GMAT Prime numbers article with questions
Posted on
Mar 2021

A Primer on Primes

By: Rich Zwelling (Apex GMAT Instructor)
Date: 30th March 2021

As I said in my previous post, GMAT Prime Numbers are my favorite topic. This is because not only are they inherently interesting mathematically but they show up in unexpected circumstances on GMAT problems, even when the term “prime” is not explicitly mentioned.

But before we get to that, I thought it would help to review a basic definition:

If you’ve gone through school, you’ve likely heard the definition of a prime as “any number that can be divided only by 1 and itself.” Or put differently, “any number that has only 1 and itself as factors.”  For example, 3 is a prime number, because 1 and 3 are the only numbers that are factors of 3.

However, there is something slightly problematic here. I always then ask my students: “Okay, well then, is 1 prime? 1 is divisible by only 1 and itself.” Many people are under the misconception that 1 is a prime number, but in truth 1 is not prime

There is a better way to think about prime number definitionally:

*A prime number is any number that has EXACTLY TWO FACTORS*

By that definition, 1 is not prime, as it has only one factor

But then, what is the smallest prime number? Prime numbers are also by definition always positive, so we need not worry about negative numbers. It’s tempting to then consider 3, but don’t overlook 2. 

Even though 2 is even, it has exactly two factors, namely 1 and 2, and it is therefore prime. It is also the only even prime number. Take a moment to think critically about why that is before reading the next paragraph…

Any other even number must have more than two factors, because apart from 1 and the number itself, 2 must also be a factor. For example, the number 4 will have 1 and 4 as factors, of course, but it will also have 2, since it is even. No even number besides 2, therefore, will have exactly two factors. 

Another way to read this, then, is that every prime number other than 2 is odd

You can see already how prime numbers feed into other number properties so readily, and we’ll talk much more about that going forward. But another question people often ask is about memorization: do I have to memorize a certain number of prime values? 

It’s good to know up to a certain value. but unnecessary to go beyond that into conspicuously larger numbers, because the GMAT as a test is less interested in your ability to memorize large and weird primes and more interested in your reasoning skills and your ability to draw conclusions about novel problems on the fly. If you know the following, you should be set (with some optional values thrown in at the end):

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, (41, 43)

Thankfully, you’ll notice the list is actually pretty manageable. 

(And an interesting note that many people forget that 27 is actually not prime. But don’t beat yourself up if this happens to you: Terence Tao, one of the world’s leading mathematicians and an expert on prime numbers, actually slipped briefly on national television once and said 27 was prime before catching himself. And he’s one of the best in the world. So even the best of the best make these mistakes.)

Now, here’s an Official Guide problem that takes the basics of Prime Numbers and forces you to do a little reasoning. As usual, give it shot before reading the explanation:

The product of all the prime numbers less than 20 is closest to which of the following powers of 10 ?

A) 109
B) 108
C) 107
D) 106
E) 105


For this one, you have a little hint going in, as we’ve provided you with the necessary list of primes you’ll use to find the product.

And the language given (“closest to”) is a huge hint that you can estimate:

2*3*5*7*11*13*17*19 ~= ??

Since powers of 10 are involved, let’s try to group the numbers to get 10s as much as possible. The following is just one of many ways you could do this, but the universal easiest place to start is the 2 and the 5, so let’s multiply those. We’ll mark numbers we’ve accounted for in red:

(2*5)*3*7*11*13*17*19 ~= ??

10*3*7*11*13*17*19 ~= ??

Next, we can look at the 19 and label it as roughly 20, or 2*10:

10*3*7*11*13*17*19 ~= ??

10*3*7*11*13*17*20 ~= ??

10*3*7*11*13*17*2*10 ~= ??

We could also take the 11 and estimate it as another 10:

10*3*7*11*13*17*2*10 ~= ??

10*3*7*10*13*17*2*10 ~= ??

At this point, we should be able to eyeball this. Remember, it’s estimation. We may not know 17*3 and 13*7 offhand. But we know that they’re both around or less than 100 or 102. And a look at the answer choices lets us know that each answer is a factor of 10 apart, so the range is huge. (In other words, estimation error is not likely to play a factor.)

So it’s not unreasonable in the context of this problem to label those remaining products as two values of 102:

10*3*7*10*13*17*2*10 ~= ??

10*(102)*10*(102)*2*10 ~= ??

And at this point, the 2 is negligible, since that won’t be enough to raise the entire number to a higher power of 10. What do we have left?

101*(102)*101*(102)*101 ~= 107 

The correct answer is C. 

Next time, we’ll get into Prime Factorizations, which you can do with any positive integer.

