This year I'll be running the Polya seminar, one of whose aims is to motivate students to participate in the Putnam competition. The Polya seminar was first started by Ravi Vakil, and his excellent webpage contains much useful information. The seminar is named after George Polya (1887-1985), a great mathematician and problem solver. He was a Professor at Stanford from 1940 to 1953, and lived in Palo Alto for the rest of his life. You can find a little bit about his life and ideas here.
The Polya seminar is also being offered as a 1 credit course Math 193. You do not need to sign up for the course in order to participate in the seminar. But if you do sign up for the course, then to get credit it is expected that you will attend all of the seminars, and take part in presenting solutions from time to time.
The Putnam is a challenging opportunity for you to test your mathematical mettle. This year the Putnam will take place on Saturday, December 7; there are two sessions, morning from 8 to 11 and afternoons from 1 to 4. The exam is notoriously difficult; in most years the median score is 0, but in recent years the exam has gotten slightly easier with a median score of 1! Each year there are about 3600 students from colleges and universities across the US and Canada who take the test. Stanford has been doing phenomenally well in the last few years. The team has finished fourth in the competition 2007-2009, seventh in 2010, fourth in $2011$, and twelfth last year. In 2008, 2010, and 2011, Seok Hyeong Lee (now a graduate student at Princeton) placed among the top five in the competition, becoming Stanford's first (second and third!) Putnam fellow. Moreover we continue to have many students placing high on the honor roll of the top 500 students.
The competition emphasizes ingenuity rather than knowledge, so freshmen are not at much of a disadvantage compared to seniors. Interest in or experience with problem solving is a plus. Not just math majors have done well; many recent winners have come from nearby disciplines, including physics, computer science, and engineering.
Completely solving even one of the twelve problems is a significant achievement, and in almost all years would place you well above the median. (Keep in mind that the particpants are self-selected from among the best in the continent.)
The introductory meeting for the seminar will be at 6PM on Monday, September 23 in Room 380 Y (Basement) of the Math Building. You can sign up for the Putnam there. If you're interested in signing up for the Putnam, but cannot make it to the meeting, please email me.
In addition to the prestige of doing well on the text, there are also cash awards for students finishing in the top 25. The departments of teams finishing in the top 5 also get cash awards; we've done well on this count in the past, and those awards have been used to support math activities for undergraduates.
We'll also have a "Masterclass" from 7:30-8:30 aimed at more experienced problem solvers. Here maybe 4-5 `volunteers' will present a problem of their liking, together with ideas on how to think of the solution. If you'd like to volunteer for this, please let me know. You could either have a problem already in mind (please let me know what that is, so I can also think about it), or we can try and find a suitable problem together.
Loren C. Larson, Problem solving through problems.
Kedlaya, Poonen and Vakil: The William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, 1985--2000.