Freshman exceeds national average on test


What began as a competition between mathematics departments in 1938 has now developed into the preeminent university-level mathematics examination in the world: The William Lowell Putnam Math Competition.

It’s a notoriously difficult test. There are 120 points available, and the nation’s average score is a 1—that’s right, a 1. This year, however, freshman Daoru Li scored far above the national average with a 21. It’s a feat not previously achieved at Augustana.

“That’s an outstanding score for a senior,” said mathematics professor Carl Olimb. “But for a freshman, it’s unheard of.”

The test is most popular among Ivy League schools with Harvard University, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, being among the top scoring universities. Typically, students from these institutions train as teams and take specific courses tailored to preparing them for the Putnam exam.

Though Dr. Olimb offers practice tests, Li, a physics major from Beijing, China, was unable to show up to a session, so he walked into the examination room without prior experience. He credits his intuitive math solving abilities to the AP courses he took in high school which, he said, are much more difficult than the ones offered in the United States.

“To be honest, I think the course I took in China is more difficult,” Li said. “Sometimes, [Americans] focus too much on calculation, so sometimes they lose the intuition. In China, you need to calculate many things, but you’re not supposed to use a calculator, because if you do that too much, you lose intuition.”

The exam consists of 12 questions, each worth 10 points. Test takers spend 3 hours answering the first set of six in the morning, and then they spend another 3 hours answering the second set of six in the afternoon. 

“I think all of the problems I solved are in the second part, it was during those three hours that I was really struggling,” Li said. “After three hours and you cannot work out anything, that’s really frustrating.” 

Still developing his English language skills, Li said one of the challenges of the exam was deciphering the meanings of certain English mathematical terms, such as the word “series.”

In the end, with some translation help from Dr. Olimb, he finished the test, answering 2 of the 12 questions correctly.

“We were very pleased,” said Olimb. “If you do well on the Putnam, that’s your entrance into grad school.”

As someone who enjoys math and physics, Li plans to be an engineer once finished with schooling. He says he enjoys solving abstract problems with concrete equations.

“I think math and physics are abstract, but you can handle them by using just equations,” Li said. “I think that there is a deep connection between math and physics because you can use easy equations to understand something difficult.” 

Dr. Olimb said he plans to host more training sessions for the test next year.

“I’m anxious to see how the results may change if we practice a little bit more,” Olimb said. 

As for Li, he said he is excited to take the test again and plans to do better the second time around. 

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