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27 September 2023

7 minutes read

Mastering Combinations and Permutations for the GRE: Strategies and Formulas

Preparing for the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) involves mastering a variety of quantitative concepts, and one area that often challenges test-takers is combinations and permutations.

These mathematical concepts, although distinct, play a significant role in solving GRE math problems. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve deep into permutations and combinations, providing detailed explanations, formulas, practice questions, and strategies to help you excel in the GRE quantitative section.

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Understanding Permutations

Basics of Permutations

Let’s start our journey with permutations. At its core, a permutation is an arrangement of objects in a specific order. To calculate permutations, you’ll need to grasp the formula: P(n,r)=(n−r)!n!​,  where ‘n’ represents the total number of objects, and ‘r’ represents the number of objects taken at a time.

Permutations Problem Solving

To solidify your understanding, consider a scenario where you’re selecting a committee of three individuals from a pool of seven candidates. How many different committees can you form?

We can use the permutation formula here: P(7,3)=(7−3)!7!. Detailed solutions like this will help you tackle permutation questions confidently.

Advanced Permutations

Having covered the basics of permutations, it’s time to dive deeper into more complex scenarios and advanced concepts related to permutations that you may encounter in GRE math questions.

These advanced permutations often involve nuances that require a solid understanding of the fundamental principles and creative problem-solving skills.

Permutations with Repetition

In some cases, you may need to calculate permutations when there are repeated elements. For example, consider arranging the letters in the word “MISSISSIPPI.” How many different arrangements are possible? To solve this, you would use permutations with repetition.

  • Formula for Permutations with Repetition: If you have ‘n’ objects with repetitions, and ‘r’ of them are identical, the formula is Prepetition​(n;n1​,n2​,…,nk​)=n1​!⋅n2​!⋅…⋅nk​!n!​​, where represent the counts of each identical item.

Circular Permutations

In certain scenarios, you’ll encounter circular permutations, where objects are arranged in a circle and the starting point matters. An example might be seating people around a circular table. Calculating circular permutations involves a different approach.

  • Formula for Circular Permutations: For ‘n’ distinct objects arranged in a circle, the number of circular permutations is (n−1)!.

Permutations with Restrictions

GRE questions often include constraints or restrictions that limit the possible permutations. These can be particularly challenging. For instance, consider arranging the letters in the word “GREEDY” so that the vowels (E and E) are always together. Solving such problems requires you to treat the vowels as a single unit.

  • Strategy for Permutations with Restrictions: Break the problem into cases. In the example above, you might have one case with the vowels as a single unit (VED), and another with the vowels in reverse order (DEY). Calculate the permutations for each case and sum them up to find the total number of valid permutations.

Permutations of Multisets

A multiset is a set that allows for duplicate elements. Calculating permutations of multisets involves dealing with repeated items.

  • Formula for Permutations of Multisets: If you have a multiset with ‘n’ elements, where ‘n_1’ elements are of one type, ‘n_2’ of another type, and so on, the number of permutations is n1​!⋅n2​!⋅…⋅nk​!n!​.

Permutations in Probability

Permutations are also closely related to probability problems. You might encounter questions where you need to calculate the probability of a certain outcome by considering the number of favorable permutations over the total permutations.

  • Probability and Permutations: In probability problems, permutations help you determine the number of ways a specific outcome can occur. By dividing the number of favorable permutations by the total permutations, you can find the probability.

Advanced Practice

The best way to become proficient in solving advanced permutation problems is through practice. Seek out GRE-style questions that incorporate these advanced concepts.

As you tackle more complex problems, you’ll sharpen your analytical skills and enhance your ability to apply permutations to a wide range of scenarios.

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Diving into Combinations

Basics of Combinations

Now, let’s shift our focus to combinations. Unlike permutations, combinations involve selecting objects without regard to the order. The formula for combinations is: C(n,r)=r!(n−r)!n!​, where ‘n’ represents the total number of objects, and ‘r’ represents the number of objects selected.

Combinations Problem Solving

Imagine you have a deck of 52 cards, and you want to select a hand of five cards. How many different hands can you form? This is a classic combination problem, and we’ll guide you through the steps to solve it.

Advanced Combinations

Now that we’ve explored the fundamentals of combinations, let’s delve deeper into advanced combination concepts and scenarios that you may encounter in GRE math questions. These advanced combinations can be challenging but are essential to excel in the quantitative section of the GRE.

Combinations with Restrictions

In advanced GRE problems, you may encounter scenarios where certain elements have restrictions or limitations. For instance, consider selecting a committee of three people from a group of ten individuals, but two of them cannot serve together.

  • Strategy for Combinations with Restrictions: To solve these problems, break them into cases. Calculate the combinations when the restricted individuals are not included and when they are included. Then, subtract the unwanted combinations from the total to find the valid combinations.

Sampling Without Replacement

Sampling without replacement is a common advanced combination concept in probability problems. This situation arises when you are selecting items from a set, and once an item is chosen, it is not put back into the set.

  • Combinations in Probability: In probability problems, combinations help you determine the number of ways a specific combination of items can occur. By dividing the number of favorable combinations by the total combinations, you can find the probability of a particular outcome.

Selecting from Multisets

Just like with permutations, combinations can involve multisets where elements can repeat. These situations require careful consideration to ensure that the combinations are calculated correctly.

  • Formula for Combinations of Multisets: If you have a multiset with ‘n’ elements, where ‘n_1’ elements are of one type, ‘n_2’ of another type, and so on, the number of combinations is (�+�−1)!�!⋅(�−1)!r!⋅(n−1)!(n+r−1)!​, where ‘r’ represents the number of elements you’re selecting.

