Identifying Main Ideas in SAT Reading Passages

We’ve all heard the term “main idea” before—it’s the overall point that the author is trying to make in any piece of writing. On the SAT, however, there is a particular context in which you should think about main ideas.

Identifying the main idea of an SAT Reading passage is perhaps the most critical skill for mastering the Reading section. Many students approach the SAT assuming that the main idea is always in the first paragraph. This is a misconception that can derail your progress if you’re not careful, so developing a technique to find main ideas will keep you consistent in your efforts.

The first step is to identify the topic or the general subject of the passage. Examples could include an Arctic expedition, the effects of video games, or moving to college. Just about anything could work as a topic, and you should be able to articulate it in under five words. Remember to read the title of each passage and any brief descriptive information that may follow because the topic may be explicitly mentioned. 

Once you're clear on the topic, the next step is to figure out what the author’s point is or how the other feels about the topic. You can do so by paying attention to the type of language the author uses to talk about the topic. Is the author in favor of the topic? Opposed to it? And if so, why? Is the author simply presenting facts or a theory to enlighten readers? Perhaps dreams of an Arctic expedition are hampered by both practical concerns and internal doubt. Or the effects of video games have yielded positive results for individuals in certain fields of work. In general, the author will have a positive, negative, or neutral opinion about the topic, and you can detect the tone of the author's opinion through the author’s diction, or use of language.

Because SAT passages are excerpts from larger pieces of text, many times the main idea will be implied, so you’ll have to piece together various parts of the passage in order to detect the overall point. Ask yourself: “What is the common thread that ties each of these paragraphs together?” and look for recurrent ideas or themes. Each time you see the topic mentioned in the passage, mark a star next to it and see what the author is saying in that moment. This is especially true for fiction and historical passages, which are often lacking sufficient context. For fiction passages, the main idea will usually be connected to the primary character’s intentions or motivations. What does the character want? For double passages, each author will take a specific position on an issue of concern. Be absolutely clear on each author’s opinion and the relationship between those two stances.

One key strategy is to identify pivots related to the topic, particularly in the first and last paragraphs. Words such as ‘but’ ‘yet’ and ‘however’ can indicate an author’s actual point of view. Information before a pivot word is often either a counter argument or a position that the author does not agree with; however, the information after a pivot is vital (see what I did there?). While this strategy may seem obvious, it is very easy to overlook these words. You must be vigilant and understand the significance and function of pivots. Once you get the hang of it, you will have a clearer idea of how authors structure their arguments.

Having a precise understanding of a passage’s main idea will assist you in answering the multiple-choice questions. Occasionally there will be an explicitly stated thesis; if so, box it and label it “Main Idea” so you can easily refer back to it. If you have to infer the main idea, jot it down once you finish reading the passage. Once you begin answering the questions, narrow down your answer choices and ask yourself which remaining choice is closest to the main idea. It should become clear why that answer works better than the others.

For each SAT reading passage, you have to be on the hunt for the main idea. It simplifies the process of answering the questions, and it allows you to retain the overall point without having to reread parts of the passage. If you regularly practice finding the main idea of a passage or an article, the process will eventually become second nature. Try it today. Read an article or one chapter of a book and write down the main idea. Notice how everything else in the text supports that main idea. It’s one of the simplest techniques you can adopt to improve your SAT Reading score, but sometimes it’s the simple things that end up working the best.

Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite of Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."