A closeup of a student taking an exam with a row of other students taking an exam out of focus in the background.

Harvard Makes Strong Showing at 83rd Putnam Mathematical Competition

Harvard scored second place among the winning teams at the 83rd annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. Over 3,400 students from over 450 institutions participated in the highly competitive exam administered by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) this past December. The 2022 Putnam team from Harvard was comprised of Kevin Cong ‘26, Andrew Gu ‘26, and math concentrator Arav Karighattam ‘23. Gu was ranked among the top 16 individuals while Cong and Karighattam received an honorable mention and ranked among the top 26-100 individuals.

First-years Cong and Gu had both participated in math contests in high school and were well aware of the Putnam competition. “There was lore surrounding one of the nation’s oldest and most famous contests,” said Cong. He had always enjoyed the opportunity to work on challenging, thought-provoking problems, and considers Putnam the peak of such experiences. For Gu, taking part in the competition once he was in college was “a no-brainer.” In fact, the experience was nostalgic for him, reminding him of the camaraderie and thrill of his high school competition days. This was senior Karighattam’s third time participating in the Putnam.

All three students prepared for the competition by working through past year problems. Gu even practiced in the car on his way to New York City for Thanksgiving break. “Practicing for Putnam was more than just practicing for Putnam. It was also a welcome break from the monotony of college life at that point,” Gu said. Through these preparations, he was able to grasp several principles of real analysis that he had never learned in a formal classroom, while Cong got to apply some of the abstract and linear algebra knowledge he had gained throughout his coursework. “Putnam problems usually tend to have fairly clean solutions,” Cong said. “The aha moment after analyzing, breaking down, and creating new ideas to approach the problem is lovely. The definition of using creativity to solve problems!”

All three students went into competition day excited and with high expectations of themselves, and all three are proud of their achievements. Their hard work and individual preparations paid off, but high scores aren’t the only thing they took away from the experience. For Karighattam, working on the problems was a joy in itself, and Gu is looking forward to improving and pushing himself further. Cong loved the sense of camaraderie and belonging he found among his fellow math-minded undergraduates. “Although the Putnam is often hailed as an individual contest, the flurry of discussion post-competition was a demonstration of the wonderful math community within Harvard and more broadly,” he said.

The Putnam competition was founded in 1927 by Elizabeth Lowell Putnam in memory of her husband William Lowell Putnam, an American lawyer and banker, as well as a Harvard alum. It has been administered by the MMA and offered annually since 1938 as a competition between mathematics departments at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. The intense, six-hour exam features 12 proof-based math problems worth 10 points each, and although participants work independently on the problems there is a team aspect to the competition as well. A school’s team consists of its top three scorers, and team ranks are determined by comparing the sums of the scores of the team members. The highest-ranked teams’ math departments and their student members received cash prizes.