Combining Combinations and Permutations

Some GRE questions involve a combination of permutations and combinations within a single problem. For example, you might need to arrange and select items simultaneously.

  • Strategy for Combining Permutations and Combinations: Break down the problem step by step. First, calculate the permutations or combinations as required, and then combine the results to find the final answer.

Challenging GRE-Style Problems

To truly master advanced combinations, it’s crucial to practice with GRE-style problems that incorporate these concepts. Look for practice questions that involve restrictions, multisets, probability, and combinations combined with other mathematical concepts. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll become with solving complex combination problems.

Developing a Systematic Approach

In advanced combination problems, it’s essential to develop a systematic approach. Break down complex scenarios into simpler parts, calculate combinations step by step, and keep track of cases when restrictions are involved. Being organized and methodical in your approach will lead to accurate solutions.

Additional Resources

Consider exploring GRE preparation materials, books, and online courses. Many GRE prep resources offer advanced combination practice questions with detailed explanations to further enhance your skills.

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Recognizing When to Use Permutations or Combinations

One of the fundamental challenges in mastering permutations and combinations for the GRE is knowing when to apply each concept. GRE test-makers craft questions with subtle language cues that guide you towards the appropriate method. Let’s delve into these cues to help you decipher whether a question calls for permutations or combinations:

1. Analyzing the Language of the Question

Pay close attention to the wording of the question. The way the question is phrased often hints at whether you should use permutations or combinations.

  • Permutations Clues: Look for phrases like “arrangement,” “order matters,” or “sequence.” When the question emphasizes the order in which objects are arranged or selected, it’s likely a permutation problem.
  • Combinations Clues: If the question focuses on forming groups or sets without specifying the order, watch for keywords like “selection,” “combination,” or “group.” These indicate a combinations problem.

2. Identifying the Context

Consider the context of the problem. Is it a real-world scenario where order is significant, or is it about forming groups or sets?

  • Permutations Context: Think about scenarios like arranging people in a line, seating arrangements, or assigning tasks with a specific order. These are typical contexts where permutations come into play.
  • Combinations Context: Contexts involving selecting items for a committee, choosing a team, or creating groups where the order doesn’t matter usually call for combinations.

3. Numeric Clues

Sometimes, numerical clues can guide your choice. Analyze the quantities given in the problem.

  • Permutations Numeric Clues: If the problem provides information about arranging a specific number of items or objects in a particular sequence, it’s likely a permutation problem.
  • Combinations Numeric Clues: If the question focuses on selecting a fixed number of items for a group or committee, regardless of their order, it points to combinations.

4. Possibility of Repetition

Consider whether the problem allows for repetition of items. In permutations, repetition can occur, while in combinations, repetition is generally not a factor.

  • Permutations with Repetition: If the question involves items that can be selected or arranged with repetition, permutations may be the appropriate choice.
  • Combinations without Repetition: Combinations are typically used when each item can be selected only once, and repetitions are not allowed.

5. Applying Common Sense

Sometimes, the best approach is to use common sense. Think about the problem logically and ask yourself whether the order of selection or arrangement truly matters in the given scenario.

Practice Makes Perfect

The ability to recognize these cues and apply the correct concept comes with practice. As you work through GRE practice questions related to permutations and combinations, you’ll become increasingly adept at identifying the subtle language and contextual cues that indicate whether to use permutations or combinations.


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Strategies to Master Combinations and Permutations

Developing a Problem-Solving Approach

Approaching permutations and combinations questions systematically is key to success. We’ll share techniques to break down complex problems into manageable steps, helping you navigate even the most intricate scenarios.

Memorizing Key Formulas

Memorization is essential for GRE success. We’ll provide memory aids and practice exercises to ensure you can recall the permutation and combination formulas with ease during the test.

The Power of Practice

Practice is the cornerstone of GRE preparation. We’ll supply a wide range of practice questions, complete with step-by-step solutions and explanations, so you can build confidence in your abilities.

Applying Strategies to Real GRE Questions

Our guide wouldn’t be complete without walking you through actual GRE-style questions. We’ll provide you with real GRE quantitative problems related to permutations and combinations, along with corresponding explanations.

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Mastering combinations and permutations is essential for success in the GRE quantitative section. By understanding the basics, memorizing the formulas, and practicing diligently, you’ll be well-equipped to tackle these concepts with confidence.

Remember, practice makes perfect, and with the right strategies, you can ace the GRE math section. Whether you’re a GRE newbie or a seasoned test-taker, this guide has something valuable to offer. Good luck with your GRE preparation!


Q1: What’s the difference between permutations and combinations on the GRE?

Permutations involve arranging objects in a specific order, while combinations focus on selecting objects without regard to the order.

Q2: How can I improve my GRE quantitative score in permutations and combinations?

Practice regularly, memorize the formulas, and develop a keen eye for recognizing when to use permutations or combinations in GRE math questions.

Q3: Are there any free GRE resources for practicing permutations and combinations?

Yes, many online GRE preparation platforms offer free practice questions and explanations to help you master these concepts.

Q4: Can you provide an example of a GRE-style permutation and combination question?

Sure, here’s one: “In how many ways can 6 different books be arranged on a shelf?” (Hint: This is a permutation problem.)

Q5: What are some common mistakes to avoid when working with permutations and combinations?

Common mistakes include forgetting to use the factorial symbol (!), misinterpreting problem statements, and neglecting to differentiate between permutations and combinations based on problem cues.

Q6: How can I tackle complex permutation and combination questions effectively?

Breaking down complex problems into smaller, manageable parts, and applying the appropriate formulas step by step, is an effective strategy. Additionally, practice and familiarity with advanced concepts are crucial.

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