The Life of a Putnam Student

Amherst College Science Center

The ,William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition is the preeminent mathematics competition for undergraduate college students, consisting of two 3-hour sessions, with 6 problems each. The exam is so difficult that the median score is usually only 0 or 1 out of 120. Ethan Spingarn, a sophomore at Amherst College, participated in the 2019 Putnam Competition and placed in the top 500 nationally. I had the opportunity to talk to Ethan about his life as a Putnam student.

Why did you decide to participate in the Putnam Competition?

I decided to participate in the Putnam competition last year because I enjoyed solving math problems, and the Putnam test seemed like a good way to exercise that interest of mine.

How did you prepare for it?

I prepared by attending the weekly Putnam sessions and following up on problems I couldn’t solve. Each session covered a different area of math that could be present in the exam. I also looked up past tests, and focused on the easier problems, which I had the greatest chance of solving.

What was your mindset going into the exam?

My mindset was a willingness to approach anything; to start and make some headway. In the exam I read through each problem, and went for the easiest ones first. If I ever got stuck, I would just move on to the next one. In this fashion, I ended up with partial solutions [work that contributes towards the full solution and are awarded partial credits] to every one of the 12 problems.

How is the Putnam different from a regular math test?

The Putnam is different in that I go into the test not expecting to solve every problem. Unlike regular math tests where you have been taught all the tools to solve the problems, Putnam problems are open ended, so you can use anything that you have seen before in math, and apply it to the problem. It allows me to be more experimental in my approach.

How did you feel when you received the news that you made the Top 500?

I was ecstatic. I hadn’t known how well I had done on the test or what the cut-off will be in order to make the top 500. I was very surprised and happy to see my name on the list.

What advice would you give to future participants of the Putnam?

I think that going to the prep sessions really help. They expose you to problem solving on a similar level to the test. In the test you want to try to find similarities between the problem you are facing, and problems you have seen before. Building on that, just becoming comfortable with trying to solve any problem and not being turned off by what looks really complicated is very helpful.

I really appreciate Ethan’s insights into life as a Putnam student. This years’ Putnam competition has been postponed to February 20, 2021, and is open to all undergraduate students. Professor Contreras is still running the ,weekly Putnam sessions. Anyone is welcome to join!