Marathon Math Exam Strategy: Classify, Conquer and Complete

About 80 Harvey Mudd College students will pit their mathematical prowess against the “mother of all exams” Saturday, Dec. 7, in the 2013 William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.

A grueling, six-hour exam comprised of 12 questions, the Putnam proves so challenging that for the thousands of students who take it each year the median score is one or two out of a possible 120 points.

Yet the Harvey Mudd contenders have built considerable mental muscle.

Every Tuesday night since the start of the semester, more than half have attended the Putnam Problem Solving Seminar, a one-unit course offered each fall in anticipation of the annual event.

“Our seminar gives students a chance to survey a variety of mathematical topics, learn problem-solving skills and practice mathematical writing and presentation,” said math professor and Department of Mathematics Chair Andrew Bernoff, who coaches the Putnam seminar along with Mohamed Omar, assistant professor of mathematics. “We believe the secret to students succeeding in the Putnam exam is the three Cs—classify, conquer and complete.”

Students classify problems based upon the methods needed to solve them, conquer problems by working out a solution and then complete them by writing a well-organized, cogent solution.

The method appears to be working, as Harvey Mudd students often place in the contest’s Top 200 individual rankings. In 2011, Harvey Mudd placed sixth—out of 572 universities—in the competition’s team category.

“We also regularly sport the highest participation rate in the nation, with roughly 10 percent of our students taking the exam,” Bernoff said.

Elizabeth Lowell Putnam founded the competition in 1927 in memory of her husband, William Lowell Putnam, a Harvard graduate who was an advocate of intercollegiate intellectual competition. Administered by the Mathematical Association of America, it has been offered annually since 1938 to college students in the United States and Canada.

Harvey Mudd first participated in the Putnam competition on Dec. 2, 1961 and, in 1991, the Harvey Mudd team garnered third place. Contest results will be announced in the spring.