The 2015 Putnam Mathematical Competition at Salisbury University!



December 5, 2015


Session A: 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Session B: 3:00 PM – 6:00 PM


To be determined (it will be
a classroom in Henson or Devilbiss)


Introduction: (From the competition literature) “The competition began in 1938, and was designed to stimulate a healthy rivalry in mathematical studies in the colleges and universities of the United States and Canada. It exists because Mr. William Lowell Putnam had a profound conviction in the value of organized team competition in regular college studies.” 


Eligibility: The contest is open to regularly enrolled undergraduates who have not yet received a college degree and who have not yet competed four times. (High school students may participate, as long as they are aware of the overall limit of four competitions per person.)


Scoring: There are twelve questions, each of which is graded on a basis of 0-10 points. Thus, the maximum possible score on the Putnam exam is 120 points. Partial credit is sometimes given, but they are very stingy with it; even a single point requires "significant and substantial progress toward a solution".


Here are the median scores, in chronological order, from the years 2000-2013*:
0, 1, 3, 1, 0, 1, 0, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 0, 1


The scores needed to be among the top 200 participants in the world, again from 2000-2013 were*:
22, 37, 41, 31, 40, 33, 32, 31, 41, 38, 49, 24, 33, 32


(Again, keep in mind that these scores are all out of 120 possible points!)


This means a student who gives a complete, correct answer to even one question (out of twelve) usually will rank among the top half of all participants, and a student who can completely solve three or four problems is likely to rank among the top 200 participants overall (which is an enormous accomplishment).


On the other hand, the median score has been very close to zero every year in recent history- that is, less than half of the participants manage any more than minor progress on one question out of twelve!


This is an important point: every year, thousands of very bright, talented and successful students score zero points on this exam. So, don’t be intimidated - the worst that can happen is that your score will be the same as the majority of the other students in the world who took the same exam!


The point of this competition is not to evaluate you in any way, but rather to introduce you to some fascinating, challenging, and sometimes beautiful mathematical questions that you'd be unlikely to encounter within the standard undergraduate curriculum. Just like professional mathematicians, you’ll have the opportunity to learn by struggling with difficult problems, and by discussing them later on with your colleagues. 


Awards and Recognition: On the national level, there are cash prizes for the individuals and teams with the highest scores - these are detailed on the Putnam Competition's home page (see above). Additionally, Putnam competition results are reported to graduate programs across the country, so doing well on the Putnam may help those of you who are applying (or planning to apply) to graduate school in the future.


Among SU participants, the highest scorer each year has his/her name added to a plaque that is on display in the department. (Note: this is not a "participation award;" you must score at least one point to have your name added to the plaque.)


Links to Problems and Solutions:

·      A Few Sample Problems – just to get started…

·      Putnam Competition Exam Archive with Solutions (1938-2003)

·      Putnam Competition Exam Archive (1980-2010)

·      ...and another Putnam Competition Exam Archive (1985-2013)

·      The Puzzle Toad – a collection of challenging (non-Putnam) problems

About the Putnam Competition:

·      Official Putnam Competition Homepage

·      History of the Putnam Competition (1938-2013) by Joe Gallian
* The above data on historical median and Top 200 scores comes from Joe Gallian's article

Online discussions about preparing for the Putnam exam (or math competitions in general):




 Last update: 8/28/2015