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How to prepare for Harvards Math 55!

When I first encountered the legends of Math 55 online as a high school student, the class
sounded amazing, and the first thing I did was try to figure out how far beyond my current level it
was. What I found was not encouraging. The crimson article Burden of Proof from 2006 talks
about 50-hour problem sets and a steep drop-off in enrollment; it mentions one guy who won
the USAMO in the tenth grade and had to drop out of 55. The general consensus on forums like
the Art of Problem Solving seemed to be that the class was made for geniuses and filled with
MOPpers and IMO medalists. If you had to ask, you werent right for Math 55. !
In high school, contest math often feels like the gold rubric against which your general math
ability is calibrated. I had tried the AMC 12 in junior year and found that contest math was not
my thing (and that I was pretty bad at it). Since I couldnt even clear what seemed to be a
baseline hurdle of acing contests, I figured Math 55 was out of the question. !
It turns out, though, that success in 55 has less to do with being fluent in contest math or even
being particularly clever and more to do with having a robust capacity for abstraction.
Fortunately, as with most things, this is something that can be developed through experience.
The main purpose of this article is to show how you can get there. To be clear, I dont mean to
suggest that you should undertake any extensive journey just for the sake of being able to take
Math 55. For one thing, unless you are naturally inclined to do math for fun, 55 would not be
very fun. And if you are thinking about pursuing math, the steps defined below are general
enough to provide a decent foundation to start tackling many undergrad courses, not just Math
55. !
The first step is to get into the groove of thinking through hard problems. A big part of this is
developing a high frustration tolerance, so that you can be content to plug away for an hour on a
problem without seeing any measurable progress. I found the Art of Problem Solving books
(Volume 1 and Volume 2) to be a great introduction to math problems in general. The cool thing
about these books is that they introduce problem solving in the domain of elementary math, so
that you dont need to learn many advanced concepts before you can start working on hard
problems. Volume 1 starts from ground zero; the first chapter explains how exponents work and
then quickly ramps up to some interesting stuff. !
Because the main goal here is to get into the habit of thinking mathematically and not to master
any particular material, dont feel like you have to learn everything. If advanced Euclidean
geometry is not your thing, dont worry about it; as long as youre working on hard problemsin
combinatorics, number theory, geometry, whateveryoure going to be moving forward.!
The next hurdle is to become comfortable with basic abstraction. Youll need to start thinking
about entire structureslike the field of all real numbers or the vector space of three
dimensional points in space. The first real math book I read was Axlers Linear Algebra Done
Right. I remember that a lot of the people in Math 55 my year had also used Axler before.
Working through it cover to cover and doing all the problems took me about two months. I
learned some linear algebra, but more importantly I became immensely more comfortable
reading math and thinking mathematically. !
Its easy to underestimate the difficulty of becoming fluent in the language of pure math
textbooks, but I remember when I first started reading Axler I was a little bewildered by the
dense notation itself. If you find that youre not quite ready for Axler, another great book is
Calculus by Spivak. I think I ended up reading the first 5 or so chapters of this book before I was
ready to tackle Axler.!
After getting a taste of linear algebra, a sound next step is to study general abstract algebra.
Groups, rings, PIDs, vector spacesthese structures are the bread and butter of 55a. I got my
first introduction to this material at the summer camp HCSSIM (which I highly recommend!). I
remember checking Wikipedia several times a day to make sure I had my axioms straight for
rings and fields. If you dont have the good fortune of going to HCSSIM, I highly recommend
Hersteins Topics in Algebra. Unlike most abstract algebra books, it has three great things going
for it: it starts from the beginning, it doesnt get bogged down in the details, and it is short
enough that you can reasonably read it from cover to cover. I used it as a reference while at
Here comes the annoying part: youre going to have to learn some analysis. Maybe chopping
things up into little bits is your thing, though, in which case youll have more fun here than I did.
Baby Rudin (Principles of Mathematical Analysis) is the gold standardof terseness. I only
made it through the first six chapters before I switched back to studying algebra. All I can say is
good luck.!
Once youve made it through the abyss you get rewarded by a bunch of cool stuff. You probably
noticed that in abstract algebra there is a lot of repetition between the various structures;
groups, rings, fields and modules for example all have analogous isomorphism theorems
which means there must be some way to generalize these structures into a more robust
framework! I had a lot of fun digging into universal algebra trying to solve this problem. Another
commonality between these disparate structures is the quotient construction, which feels
intuitively like the most natural way to make some things zero. This idea of a construction
being natural is made rigorous by the notion of universal properties in category theory. More on
this later.!
My favorite math book of all time, which is perfect for this stage of investigation, is Algebra by
MacLane and Birkhoff. I think its hugely underrated. Working through this book the summer
before my freshman year of college was by far the most useful prep I did for 55. Probably the
coolest thing that MacLane does, which is really unmatched in other intro/intermediate algebra
texts, is incorporate basic category theory into his discussions throughout the book. The
concept of universality in particular really unifies the material and makes the journey much more
satisfying. More to the point, at least my year, commutative diagrams and universal properties
were a huge part of Math 55. There is a significant jump in abstraction between thinking about
one structure and thinking about the class of all similar structures, and being comfortable with
this kind of mental gymnastics is a huge benefit coming into 55.!
If you want to really make sure youll be ready for 55, a good test is to see whether you can
work through a reasonable amount of the material in MacLanes chapter on Multilinear Algebra.
Graded modules, tensor algebra and exterior algebrathis stuff is hard. This was just about the
deepest I got into math before coming to college. It ended up working really well because (for
me at least) exterior algebra was the most intellectually demanding thing Gaitsgory taught in
55a. !
I think that sums up the extent of my math experience before coming to college. If nothing else, I
hope that this helps to dispel the aura of impossibility that seems to surround Math 55, at least
online. If youre a high school student who heard about 55 and got excited, but you worry that
youre not smart enough: dont! You definitely dont have to be a genius. You just have to do a
lot of math.!