Stanford students place third in Putnam Math Competition

A team of Stanford undergraduate students beat teams from hundreds of other institutions across the United States and Canada.

A team of Stanford undergraduate math students placed third at the 80th annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). For their efforts, the Stanford team received $15,000, and one student was recognized for being one of the top-performing women in the competition.

Tai Vu, William Wang, Yifan Zhu, Ian Ruohoniemi, John Mistele and Siah Yong Tan are among the 28 Stanford students who competed in the Putnam Mathematical Competition. (Image credit: Kirstyn Raitz)

The December competition attracted 4,229 college students from 570 institutions in the United States and Canada. The event took place in two 3-hour sessions during which participants worked individually on six challenging math problems in areas such as linear algebra, number theory or combinatorics. Participating schools competed from their campuses and then submitted their entries to the MAA. Entries are graded by hand, and the winners are announced each February.

Twenty-eight Stanford undergraduates participated, including the third-place team: David Kewei Lin, John Mistele, Anita Hanzhi Zheng and Yifan Zhu. They placed behind teams from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

“I feel very honored to have won these prizes.”

—Anita Hanzhi Zheng

Junior, Math and Computer Science

To prepare for the competition, the Stanford team took a 1-unit course fall quarter called MATH 193: Polya Problem Solving Seminar, taught by Ciprian Manolescu, professor of mathematics and a three-time Putnam Fellow winner. Zheng – a junior studying math and computer science – attributed much of their success to his mentorship.

“Professor Ciprian Manolescu organized this seminar really well,” Zheng said. “I really enjoyed my time in the seminar tackling and discussing challenging math problems.”

Zheng was one of three students awarded the Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize, which recognizes the top-performing women in the competition.

“Third place is the best rank the Stanford team has achieved in history, and this is also the first time I have ever won the Elizabeth Lowell Putnam Prize,” Zheng said. “I feel very honored to have won these prizes.”