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BYU Math Team: #7 in the Nation

BYU math students rank seventh in prestigious Putnam Exam.

When competing against Harvard and Virginia Tech, it’s not easy to be in the top 10, but BYU’s math team did just that by ranking number seven in the annual Putnam Exam.

The Putnam Exam is a nationwide competition held every year in December. Grading the exam and releasing the results takes four months with over 4,000 students participating and over 400 teams representing their schools.

“If I opened the math competition and gave these problems even to the faculty of our department, I believe many of them would struggle to beat our students,” said math professor Dr. Tiancheng Ouyang, who coaches the team of students that participate in the Putnam Exam.

This year his coaching paid off as all three of the students on the BYU Putnam team were in the top 100 best math students in the nation.

The exam itself is separated into two sessions. Each session contains six questions and lasts three hours. The students take a two-hour break between each session of the exam.

“You feel a little bit more in your zone the second session, but at the same time, you’re kind of exhausted from the morning session,” said Hiram Golze, a senior who was on the three-person team that represented BYU at the Putnam Exam. Golze earned the 49th best score out of the 4,000 that competed and earned BYU’s top score.

Over forty BYU students participated in the Putnam Exam, but each school is only able to choose three students for the team that will represent them.

Interestingly, not all of the forty BYU students who participated in the Putnam Exam were math majors. Dr. Ouyang believes that Math 391R (the class that prepares people for the Putnam Exam) is beneficial for all majors.

“This training will benefit you for your whole life,” Dr. Ouyang said. “Because you try to challenge yourself. You try to do problems that look like they’re impossible. You make the impossible, possible.”

Dr. Ouyang asks the students on the team to practice 10 hours a week to prepare for the Putnam Exam. He expects them to start practicing for next year’s Putnam the day after they’ve taken this year’s Putnam. Most of the participants in the Putnam started their interest in math competitions in middle school.

“You know in middle school the one thing you want to do is do well on math contests to impress your fellow students,” joked Sam Dittmer, a junior on the BYU team last December. “That’s what got me through the kind and thoughtful world of middle school social dynamics.”

Dr. Gary Lawlor, who also helps prepare students for the Putnam, got interested in math competitions in middle school as well. He received 30th place on the Putnam his senior year at BYU in 1983. He went on to get his PhD in mathematics at Stanford.

“Because I did well on the Putnam test, that opened doors for me to go to graduate school,” Dr. Lawlor explained.

To read more about BYU’S Putnam team, click here.