Department Recognizes Four Students For Math Test Success

Elise Foley

By Elise Foley The Daily Northwestern

It’s every Northwestern student’s worst nightmare: a grueling six-hour test that almost everyone fails.

The test is the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, a 12-question math test that took place Dec. 2. Most students who take the test get zero points, but four NU students placed in the top 500 and received awards from the math department Wednesday.

To place in the top 500 for the examination, Weinberg freshman Yiwei She and Weinberg juniors Jonah Leshin, Sam Ruth and Michael Skalak each received about 20 points on the 120-point test. In the past two years, NU students have not scored higher than 10 points.

“It’s an interesting challenge,” Skalak said. “It’s not pressure because even if you do nothing, you’re still in the upper half of everything. But it’s neat to test yourself on problems like this.”

Fifteen NU students took the test in December after preparing in weekly sessions with mathematics Prof. Frank Calegari and fifth-year mathematics graduate student Mike Johnson.

The top 25 individuals and top five teams receive monetary prizes for scoring highly.

Calegari said the NU team – a group of three students chosen to represent the school – ranked 32nd out of 508 teams that took the test.

“We’ve done significantly better than last year,” Calegari said. “I think it’s partly training, but also I think there seems to have been more interest in the training. It’s the type of exam in which lots of practice will help you get a better score.”

The test is made up of difficult problems based on fairly simple math concepts, Calegari said. The Mathematical Association of America, which administers the test, tells students they will not use skills beyond calculus for the test, he said.

“(The problems) don’t necessarily require much background, but they’re very tricky,” Calegari said. “They require you to be clever.”

Ruth said he was drawn to the test for the intellectual challenge.

“It’s something to stay sharp for,” Ruth said. “Athletes work out so they can go play in a game that everyone is going to watch, and this is our closest equivalent to that.”

Many of the questions involve “describing a game and asking if there’s a winning strategy for any player,” Ruth said.

“For most of the questions, it’s really obvious what the answer is,” Ruth said. “If you know how to do it, you have to write it up well.”

Skalak said taking the six-hour test was draining, especially because it was between reading and finals weeks during Fall Quarter.

“You get worn down by looking at problem after problem and thinking ‘I can’t do this,'” Skalak said. “You’re really tired afterwards because you’ve been on full throttle for six hours.”

NU’s team should continue to do well on the examination in upcoming years, Johnson said. He has been helping students prepare for two years.

“What’s really interesting is all of the top students who scored in the top 500, none of them are seniors, some were even freshman,” Johnson said. “We’re hoping for really good results for next year.”

Mike Stein, the mathematics department’s director for undergraduate studies, said the high scores on the test are exciting for the department.

“I think it’s terrific,” Stein said. “We have some really good students who took the exam. They worked really hard and had some really good coaching, and it paid off.”

But the students agreed taking the test was more about having fun than scoring highly.

“It’s fun as in ‘it’s a challenge’, not ‘go-to-Six-Flags’ fun,” Leshin said. “No one’s really competitive about it. Everyone’s just trying to figure out what the answer is.”

Reach Elise Foley at [email protected]