How to Answer Main Idea Questions on the ACT, SAT

Many students experience anxiety over main idea questions on ACT and SAT Reading sections. These question types can be daunting because they require you to synthesize large chunks of text rather than just a few words or lines.

But don’t worry. There are several techniques proven to increase a test-taker’s chances of success on main idea questions. You may be surprised to know that you can even employ these strategies without having read the whole passage before attempting to answer the related questions.

[Read: ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take.]

Whether to read ACT or SAT passages in their entirety is each student’s choice. For the sake of time, some test-takers prefer to go directly to the questions and then skim only the sections pursuant to finding answers. Others feel more comfortable reading the whole passage first, while still others read the question stems first and then the passage. Experiment with all three methods on practice tests to figure out which works best for you.

No matter your approach on ACT and SAT Reading, keep the following points in mind:

— Main idea questions are easy to recognize.

— Passage titles and blurbs usually contain essential clues.

— Paragraph breaks signal shifts in ideas.

Main Idea Questions Are Easy to Recognize

You won’t have to do much guesswork to figure out which are the main idea questions, as the language in the question stems makes it obvious. Main idea questions are bound to be expressed in one of the following ways, or using a close variation: “The primary purpose of the paragraph/passage is to…” or “Which choice best summarizes the passage?”

Also worth noting is that, on the SAT at least, main idea questions tend to appear at the beginning of question sets.

Learn to identify main idea questions quickly and you will free up time for finding answers.

Passage Titles and Blurbs Usually Contain Essential Clues

One of the most underestimated resources on ACT and SAT reading questions are passage titles and blurbs. On the ACT, these appear after the headers, such as “Passage One” and “Passage Three.” On the SAT, they come after the bolded statement, “Questions X-Y are based on the following passage(s).”

[READ: How to Tackle SAT, ACT Vocabulary Questions.]

It is important to note that passages will be shown with their titles, authors and some brief publishing information. However, not all of them will contain a blurb providing further clarification about the text. In any case, the information that precedes the text should be carefully contemplated because it helps frame your expectations as a reader and — more importantly — it tends to contain main ideas.

In this SAT practice test example, the first passage is preceded by a blurb that includes the following: “The setting is Japan in 1920. Chie and her daughter Naomi are members of the House of Fuji, a noble family.”

This information, which provides historical context, signals that you should expect ritualistic exchanges between the characters, as well as formal, old-fashioned language. The blurb also sheds light on some cultural nuances in the passage — namely, why Akira would ask for Naomi’s hand in marriage and why he avoids looking at Chie directly.

In this ACT practice test example, the blurb for the paired passages states the following: “Passage A is adapted from the memoir The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart (©2001 by T.E. Carhart). Passage B is adapted from the article ‘Me and My Violin’ by Arnold Steinhardt (©2014 by Listen: Life with Classical Music).”

The reader can deduce that the overarching theme will be personal experiences with musical instruments. Moreover, he or she can distinguish a point of departure between the passages: A focuses on pianos and B is about violins.

[Read: What Students Should Know About Paired Passages in ACT Reading]

In extreme cases, it can be possible to arrive at the correct answer choice by focusing only on the passage title and blurb.

Consider question 11 of this SAT practice test, for example. Notice the passage title is a question: “Can Economics Be Ethical?” Only answer choices A and D, starting with the verbs “consider” and “examine” respectively, match the contemplative, open-ended nature of the passage title. When you read the other answer choices, you realize that A is more specific (“cost-benefit analysis”) and extreme (“dilemma”).

You may wish to do some more digging to confidently decide on a final answer, but the right choice is D.

If you elect not to read passages before answering the accompanying questions, be aware of the following point.

Paragraph Breaks Signal Shifts in Ideas

Skimming the first sentence or two of each paragraph can help you understand how a passage progresses, an especially helpful technique for answering main idea questions about passage development.

Tune in to transitional words and phrases, such as “however,” which indicates contrast; “later,” which signals progression in time; and “a peculiar case,” which points to an example or illustration. Pay attention to what such terms indicate about the author’s thought process and intentions.

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