Competitors from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the 75th annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition swept up most of the highest scores. Not only did one of MIT’s three-person teams claim first place in the competition, but MIT now holds the record for the number of individuals ranking in the top-five highest exam scores in a single year.
Exactly 4,320 students from 557 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada took the exam on December 6, 2014. This is the eighth team win for MIT, which includes a $25,000 prize and additional $1,000 awards for each team member (Mitchell M. Lee, Zipei Nie, and David H. Yang).
Harvard University’s team (Calvin Deng, Malcolm Granville, Xiaoyu He) took second place, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Theerawat Bhudisaksang, Owen Goff, Wijit Yangjit) placed third. This is the first top-five finish for Rensselaer.
With an emphasis on speed, the six-hour Putnam consists of 12 problems designed by a Questions Committee: Hugh Montgomery (University of Michigan), Henry Cohn (Microsoft and MIT), and David Savitt (University of Arizona). The highest exam score was 96 out of a possible 120 points.
Participants who achieve the top five overall scores on the exam are named Putnam fellows and receive a $2,500 prize each. This year was distinctive because there are six Putnam fellows, thanks to a three-way tie for fourth place (a score of 81). The 2014 fellows, in alphabetical order, are Ravi Jagadeesan, Zipei Nie, Mark A. Sellke, Bobby C. Shen, David H. Yang, and Lingfu Zhang.
Five of this year’s six Putnam fellows attend MIT—except Jagadeesan (Harvard)—which sets a new record for highest number of annual fellows to come from the same institution. Several of these same students have been Putnam fellows more than once. This is Nie’s third year placing in the top five, and the second for classmates Shen and Yang.
Looking at the statistics, the 2014 Putnam competition may appear relatively easier than past exams. The nationwide median score was 3, which is the highest median score since 2002, said Joseph Gallian, professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
In addition, “34 percent of the participants had a score of zero, the lowest percentage since 2003,” added Gallian, who served as president of the MAA from 2007 to 2008.
Gallian will present more interesting facts, statistics, and history about the Putnam—and other MAA competitions—in his lecture "Seventy-Five Years of MAA Mathematics Competitions" at the 2015 MAA MathFest, which will be held in Washington, D.C., this August.
Winning teams can be found listed on the MAA website, and more details about the 2014 William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition will appear in the October 2015 American Mathematical Monthly.