How to Tackle the SAT Main Idea Questions

The SAT reading section is challenging. It’s fast-paced, the passages are notoriously boring, and the questions can be awkwardly worded. You have 65 minutes to read 5 passages and answer 52 questions. Pacing is going to be a challenge, which I will discuss in another blog. However, there are ways to effectively prepare so that you have a higher probability of answering the questions correctly.

First of all, you need to understand that the SAT reading section only contains three passage types: rhetorical, narrative, and expository. Each of these passage types can have different questions paired with them, but the one overlapping question type is the main idea question. You should bear in mind that the main idea can also be referred to as the “primary purpose,” “main purpose,” or “central claim.” Knowing which passage type you are dealing with will help you to identify the main idea. In this post, I will give a very brief overview of each passage type and discuss how to identify the main idea in that type of passage.

1. Rhetorical: This is another way to say persuasive essay. You’ve very likely written this type of essay regularly during the course of your high school career, so it should be relatively easy to spot and follow this sort of an essay because it will seem familiar. This passage will try to convince you of an idea or perhaps call you to action. It should have a clear thesis supported by lots of evidence; it may contain quotes from authorities on the topic (sound familiar?). HINT: The paired passages will be rhetorical essays on different sides of an issue, but there may also be another rhetorical passage in your 5 passages.

Perhaps the easiest type of passage to identify the main idea of would be the rhetorical passage. For a rhetorical passage, the main idea will be the thesis statement. Very simple. Identify what the author is trying to convince you of or persuade you to do and you will have the main idea. Is the passage about why cloning is beneficial? Then the main idea is the benefits of cloning or why the pros of cloning outweigh any possible ethical implications – which is probably worth mentioning when addressing the counterargument. Is the passage urging you to vote? The main idea answers the question “[w]hat am I being persuaded to believe or do?”

2. Narrative: A narrative passage is simple in that it tells a story. For the purpose of the SAT, it usually is adapted from a much longer text. It is typically a passage where the character faces some sort of a challenge or moral dilemma.

For a narrative passage, as you are reading you should be focusing on the characters and setting. Underline anytime someone is speaking, especially the narrator (helps with tone questions). Be thinking about motivations of characters. The main idea of this type of passage will likely be whatever the main character struggled with. Are they quitting their job? Failing school? Meeting a significant person? The main idea will answer the question, “[w]hat is the main character struggling with?”

3. Expository: So many of you read the word “expository” and link it to the word “expose” which sounds dramatic and appealing. Unfortunately, the expository passages for the SAT are usually neither of the afore-mentioned. This type of passage simply presents information objectively. The passage will discuss an issue and present research regarding this topic, sometimes from multiple perspectives, but not always. It also might be biographical and simply detail facts about a noteworthy person.

For an expository passage, the main idea answers the question “What mystery or problem is this essay examining and what does the research on this topic indicate?” The main idea for an expository text will invariably answer this question


By employing the above referenced strategies, you can best focus your energies on what the questions are likely to be directed towards rather than trying to commit a lot of time and effort to retaining information, which may be not pertinent to the question at hand. Remember, your best bet in answering questions about the main idea is to identify the passage type that you are dealing with early on. In so doing, you will have the best possible chance of distilling the necessary information efficiently while moving quickly through the reading section.



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