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Many people have said that having a good putnam score could improve one's application for PhD programs in Math / Theoretical CS.

I have certain putnam score, and I am wondering whether to include it in my applications.

In other words, what is the cutoff percentile, where you would / would not include the score in an application to a PhD program?

For context, I am applying to programs in CS Theory such as: UIUC, Rutgers, Cornell, Maryland, Princeton and UTAustin.

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    I am applying to programs in CS Theory such as: UIUC — We won't care about your Putnam score. Tell us about your research.
    – JeffE
    Dec 23, 2018 at 12:33
  • @JeffE I would expect it not have much weight, but do you literally not care?
    – Boris Bukh
    Dec 24, 2018 at 15:20
  • @BorisBukh Yes, I literally do not care. The Putnam requires a particular set of skills; theoretical computer science research requires a different and (in my experience) nearly orthogonal set of skills.
    – JeffE
    Dec 25, 2018 at 5:30

2 Answers 2

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I think saying you were among the top "N" participants where N is something like 500, 200, 100, or less would be the right way to phrase the accomplishment.

The (anonymized) scores and rank of all participants are published, so you can find your exact rank. Very roughly, I'd say top 50ish programs in math would view a top 500 rank favorably, top 20ish would like top 200, top 10 would like top 100, and the most elite would only view Putnam fellow or one of the (next "X") categories as noteworthy. I think CS theory views math contest ability in a similar manner to pure math programs so that this mostly still applies.

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I cannot speak directly about the programs in question: I was on a committee that did admissions for a masters program in math which had some students who went on to do PhDs in math (and occasionally CS). In that context, I would have looked favorably on any Putnam score of 10 or above (because that means you probably solved at least one problem or nearly solved 2). But you are applying to top programs which are likely going to be higher. I would sit down and discuss this with your adviser or with people in the CS department at your current school. I don't have a firm cutoff, but my guess would be that any school, even a top school would look favorably at any score of at least 20 or so.

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    Thanks for your answer. Wouldn't the percentile be a better indicator of how scores compare then the score itself? Given this, what percentile is a 10 (20) on the putnam? I don't think I know my raw score just percentile. Nov 18, 2018 at 17:30
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    I'm a mathematician who's currently running our Putnam team, and I'd have no idea how to interpret percentile. The scores were reported to me as raw scores with no percentile, so I'm not even sure how you're finding a percentile. I'd also expect someone listing percentile to be trying to obfuscate that their score was like 2/120. Score or rank (or better yet, both) are much easier to interpret. Dec 22, 2018 at 22:03
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    @JoshuaZ: Isn't 50th percentile a 0? Dec 22, 2018 at 22:04
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    It's easy to look at the statistics for past competitions and figure out the correspondence of scores to percentiles. In 2017, there were 4638 contestants. So the score for 50th percentile is 0, 10 is 70th percentile, 20 is 84th percentile, 25 is 90th percentile, 30 is 96th percentile. Dec 23, 2018 at 14:57
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    If you score 20 or above, it's hard for me to imagine how including the score would hurt your application even at the top schools. Maybe it won't help much, but isn't that better than nothing? Dec 23, 2018 at 15:03

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