Math Whizzes Prepare For Annual Competition

Jake Spring

By Jake SpringThe Daily Northwestern

Going into finals week, a small group of math majors will already have their most difficult exam out of the way.

A few dozen Northwestern students will participate in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition on Dec. 2, the Saturday before Finals Week. The students compete nationally by taking a six-hour test notorious for its difficult problems.

“It’s a drain … you look at the first (problem) and say, ‘I have no idea how to do this.’ You look at the second and say, ‘I have no idea how to do this,'” said Michael Skalak, a Weinberg junior who took the test last year.

More than half of all students participating across the country score 0 out of 120 possible points each year, said Mike Johnson, a volunteer coach and fifth-year math Ph.D. candidate at NU.

“Last year we had five people score nine or 10. (The) year before that everybody scored zero,” Johnson said.

The test is administered by the Mathematical Association of America at each participating university and is designed so that anyone who has completed a year’s worth of college calculus should have the knowledge to solve the problems. The challenge is putting together that knowledge in creative ways to solve the problems, which are mostly mathematical proofs, he said.

More than 3,000 students from 515 universities participated in 2004, according to the most recent statistics available in the Math Department. With so many people taking the test, most students are aiming to be ranked in the prestigious top 500, Johnson said.

The university also designates three students whose scores will be totaled and used to rank the university. NU selected the top three scorers on two practice tests to represent the university.

Interest is growing, with about 20 NU students expected to take the test this year, Johnson said. Only a dozen students participated last year, and four students took the test in 2004.

Students train for about an hour a week, usually focusing on a certain skill, Johnson said.

“(The Putnam) is the kind of thing you stay sharp for,” said Sam Ruth, a Weinberg junior and one of the students representing NU.

“In normal classes, you’re given information and asked questions about that information,” Skalak said. “(The Putnam) doesn’t require you to memorize a list of things and just regurgitate it.”

Neither Skalak nor Ruth felt nervous or pressured to do well on the test, they said. They don’t expect preparation for the test to limit their studying for finals.

“I don’t think it’s that big a deal,” Skalak said. “It’ll get your blood flowing for finals. You’ll do better.”

Reach Jake Spring at [email protected]