How to Simplify Complicated Combination and Permutation Questions on the GMAT

GMATWhen test-takers first learn how to tackle combination and permutation questions, there’s typically a moment of euphoria when the proper approach really clicks.

If, for example, there are 10 people in a class, and you wish to find the number of ways you can form a cabinet consisting of a president, a vice president, and a treasurer, all you need to do is recognize that if you have 10 options for the president, you’ll have 9 left for the vice president, and 8 remaining for the treasurer, and the answer is 10*9*8. Easy, right?

But on the GMAT, as in life, anything that seems too good to be true probably is. An easy question can be tackled with the type of mechanical thinking illustrated above. A harder question will require a more sophisticated approach in which we consider disparate scenarios and perform calculations for each.

Take this question, for example:

Of the three-digit positive integers whose three digits are all different and nonzero, how many are odd integers greater than 700?

A) 84
B) 91
C) 100
D) 105
E) 243

It’s natural to see this problem and think, “All I have to do is reason out how many options I have for each digit. So for the hundreds digit, I have 3 options (7, 8, or 9); the tens digit has to be different from the hundreds digit, and it must be non-zero, so I’ll have 8 options here; then the last digit has to be odd, so…”

Here’s where the trouble starts. The number of eligible numbers in the 700’s will not be the same as the number of eligible numbers in the 800’s -if the digits must all be different, then a number in the 700’s can’t end in 7, but a number in the 800’s could. So, we need to break this problem into separate cases:

First Case: Numbers in the 700’s  
If we’re dealing with numbers in the 700’s, then we’re calculating how many ways we can select a tens digit and a units digit. 7___ ___.

Let’s start with the units digit. Well, we know that this number needs to be odd. And we know that it must be different from the hundreds and the tens digits. This leaves us the following options, as we’ve already used 7 for the hundreds digit: 1, 3, 5, 9. So there are 4 options remaining for the units digit.

Now the tens digit must be a non-zero number that’s different from the hundreds and units digit. There are 9 non-zero digits. We’re using one of those for the hundreds place and one of those for the units place, leaving us 7 options remaining for the tens digit. If there are 4 ways we can select the units digit and 7 ways we can select the tens digit, there are 4*7 = 28 options in the 700’s.

Second Case: Numbers in the 800’s
Same logic: 8 ___ ___. Again, this number must be odd, but now we have 5 options for the units digit, as every odd number will obviously be different from the hundreds digit, which is even (1, 3, 5, 7, or 9). The tens digit logic is the same – 9 non-zero digits total, but it must be different from the hundreds and the units digit, leaving us 7 options remaining. If there are 5 ways we can select the units digit and 7 ways we can select the tens digit, there are 5*7 = 35 options in the 800’s.

Third Case: Numbers in the 900’s
This calculation will be identical to the 700’s scenario: 9___ ___. For the units digit, we want an odd number that is different from the hundreds digit, giving us (1, 3, 5, 7), or 4 options. We’ll have 7 options again for the tens digit, for the same reasons that we’ll have 7 options for the tens digit in our other cases. If there are 4 ways we can select the units digit and 7 ways we can select the tens digit, then there are 4*7 = 28 options in the 900’s.

To summarize, there are 28 options in the 700’s, 35 options in the 800’s, and 28 options in the 900’s. 28 + 35 + 28 = 91. Therefore, B is the correct answer.

Takeaway: for a simpler permutation question, it’s fine to simply set up your slots and multiply. For a more complicated problem, we’ll need to work case-by-case, bearing in mind that each individual case is, on its own, actually not nearly as hard as it looks, sort of like the GMAT itself.

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By David Goldstein, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston. You can find more articles written by him here.