BYU students take on challenging Putnam exam

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BYU students prepare all year round for the Putnam, a challenging national math exam. This year, they’ll be taking the exam virtually. (Allison McArthur)

BYU students are taking the challenging William Lowell Putnam exam virtually this year on Feb. 20.

BYU professor Michael Griffin, head coach of the university’s math competition teams, said the Putnam exam is not about giving a correct answer it’s about proving why it’s correct. 

“This Putnam competition requires a certain level of ability and speed. It’s not always the same thing as being able to do well in difficult math classes; it’s about being clever and combining ideas in new ways,” Griffin said.

The exam is a competition at universities and colleges in the United States and Canada. BYU is currently one of the highest-ranking schools for test performance. Participants solve problems individually, but institutions are ranked by the combination of their three highest student scores, according to the Mathematical Association of America.

The Putnam exam is six hours long and broken up into two three-hour sessions with 12 questions in total. The highest score a student can receive is a total possible score of 120 points. Each year, the average score ranges from zero to three points.

The exam is typically held annually on the first Saturday of December, in-person and proctored by administrators. Students will take the exam this year using an un-proctored, online platform. Scores will be unofficial and no prizes will be offered, the Mathematical Association of America website reads.

Tyler Mansfield is a recent BYU mathematics graduate with an emphasis in applied mathematics. He has taken the Putnam exam three times, scoring a 1 his first year, a 2 his second and a 19 his third year. 

Skills used during math competitions are different from skills used to be good at math, he said. While math generally has a lot of rules and logical structure, math competitions involve a lot more creativity than people realize.

“There’s excitement in seeing a problem that a year ago, I wouldn’t have known how to solve. But it’s given me a lot of confidence to know I can be challenged and rise to the occasion, even if it takes a ton of practice,” he said.

BYU hosts many collegiate and high school mathlete competitions on campus during fall semesters. The university also offers a Putnam class during the fall where students practice previous Putnam exam questions and work to help one another see different ways to solve the problems.

James Camacho is a concurrent enrollment student at BYU and junior at Timpview High School. Since his freshman year, he and his twin brother, Joseph, have participated in many high school mathlete competitions and have attended the BYU Putnam class. 

Both Griffin and Mansfield said the Camacho brothers are two of the brightest students they’ve seen. 

“The end goal of the Putnam is to prove whether my answer is true or false, kind of like writing an essay. It’s fun to work on problems and come up with creative solutions,” Camacho said.

Practicing for the Putnam exam and other mathlete competitions with his brother is more fun and helpful than doing it by himself, he added.

Students have four years of eligibility to take the Putnam exam. Camacho said because of the pandemic, the 2021 test will not count towards his or his brother’s eligible years.

Students can sign up for the Putnam exam until Feb. 20.

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