What is the Putnam Competition?
The Putnam Exam is a nationwide test given yearly to undergraduates (all majors are welcome) in the United States and Canada. It is voluntary, and problems are presented with clever and ingenious solutions. Some students have found general solutions, which have led to publications.
The William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, often abbreviated to the Putnam Competition, awards scholarships and cash prizes ranging from $250 to $2,500 for the top students and $5,000 to $25,000 for the top schools. It is considered by many to be the most prestigious university-level mathematics examination in the world. The competition was founded in 1927 by Elizabeth Lowell Putnam in memory of her husband William Lowell Putnam, who was an advocate of intercollegiate intellectual competition. The exam has been offered annually since 1938 and is administered by the Mathematical Association of America.
What is the format of this test?
The Putnam Exam consists of two parts, each containing six problems. Contestants are given three hours to work on each part. The first session runs from 9:00 a.m. to noon, and the second from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Contestants are not allowed to bring notes, books, or calculators.
What topics are covered on the Putnam Competition?
Geometry, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, linear algebra, combinatorics (counting), probability, number theory, complex numbers and differential equations, to name a few. Often, you will have to figure out what topic to use to answer a certain problem. The committee claims that every section contains two problems which only require algebra and cleverness, so you shouldn't be intimidated by this list.
When is it?
The competition is held on the first Saturday of December every year. This year it will be on December 3, 2016. You must sign up in advance.
How does the scoring work?
Each problem is worth 10 points, so you can potentially get 120 points. Partial credit is given, but typically this means 0, 1, 9, or 10 points for a problem. The median is usually 0 or 1 points. (That is, at least half of the students taking the test don't get any problems right.)
When do I find out how I did?
You will get a letter in April. Discussion is allowed after each session is over, and you will probably find out then whether you got certain problems right.
What's my motivation?
Taking on an intellectual challenge. The top three students will be recognized at the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences' spring awards and scholarship event, usually in April. And you can even bring glory to ASU; we are allowed to choose three students beforehand, whose total score will make up ASU's score. In 2003, a student from ASU scored in the top 400 (out of about 3,615 students).
Where can I go for more information?
The Putnam Competition has a Wikipedia page. Old tests can be found at the archive at AMC.