I am generally interested what are the benefits of Putnam (from both students and Professors' point of view), apart from the fact it is fun (for some) to solve difficult maths problem. I recently read a post on here that a good Putnam score would aid PhD application. If someone would elaborate on this a little, it'd be great.

  • I am not very acquainted with this type of competitions, but I know there is an annual mathematical competition in Iran which is probably similar to Putnam. See this link for a book about Iranian mathematical competitions.
    – user4511
    Commented Jul 20, 2014 at 13:57
  • 2
    Maybe the reason the Putnam is in the US has to do with our capitalist values, or some difference in our college cultures? The Olympiad is international, there is some national pride involved, whereas the Putnam is not. (When I was in high school in the US, I never heard anything about the IMO.) Also, at least in some East Asian countries, exam competitions probably viewed differently because of the entrance exam culture.
    – Kimball
    Commented Jul 20, 2014 at 14:38
  • @VahidShirbisheh this is at University level? interesting.
    – Lost1
    Commented Jul 20, 2014 at 15:26
  • @Lost1: Yes, it is. Probably you can find more about the latter records of this competition by searching the internet.
    – user4511
    Commented Jul 20, 2014 at 15:30
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    @Kimball: in the days of Communism, there were many more similar mathematical competitions in Communist countries. As far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with capitalism. Commented Jul 20, 2014 at 17:36

1 Answer 1


The genuine benefits I think all fall in the category of "distinguishing oneself" ... from other applicants to grad school, for example... much as with the IMO (Int'l Math Olympiad).

That is, an otherwise merely-very-good record (out of 100s?!?) can distinguish itself from others by a pretty-darn-good Putnam score. What does it "really" mean? Well, maybe not so much about higher-level mathematics, but the "exclusivity" of "having pretty darn good Putnam score" is undeniable. It's a thing that can be capsulized and "explained" to the public in PR, whereas it's harder to popularly explain progress or work in genuine mathematics (without severe distortions...)

Even at beginning-undergrad levels, kids who do at-all-well on the Putnam get substantial recognition within their math dept, often are treated more forgivingly of other quirks or inconsistent performances in routine coursework. (Given the stodginess of much of the routine undergrad curriculum, this is a good thing, since it is completely reasonable to not quite be able to consistently comply with the apparent requirements...)

The flip side is that there's a hazard here, as in all contest-math, that the quick gratification (if one receives it...) may make long-term study and research look less rewarding in comparison. In happy cases, one can "warm" to more prolonged projects, and more-delayed gratification. But quick contest-things like Putnam can be encouraging, and are noticeable pluses on a CV or grad school application. Just should not be over-interpreted.

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