Find other GMAT Number Theory topics here:
Odds and Ends (…or Evens)
Consecutive Integers (plus more on Odds and Evens)
Consecutive Integers and Data Sufficiency (Avoiding Algebra)
GMAT Prime Factorization (Anatomy of a Problem)
A Primer on Primes


Read more
odds and evens on the gmat
Posted on
Mar 2021

Odds and Ends (…or Evens)

By: Rich Zwelling, Apex GMAT Instructor
Date: 18th March, 2021

Last time, we signed off with an Official Guide GMAT problem that provided a nice segue into Number Theory, specifically today’s topic of GMAT Odds and Evens. Now we’ll discuss the solution. Here’s the problem, in case you missed it and want to try it now:

If x is to be chosen at random from the set {1, 2, 3, 4} and y is to be chosen at random from the set {5, 6, 7}, what is the probability that xy will be even?

A) 1/6
B) 1/3
C) 1/2
D) 2/3
E) 5/6

Method #1 (Certainly passable, but not preferable)

Since there are so few numbers involved here, you could certainly take a brute-force approach if pressed for time and unsure of a faster strategy. It doesn’t take long to map out each individual product of x*y systematically and then tally up which ones are even. Here I’ll use red to indicate not even and green to indicate even:

1*5 = 5
1*6 = 6
1*7 = 7

2*5 = 10
2*6 = 12
2*7 = 14

3*5 = 15
3*6 = 18
3*7 = 21

4*5 = 20
4*6 = 24
4*7 = 28

Since we know that all probability is Desired Outcomes / Total Possible Outcomes, and since we have 8 even results out of 12 total possible outcomes, our final answer would be 8/12 or 2/3.

However, this is an opportune time to introduce something about odd and even number properties and combine it with the method from our “undesired” probability post…

Method #2 (Far preferable)

First, some number theory to help explain:

You might have seen that there are rules governing how even and odd numbers behave when added, subtracted, or multiplied (they get a little weirder with division). They are as follows for addition and subtraction:

Even ± Odd = Odd

Odd ± Odd = Even

And with multiplication, the operative thing is that, when multiplying integers, just a single even number will make the entire product even. So for example, the following is true:

Odd * Odd * Odd * Odd * Odd * Odd * Odd * Odd * Odd * … * Odd = Odd

But introduce just a single even number into the above product, and the entire product becomes even:

Even * Odd * Odd * Odd * Odd * Odd * Odd * Odd * Odd * Odd * … * Odd = Even

This makes sense when you think about it, because you are introducing a factor of 2 to the product, so the entire product must be even

When considering the above rules, you could memorize them, or you could turn to SCENARIO examples with simple numbers to illustrate the general pattern. For example, if you forget what Odd * Odd is, just multiply 3 * 5 to get 15, which is odd, and that will help you remember. 

This can also help you see that introducing just a single even number makes an entire product even: 

3 * 3 * 3 = 27

2 * 3 * 3 * 3 = 54

So how does all of that help us get the answer to this problem faster?

Well, the question asks for the desired outcome of xy being even. That presents us with three possibilities:

 1. x could be even AND y could be odd
 2. x could be odd AND y could be even
 3. x could be even AND y could be even

This is why I, personally, find it less helpful to think of individual multiplication rules for even numbers and more helpful to think in terms of: “The only way a product of integers is odd is if every integer in the set is odd.”

Because now, we can just think about our undesired outcome, the only outcome left:

4. x is odd AND y is odd, making the product xy odd

And how many such outcomes are there in this problem? Well at this point, we can treat it like a simple combinatorics problem. There are two odd numbers in the x group (1 and 3) and two odd numbers in the y group (5 and 7):

_2_ * _2_ = 4 possible odd xy products 

And for the total, there are four possible x values and three possible y values:

_4_ * _3_ = 12 total possible xy products 

That gives us a 4/12 or 1/3 probability of getting our undesired odd xy product. And as discussed in the previous post, we can now simply subtract that 1/3 from 1 to get:

1 – 1/3  = 2/3 probability that we get our desired even xy product.

For a little “homework,” try the following Official Guide GMAT problem. It has an underlying topic that we’ll discuss next time:

If x and y are integers, is xy even?
(1) x = y + 1.
(2) x/y is an even integer.

If you enjoyed this GMAT odds and evens article watch Mike solve this Number Theory problem with multiple solution paths.

Find other GMAT Number Theory topics here:
Odds and Ends (…or Evens)
Consecutive Integers (plus more on Odds and Evens)
Consecutive Integers and Data Sufficiency (Avoiding Algebra)
GMAT Prime Factorization (Anatomy of a Problem)
A Primer on Primes

Read more
When Probability Meets Combinatorics: One Problem, Two Approaches article
Posted on
Mar 2021

When Probability Meets Combinatorics: One Problem, Two Approaches

By: Rich Zwelling, Apex GMAT Instructor
Date: 16th March, 2021

Now, we’d like to take a look at an Official GMAT Probability problem to pull everything together. The following is a good example for two reasons:

 1. It illustrates a quirky case that is difficult more conceptually than mathematically, and thus is better for the GMAT.

