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Highest score, youngest competitor: Carlson Triebold, Class of 2014

Posted: May 06, 2014


Following his recent success in the Putnam Competition, Carlson Triebold (L), Class of 2014, is on his way to a career in mathematics. He credits Dr. Justin Brown (R) and his other math professors for encouraging him to pursue the dream.

Although he is an upperclassman, senior Carlson Triebold of Grant Park, Illinois, is the youngest Olivet student to participate in the 2013 William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition — one of the most prestigious university-level mathematics exams in the world. Graduating from Olivet in May at the age of 18, he is also Olivet’s highest scorer ever in the annual competition.

Carlson’s math skills were recognized at a young age, and he attributes his success to his parents and his professors.

His parents homeschooled their five children and emphasized the importance of each child studying his or her best subjects. “My mother was quite good at math in college,” Carlson says. “They noticed that I was pretty talented at math, so that’s what they focused on with me.”

When he was 14, Carlson began attending a community college and, at the age of 16, he transferred to Olivet with 66 credit hours.

“I really just want to do math for a living,” he says.

Solution to a three-hour problem

Proctored at Olivet by Dr. Justin Brown, mathematics professor, the Putnam Competition is an annual exam offered to undergraduate college students from the United States and Canada. Offered annually since 1938, it is administered by the Mathematical Association of America.

On a Saturday morning in December 2013, Carlson and eight other Olivet math majors spent three hours taking the exam. After a break for lunch and chess, they tested for three more hours in the afternoon.

“In the end, this is a fun day,” says Dr. Brown, who helped initiate the test at Olivet four years ago when a student suggested it. “And it’s a chance for students to practice their skills while seeing how many points they can get on the exam.”

The test is extensive with only 12 questions — six in the morning session and six in the afternoon. “Dr. Brown advised us to focus on the one problem we thought we could complete in three hours,” says Carlson, who spent his time answering only two questions.

On March 31, 2014, Carlson was notified that he placed 597 out of 4,113 total students, making him the highest-scoring Olivet student ever to compete.

Résumé and research

Carlson spends time outside of numbers, as well. He has a minor in chemistry and is an avid reader. “I also love baseball, but I wasn’t any good at playing it,” he laughs.

After graduation, he plans to pursue a career as a math professor. “My professors are always encouraging me to keep going,” he says. “It would be great to do what they do. Because of them, I feel well prepared to pursue a career in this field.”

His next step is to apply for graduate programs. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to get into some research programs to build my résumé. I’d also love to tutor,” he says. A Ph.D. is his goal.

“People who get a Ph.D. in math usually teach while they do research,” he adds. “Not many people are blessed to be able to do research for a living. That’s the dream.” And for Carlson, that may also be the reality.

Percentage of Olivet freshmen who achieved ACT composite scores of 30 or higher (4% achieve this nationally)