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Putnam Mathematics Competition Preparation

  1. Jul 6, 2011 #1
    I apologize if this in the wrong place but I'm not sure where else to put it.

    I was wondering if anybody here had any experiences they'd like to share about the Putnam Competition and preparing for it. I took AMC/AIME in high school but I was too weak to go through the kind of preparation required for USAMO and beyond (not only too weak in will, probably too weak intellectually...).

    If anyone has anything to say about the kind of people who take the exam and whether or not it is even worth trying to take it if I wasn't that strong in high school, I'd really like to hear what you have to say. I would like to take the exam but I'm not sure if it is worth it or not at this point and I'm sure I will need a while to prepare for it though I'm aware that it is months away.

    Thanks for your time,
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 6, 2011 #2
    I faced the same dilemma a couple months ago, having little experience with olympiads in HS while interested in the Putnam. The answer depends on your overall goal.

    If you're doing it for grad school, I would argue that it would be a waste of time, considering you could use your time more effectively with other things (research, etc.). A Putnam score would also only be helpful if you were maybe top 100 at least, and although that's probably achievable given 4 years of hard work aimed at it, it would consume time better spent elsewhere.

    However, if you're doing it in order to become a better problem solver, then by all means go for it. Spending time to prepare for the Putnam is equivalent to taking a class based on improving problem-solving skills.
  4. Jul 6, 2011 #3
    I'm not doing it for grad school, I'll probably be going to grad school for physics and I'll stop with Complex Analysis as far as math is concerned but I would like to become a better problem solver.

    Do you have any particular advice on studying for the Putnam or did you decide against doing it?
  5. Jul 7, 2011 #4
    Well, for my university, they have a class based on preparing for the Putnam. If this doesn't exist at your college, try checking out your local math clubs or ask around.

    If all else fails and you can only self-study, then check out some of the Putnam preparation books and start doing exercises straight from them. You could also practice using all past Putnam exams, which are put online on the official website. For me, I ultimately decided not to take the Putnam since I'd rather get my hands dirty with grad courses and research.
  6. Sep 30, 2011 #5
    I decided to start studying for the Putnam so I looked up the thread I started this summer to see what advice I had gotten, and thought I'd re-respond to this post.

    My adviser worked on the admissions board for Georgia Tech a few years back, for graduate admissions specifically. He said one of the first things they look for, after grades, *is* a Putnam attempt. Scores 10 and above were typically sorted into a different group (along with published students etc) than the rest and were given priority.

    While not every school operates this way, top 100 is a score of like 40+ right? I think that it's completely possible to complete a question or two (18-20 points) though I know your priorities are different (taking research and grad classes). Graduate schools at the GT level consider even attempting the Putnam exam, because they see it as involvement in mathematics beyond the classroom and while research is more important, it is still a good thing to see. The fact that so many people fail it is normally discouraging, so taking it is seen as making an effort.

    Anyway, just thought I'd let you know that it depends on who you ask and where you apply. I'm shooting for one or two right this year ^^, hopefully I get to that level (and get lucky) when the test comes around, hope research is going well for you!
  7. Sep 30, 2011 #6
    I agree: grades in upper level math and a good score on a Putnam are helpful indicators of success in graduate school. Clearly then, graduate schools would value these components highly.

    However, I'm quite confident the best indicator for success in graduate school would be actual graduate work. After all, what better way to analyze success in graduate school than graduate work itself?
    This same logic also explains why LORs and statements of purpose are so important (perhaps the most important), as they are good indicatrors of whether you can do high-quality work as a PhD student.

    The only problem is that most people never get to graduate work before they graduate anyways. After all, why not graduate if you're already done with your undergrad work? But it's essentially implied that graduate work supercedes all undergrad components: grades in undergrad courses and scores on the Putnam. I should also remind you that this is merely a generalization (albeit, an effective generalization): clearly, being a Putnam fellow would be more valuable than taking, say, a single graduate course. Excluding similar outliers, it's safe to say that doing graduate work is more important than spending your time to get a good Putnam score.

    This isn't to say you must do one or the other, but if you had an option between the Putnam and grad-level work, then it would be obvious to go for the latter, in terms of applications (this is all in terms of applications).
    Last edited: Sep 30, 2011
  8. Oct 1, 2011 #7
    I see what you're saying and I agree. I'm a little bit confused why the statement of purpose would demonstrate one's ability to complete graduate work though. Letters of recommendation should be a clear indicator of skill, but I thought statement of purpose was more like an undergraduate essay? I don't actually know, I haven't gotten there yet! What is different about a statement of purpose when compared to undergraduate admissions essays?

    I'll be taking the exam though, since I think the Putnam is a fun challenge. Sadly, my graduate level classes will mean nothing in the long run since I'm transferring. If I were in your situation (at a reputable school, I'm guessing) I would do what you're doing, but since I don't have any graduate courses going on this semester I will enjoy my Putnam preparation and hope to get transferred.

    Just wondering, what *are* you getting to take? Are you specializing in a particular topic, or are you taking the core classes for grad school?
  9. Oct 1, 2011 #8
    I'm not sure if I can explain why well enough but it goes something like this: your statement of purpose tells the admissions committee your aims and goals in taking the PhD, and thus, your motivation to stick through the PhD process until the very end.

    In it, they see just how specific and goal-oriented you are: whether it's wanting to do research under a specific professor, having solid (as opposed to vague) research interests, having really good reasons for why you want to go to grad school, etc. It more or less tells the admissions committee how motivated you are to continue through grad school and succeed. Grades, LORs, research, etc. tells the admissions nothing about your actual motivation and inspiration into going through grad school. After all, they wouldn't want some amazing student if he's just going to drop out from a lack of interest.

    Well in my school, there are only 2 "core" graduate courses ("core" in the sense that they're generally pre-reqs for almost all the other grad courses in some shape or manner). Right now, I'm just focusing on geometry/topology; particularly algebraic, differential, and geometric topology (even in topology, there's a lot of subfields to choose from so I'm pretty lost on what research I ultimately want to get into..).
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