The William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition 2002: Results

The William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition took place on Saturday, December 7, 2002. Here is much of my e-mail announcing the results

This year's competition was ridiculously easy by Putnam standards. The median on this year's Putnam was 3. Not 3 questions, but 3 points out of 120. The fact that a median of 3/120 is considered to be "ridiculously easy" is a good explanation for why the Putnam is sometimes called the "World's hardest test" (as it was in the Dec. 23, 2002 issue of Time Magazine). So congratulations are due to anyone up to the challenge of taking it.

Now for the results:

Stanford placed fifth. This is the fifth time in the history of the Putnam we've made the top five. (The fourth time was last year, and the third time was 1991.) The team consisted of sophomore Chee Hau Tan, junior Paul Valiant, and senior Daniel Wright. They have won $5000 for the department, and $200 each for themselves.

Ahead of us were Harvard, Princeton, Duke, and Berkeley. Ranked 6th through 10th, in alphabetical order (the actual order isn't announced) are Caltech, Harvey Mudd, MIT, Toronto, and Waterloo.

Although I'm very happy with the team results, and the $5000, for many reasons I (and most others) look beyond the team results to see how we did. One reason is that the method of computing team rank is somewhat bizarre, and subject to variability. (Teams are ranked by the sum of the individual ranks, which means one person having a bad day can be disproportionately harmful to the team rank.)

Instead, people tend to look at: how the very top people did; the number in the top 200; the top 500; and number of those who get "on the board", i.e. who can get points. We stacked up very well in all of these categories as well.

  • The top few: Paul Valiant placed 22nd overall, in the Putnam-esque rank of "The next eight" (which is higher than Honorable Mention). The second-highest score at Stanford was freshman Shaowei Lin, who placed 40th. The third-highest score was senior Erik Carlsson, just behind Shaowei at 46th. Both Shaowei and Erik received an Honorable Mention. Team-members Chee Hau Tan and Daniel Wright placed 82nd and 116th, rounding out our top five.
  • Stanford had seven more in the top 200. This is unprecedented for us. They are, in alphabetical order, Miguel Balauag, Alex Chen, Chris Davis, Frank Newman, Florin Ratiu, Ryan Timmons, and Yuanli Zhou.
  • Stanford had ten more in the top 500. This is also unprecedented. They are, in alphabetical order, Benjamin D'Angelo, Sarah Emerson, Alex Kehlenbeck, Chin Lum Kwa, Kevin Luli, Andrew Lutomirski, Michael Miller, Naomi Muscatine, Michael Rothenberg, and Xian (Robbie) Yan. (The top 500-odd names are sent to all participating schools, so that they can take them into account for graduate school admissions. Insider's tip: if/when you apply to graduate school, in mathematics or another subject, let them know that you did well, as schools tend not to carefully look up each applicant on the list.)
  • Stanford had _18_ more on the board. Again, this has never before happened. In alphabetical order: Andrew Aymeloglu, Jacob Bien, Dan Ben-Moshe, Katarzyna Bryc, Eric Chase, Kevin Christopher, Richard Harris, Michael He, Ying-zong Huang, Jared Kaplan, Ivan Kassal, Simone Manganelli, Andrew Schwartz, Inna Vishik, ChenLi Wang, Dan Wohns, Zhenlu Zhang, Qin Zhuang. Many of these scored well in the double digits.
  • If you'd like to know in more detail how you did, just send me an e-mail. I may take some time to respond, as I'm about to leave for over a week for some talks at Michigan and Minnesota.
  • In my opinion here's how we did. We had 22 students on the top 500 list. MIT and Harvard had more; we were a bit ahead of Caltech, Harvey Mudd, and Waterloo, and well ahead of everyone else, including Princeton (14), Toronto (14), Duke (10), and Berkeley (6). So although Princeton, Duke, and Berkeley had better team ranks, I think that overall we did better. (On the other hand, although we beat MIT according to team rank, I think they did much better than anyone else did, with an astonishing 55 in the top 500.)
  • For comparison, here is our rank in past years: worse than 10th '92-'96, 6-10th '97-'00, and 5th in the last two years. Next year we have a good chance to have a "threepeat", a third year in the top 5. One reason why: of the 22 students in the top 500, only 2 are seniors (stalwarts Carlsson and Wright, off to graduate school in mathematics and computer science I believe), and the rest are returning; a large number of those just out of the top 500 are also returning. Only two schools have excellent chances of beating us (Harvard and MIT); a handful more are close (Princeton, Duke, and Berkeley have better top ends but less depth), a few more could beat us on a good day (Harvey Mudd, Waterloo, a couple more). (Still, our overall results --- # in top 500, etc. --- this year are so good that I think it will be unlikely that we can repeat them. But I said that last year. Two years from now will be the real test: the first year without Paul Valiant.) In short --- a banner year! Congratulations to you all!!
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