Harvey Mudd Students Score Highly On Notoriously Difficult Math Test

Harvey Mudd College has kept its title as the top-scoring institution in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, a prestigious and notoriously difficult university-level math competition. (Jojo Sanders • The Student Life)

Harvey Mudd College kept its record this year as the top-scoring undergraduate institution in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, a prestigious and notoriously difficult university-level math test.

Last December, 25 HMC students participated in the competition’s six-hour exam. The students earned a median score of 25, as compared to the overall median score of only 1 out of 120 for all 4,638 participants, according to a press release on HMC’s website. Only 20 percent of participants scored above 13.

Each school can nominate a team of three students, whose combined rankings determine the placement of the school. In the team competition, veteran Putnam competitors Adam Busis HM ’19, Jordan Haack HM ’19, and Shyan Akmal HM ’19 placed ninth out of 575 schools. HMC has participated in the competition since 1961.

“The six hour-long test goes by quite quickly,” Haack said. “And usually I feel like I could have done more given more time.”

Mengyi Shan HM ’21, who ranked 93.5th out of all participants and received an honorable mention, said the length of the exam — which runs for two three-hour blocks — did not bother her.

“When one is really immersed in the math problems, it’s hard to feel the time’s flow,” she said.

Shan said the competition was not especially difficult overall.

“Nearly half of the questions are not hard to approach, especially for people with previous experience, but the top 20 percent is extremely hard,” she said. The competition “relied more on experience and accumulated ability rather than practice.”

Evan Liang HM ’20, who placed 39th and received an honorable mention, expressed similar feelings.

“The six hours went by fast for me,” Liang said. “I was pretty much focused and zoned in throughout, and before you know it, you would wish you had more time to polish your answers.”

All three students mentioned the importance of their high school math competition experience. Liang said he had “a moderate amount of problem solving experience from high school” and stressed that in order to do well in math competitions “experience and practice are key.”

Haack said he practiced frequently for math competitions in high school and thinks that practice “translates well to Putnam.” He doesn’t practice much in college.

Liang said the academic atmosphere at HMC “definitely pushed me to improve my problem solving skills.”

Mudd offers a class specifically for students who want to compete in the competition.

“To prepare for the competition, I enrolled in the class Putnam Seminar and we met every week to present solutions to problems we solved,” Liang said. “I learned a lot through other students’ solutions.”

Mathematics Professor Nicholas Pippenger attributed students’ success more to their abilities than to HMC’s education.

“I think the main factor in HMC students doing well is that many students who are very interested in math come to HMC,” Pippinger said. “Of course we give them the best math education we can, but it’s not particularly aimed at preparing them to do well in competitions. Even in the Putnam Seminar, the emphasis is on having fun solving problems — you don't even have to actually take the exam to get credit in the course.”

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