Students place 10th in annual Putnam competition, earn best result to date

A team of students from the College recently placed in the top 10 and received honorable mention in the annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition. While the competition took place in December 2011, results were announced on March 20. The winning team, comprised of Carlos Dominguez ’13, Jared Hallett ’14 and Liyang Zhang ’12 and coached by Associate Professor of Mathematics Mihai Stoiciu, participated alongside teams from 572 other colleges and universities.

The 10th-place ranking garnered by this year’s team marks the College’s best result to date. Stoiciu expressed his excitement with the results. “It’s great,” he said. “We had a strong team, and our work together was reflected in our good results. The students did very well; they had a good attitude towards the test, good preparation and great dedication.”

“I was in total disbelief,” Dominguez said of the exam results. “At the end of the competition I had felt that I bombed the test, so I told myself that when the results e-mail came out, I would delete it without reading it. When the full score distribution table came out, I realized that this really was the hardest Putnam in over a decade. For example, the cutoff to get into the individual top 10 was 59 this year. Last year it was 97.”  Dominguez added that he felt the team really deserved the win. “Williams has been bubbling just under the top 10 for some time now, so it’s nice that we finally made it,” he said.

“I am thrilled to be part of the Williams Putnam team,” Zhang said. “It’s important to note that this is a team sport.”

Stoiciu began coaching the Putnam team when he arrived at the College in 2005. At that time, he also implemented Math Puzzle Night, a weekly event in which students get together to solve math problems. In 2008, Assistant Professor of Mathematics Steven Miller joined the department and took over coaching the Putnam team when Stoiciu went on leave. This academic year, Miller went on leave and Stoiciu resumed leadership. Stoiciu credited much of the team’s success to Miller’s work with the individuals prior to his own return to the role.

Stoiciu also mentioned Nick Arnosti ’11, a math and computer science major and a member of the math team, as a major contributor to the team’s success. “Nick had this drive that our goal should be to place in the top 10,” Stoiciu said. “He worked very hard with Professor Miller and with other members of the Williams College Math Team; they had additional meetings last year. Nick spelled out the goal, and we were all hoping to accomplish it.”

The test that comprises the competition is itself extremely tough, Stoiciu said. The exam lasts six hours and includes 12 problems. “It was a difficult test this year,” Stoiciu said. He added, however, that there has been some debate among the College students as to how this year’s test compares to those of previous years.

Although the official team consisted of only three College students, many more students took the exam: Ben Athiwaratkun ’12, Laura Ball ’15, Weng-Him Cheung ’15, Benjamin Demeo ’15, Michael Flynn ’15, Donny Huang ’13, Pamela Mishkin ’15, Roshan Sharma ’13, Philip Tosteson ’13 and James Wilcox ’13 all sat for the test. “I’m very happy that a number of first-year students have joined the Math Puzzle Night and took the Putnam exam,” Stoiciu said. “We hope to have a strong team in the years to come. In order to achieve that, we need to have depth and all generations participating.”

The team has placed well in the past, most recently coming in 17th in the 2009 competition. “The results reflect the combined effort of the team,” Stoiciu said.

According to participating students, preparation for the Putnam exam included taking part in Math Puzzle Night, solving a lot of math problems and participating in other math competitions.