On Dec. 4, 2021, six University of Dallas students participated in the annual Putnam Math Exam.
The Putnam began in 1938 as an opportunity for mathematics departments at the collegiate level to compete, according to the Mathematical Association of America website.
Results from the exam are released in March. According to Dr. John Osoinach, chair of the math department, the top students who score over 100 usually win cash awards. The Putnam Exam also ranks the top 100 teams and top 500 students.
“Getting recognized in either list is a real accomplishment,” Osoinach said. “Doing well on the exam means that [students] were able to persevere through the problems, understand the mathematical issues, and completely, and correctly, solve the problem. Most of the problems require a proof, rather than simply an answer, so they must know the mathematics behind the solution and write their solution logically and clearly.”
He also added that the UD team ranked 72nd place nationally this year. “Our top student was a junior math major, Isaac Hellerman. For the first time, at least I think it’s the first time, his score was good enough to be listed in the top 500 students, earning a rank of 225th nationally.”
“I felt good about having gotten real results for more than one question, and I felt pretty happy with my performance,” Hellerman said. “I wasn’t too surprised since I knew that a lot of people don’t get any score on the exam, and I was pretty confident that I would get full credit for at least one or two questions.”
Although it is a competition, Osoinach said: “I think the purpose here at UD is simply to participate in the joy of mathematics. Students at UD have participated in the exam well before I got here. I’d estimate that UD’s been doing this for over two decades.”
“We don’t prepare students, other than use the Problem Solving class as a general framework for the methods of thinking that are also useful on the Putnam Exam,” Osoinach said. “The course isn’t designed with the Putnam in mind.”
Luisa Velasco, senior math and physics double major, has taken the exam three times.
“Generally, most test-takers are in Problem Solving,” she said. “For each class, we’re given a set of problems, not unlike those we would see on the Putnam, though generally having a particular theme in common such as a particular technique or approach that can be used to solve them.”
“We would meet for class once a week to discuss our different methods of solving the problems,” Joel Saroni, a senior math major, added. “We could share our intuitions and insights, which gave everyone more angles on how to solve these problems.”
The exam is six hours total, with one three-hour session in the morning and another in the afternoon. Students work individually on six challenging mathematical problems during each session.
“It’s a test of endurance and timing,” Saroni said. “Six hours sounds like a long time to do math, but it isn’t considering the caliber of problems. If you spend too much time on a problem you don’t have a full grasp on, then you’ve just wasted a third of your time for that session. You also need to keep your spirits up and avoid becoming discouraged.”
Velasco said she’s usually tired but in a good mood after the exam. “It’s a long exam, starting at 9 and finishing at 5,” said Velasco. “But ultimately, it’s time set aside to engage with cool math and stretch the math we know outside of the bounds presented in class.”
Saroni described how he felt after the exam. “[I felt] content and insatiable. I always get frustrated when there’s a problem I can’t solve, which is over half the Putnam. I’m always thinking about the problems I thought I got, the problems I almost got, and the problems I didn’t even understand,” he said.
“Even though it’s a really hard exam, it’s an opportunity to do math for six hours! Which is such a great way to spend a Saturday.”