 2. It can be tackled either through straight probability or through a combination of probability and combinatorics.

Here’s the question:

Tanya prepared 4 different letters to be sent to 4 different addresses. For each letter, she prepared an envelope with its correct address. If the 4 letters are to be put into the 4 envelopes at random, what is the probability that only 1 letter will be put into the envelope with its correct address?

A) 1/24
C) 1/4
D) 1/3
E) 3/8

First, as always, give the problem a shot before reading on for the explanation. If possible, see if you can tackle it with both methods (pure probability and probability w/ combinatorics). 

Explanation #1:

First, we’ll tackle pure probability. Let’s label the letters A, B, C, and D, and let’s say that A is the letter we wish to match with its correct envelope. The other three will be matched with incorrect envelopes. We now must examine the individual probabilities of the following events happening (green for correct, red for incorrect):

_A_   _B_   _C_   _D_

For the above, each slot represents a letter matched with an envelope. There are four envelopes and only one is correct for letter A. That means Tanya has a 1/4 chance of placing letter A in its correct envelope:

_1/4__   _B_   _C_   _D_

We now desire letter B to be placed in an incorrect envelope. Two of the remaining three envelopes display incorrect addresses, so there is a 2/3 chance of that happening:

_1/4__   _2/3_   _C_   _D_

We then desire letter C to also be placed in an incorrect envelope. Only one of the remaining two envelopes displays an incorrect address, so there is a 1/2 chance of that happening:

_1/4__   _2/3_   _1/2_   _D_

At that point, the only remaining option is to place the last remaining letter in the last remaining envelope (i.e. a 100% chance, so we place a 1 in the final slot):

_1/4__   _2/3_   _1/2_   _1_

Multiplying the fractions, we can hopefully see that some cancelling will occur:

¼ x ⅔ x ½ x 1

= 1 x 2 x 1
   4 x 3 x 2

= 1/12

But lo and behold, 1/12 is not in our answer choices. Did you figure out why?

We can’t treat letter A as the only possible correct letter. Any of the four letters could possibly be the correct one. However, the good news is that in any of the four cases, the math will be exactly the same. So all we have to do is take the original 1/12 we just calculated and multiply it by 4 to get the final answer: 4 x 1/12 = 4/12 = 1/3. The correct answer is D.

Explanation #2:

So what about a combinatorics approach?

As we’ve discussed in our previous GMAT probability posts, all probability can be boiled down to Desired Outcomes / Total Possible Outcomes. And as we discussed in our posts on GMAT combinatorics, we can use factorials to figure out the total possible outcomes in a situation such as this, which is actually a simple PERMUTATION. There are four envelopes, so for the denominator of our fraction (total possible outcomes), we can create a slot for each envelope and place a number representing the letters in each slot to get:

_4_  _3_  _2_  _1_  =  4! = 24  possible outcomes

This lets us know that if we were to put the four letters into the four envelopes at random, as the problem says, there would be 24 permutations, giving us the denominator of our fraction (total possible outcomes). 

So what about the desired outcomes? How many of those 24 involve exactly one correctly placed letter? Well, let’s again treat letter A as the correctly placed letter. Once it’s placed, there are three slots (envelopes) left: 

___  ___  ___ 

But the catch is: the next envelope has only two letters that could go into it. Remember, one of the letters correctly matches the envelope in address, and we want a mismatch:

_2_  ___  ___ 

Likewise, that would leave two letters available for the next envelope, but only one of them would have the wrong address:

_2_  _1_  ___ 

And finally, there would be only one choice left for the final envelope:

_2_  _1_  _1_ 

That would mean for the correctly-placed A letter, there are only two permutations in which each of the other letters is placed incorrectly:

_2_ x  _1_ x  _1_ = 2 possible outcomes.

But as before, we must consider that any of the four letters could be the correct letter, not just letter A. So we must multiply the 2 possible outcomes by four to get 8 desired outcomes involving exactly one letter being placed in its correct envelope. That gives us our numerator of Desired Outcomes. Our denominator, remember, was 24 total possible outcomes. So our final answer, once again, is 8/24 = 1/3.

This is a great example of how GMAT combinatorics can intersect with probability.

To tide you over until next time, give this Official GMAT problem a try. It will also give a nice segue into Number Theory, which we’ll begin to talk more about going forward. Explanation next time…

If x is to be chosen at random from the set {1, 2, 3, 4} and y is to be chosen at random from the set {5, 6, 7}, what is the probability that xy will be even?

A) 1/6
B) 1/3
C) 1/2
D) 2/3
E) 5/6


Permutations and Combinations Intro
A Continuation of Permutation Math
An Intro To Combination Math
Permutations With Repeat Elements
Permutations With Restrictions
Combinations with Restrictions
Independent vs Dependent Probability
GMAT Probability Math – The Undesired Approach
GMAT Probability Meets Combinatorics: One Problem, Two Approaches

Read more