it’s like a six hour version of those.”
This test also gives students exposure to an organic form of math. Ferrell said in classes a lot of the work is just rote problem solving. The test is designed to have different ways to solve the problem.
“It’s raw problem-solving ability and everyone can get something out of it,” Ferrell said.
Ferrell is one of five students at UA signed up to take the test Dec. 6. Most have already taken the test before. Calvin Bryan, though, has not. Bryan, a second-year senior majoring in computer science, decided to take the exam after taking one of Moore’s classes. Moore approached Bryan and suggested he take it.
“I’m most anxious about the blow to my ego if I come in with a low score,” Bryan said. “It’s just fun, that’s really all there is to it for me, it’s purely for entertainment.”
For Bryan, the unique thought paths he must follow is what makes this kind of math so fun. Because of the nature of the test, Bryan said it requires lateral thinking that changes how a person looks at a math problem.
“The challenging part is the knowledge that there’s an answer but you don’t know how to get there; it’s frustrating,” Bryan said. “You have to think of math in a different way.”
The only real way to study is by looking at past Putnam tests and working the problems. Bryan said he takes about two tests a week to practice. High scores merit scholarships and rewards, but in the end, most take it for fun.
“I get to feel great about the test because it has no bearing whatsoever,” Bryan said. “I don’t have to stress out about it at all.”