4 Tips to Find the Main Idea in SAT Passages

SAT Tip of the WeekIt’s important to keep in mind for all SAT Reading Comprehension questions that just because an SAT answer choice is reasonable, true, or mentioned in the SAT reading passage, does not mean it is automatically correct. Always ask yourself: which answer choice in this SAT question best addresses this specific question being asked? To be able to answer “Main Idea” questions, try to adopt these quick tips:

1.     Come up with your own “Main Idea” as you read.

Read thoroughly, taking short notes on each paragraph as you go. “Search” for the main idea on the first read and try to write it down. If you already have the purpose written down BEFORE reading the question, you won’t have to re-read and you’ll save a significant amount of time! It’s too difficult to decipher the author’s main driving idea if you skim too quickly. You’re reading for what is underneath the words – what the author is “getting at.”

2.     Express the Purpose as a Verb.

The format of these questions will often be the following: “The author’s main purpose in the passage is to:” The answer choices will all begin with a verb such as “describe…,” “show….,” “question…,” “demonstrate….,” etc. If you can learn to express the purpose as a verb in your own notes your prediction will more closely match the correct answer. What action would the author like to take? Why did he write this paragraph? Is it more emphatic, or more scholarly/passionless in tone? Trust your own instincts and ALWAYS WRITE A PREDICTION DOWN.

3.     Eliminate answer choices that are Out of Scope or Extreme.

Look to eliminate answer choices that are outside the scope of the passage. For example, if the focus of the passage is environmentalism and saving the polar bears in the Arctic, it’s unlikely the main idea will involve saving the humpback whale – that’s an entirely separate, albeit related, topic, so we’d call this “out of scope.”

Answer choices that contain extreme language such as “always” and “never” can also often be eliminated if they do not match the less-harsh tone of the passage.  Answer choices that contain qualifying language such as “sometimes,” “may,” “might,” “could,” etc. are also worth noting, since they are frequently correct.

4.     Eliminate “half-right” choices.

There may be an answer choice that has a great verb that really reflects the author’s tone and purpose, but the details after the verb don’t match the passage. Or, the details may be accurate, but the verb falls flat. Both halves of the answer must match!

Remember, for a “Main Idea” question, err on the side of too-broad rather than too-specific. The correct “purpose” will encompass the ENTIRE gist of the passage, not just the information found in one or two paragraphs. Go “broad” or go home!

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Vivian Kerr is a regular contributor to the Veritas Prep blog, providing advice to help students better prepare for the GMAT and the SAT.