The Basics of GMAT Combinatorics

By: Apex GMAT
Contributor: Svetozara Saykova
Date: 24th June 2021

Combinatorics can seem like one of the most difficult types of questions to come across on the GMAT. Luckily there are not many of them within the exam. Still these questions make up the top level of scoring on the test and therefore it is best if you are well equipped to solve them successfully, especially if you are aiming for a 700+ score. The most important rule to follow when considering this question type is the “Fundamental Counting Principle” also known as the “Counting Rule.” This rule is used to calculate the total number of outcomes given by a probability problem. 

The most basic rule in Combinatorics is “The Fundamental Counting Principle”. It states that for any given situation the number of overall outcomes is equal to the product of the number of each discrete outcome.

Let’s say you have 4 dresses and 3 pairs of shoes, this would mean that you have 3 x 4 = 12 outfits. The Fundamental Counting Principle also applies for more than 2 options. For example, you are at the ice cream shop and you have a variety of 5 flavors, 3 types of cones and 4 choices for toppings. That means you have 5 x 3 x 4 = 60 different combinations of single-scoop ice creams. 

The Fundamental Counting Principle applies only for choices that are independent of one another. Meaning that any option can be paired with any other option and there are no exceptions. Going back to the example, there is no policy against putting sprinkles on strawberry vanilla ice cream because it is superb on its own. If there were, that would mean that this basic principle of Combinatorics would not apply because the combinations (outcomes) are dependent. You could still resort to a reasoning solution path or even a graphical solution path since the numbers are not so high. 

Let’s Level Up a Notch

The next topic in Combinatorics is essential to a proper GMAT prep is  permutations. A permutation is a possible order in which you put a set of objects.

Permutations

There are two subtypes of permutations and they are determined by whether repetition is allowed or not.

  • Permutations with repetition allowed

When there are n options and r number of slots to fill, we have n x n x …. (r times) = nr permutations. In other words, there are n possibilities for the first slot, n possibilities for the second and so on and so forth up until n possibilities for position number r.

The essential mathematical knowledge for these types of questions is that of exponents

To exemplify this let’s take your high school locker. You probably had to memorize a 3 digit combination in order to unlock it. So you have 10 options (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) for 3 available slots. The total number of locker passwords you can have is 103 = 1,000. 

  • Permutation without repetition allowed 

When repetition is restricted in the given GMAT problem, we would have to reduce the number of available choices for each position. 

Let’s take the previous example and add a restriction to the password options – you cannot have repeating numbers in your locker password. Following the “we reduce the options available each time we move to the next slot” rule, we get 10x9x8 = 720 options for a locker combination (or mathematically speaking permutation). 

To be more mathematically precise and derive a formula we use the factorial function (n!). In our case we will take all the possible options 10! for if we had 10 positions available  and divide them by 7!, which are the slots we do not have. 

10! =  10 x 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 

7! =  7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 

And when we divide them (7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1) cancels and we are left with 10 x 9 x 8 = 720. 

Pro tip: Taking problems and deeply examining them by running different scenarios, and changing some of the conditions or numbers is a great way to train for the GMAT. This technique will allow you to not only deeply understand the problem but also the idea behind it, and make you alert for what language and piece of information stands for which particular concept. 

So those are the fundamentals, folks. Learning to recognize whether order matters and whether repetition is allowed is essential when it comes to Combinatorics on the GMAT. Another vital point is that if you end up with an endless equation which confuses you more than helps, remember doing math on the GMAT Quant section is not the most efficient tactic. In fact, most of the time visualizing the data by putting it into a graph or running a scenario following your reasoning are far more efficient solution paths. 

Feeling confident and want to test you GMAT Combinatorics skills? Check out this GMAT problem and try solving it. Let us know how it goes!

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