Reading Comp: How to Find the “Main Idea”

by on October 4th, 2010

It’s important to keep in mind for all Reading Comprehension questions that just because an answer choice is reasonable, true, or mentioned in the passage, does not mean it is necessarily correct. Always ask yourself: which answer choice best addresses the specific question being asked? Look to eliminate answer choices that are outside the scope of the question, or ones that contain extreme language such as always and never.

Find the Main Idea for the entire passage

For “Main Idea” questions, we’re looking for the answer choice with a scope that matches that of the entire passage. For example, if the passage was about volcanoes and the necessary steps that need to be taken in order to predict and prevent volcano eruptions, then perhaps one paragraph referred to Mount St. Helen’s. However, it would be incorrect to say that the main idea of the passage was to “discuss Mount St. Helen’s” as that is the main idea of only one paragraph. The “Main Idea” would need to be something like “to discuss ways of predicting and preventing eruptions” since that is the more general focus.

For “Main Idea” questions, we need to try to see the picture that is being formed by all of the puzzle pieces, and not get distracted by the individual pieces themselves.

Read actively and take notes

It’s easy to do this if you write down the Purpose of the passage BEFORE reading the first question. Remember that active reading and note-taking are essential to GMAT Reading Comp success. When you see a “Main Idea” question, you can quickly refer back to your Purpose to form a prediction.

If you forgot to write down the Purpose, or you can’t make a strong prediction, there are a few good places in the passage to look for the “Main Idea.” Try re-reading the last few sentences of the opening paragraph. Does the author include a thesis? Does he express a strong point of view about the topic?

Another good place to look is the concluding paragraph. Does the author re-iterate a main purpose here? What is he summarizing? Focus especially on the first and final sentences.

Predict before reading the answer choices

A final tip: always write down your prediction before you read the answer choices. Even if your prediction seems incredibly obvious and you are someone with a perfect memory, you don’t want the wrong answer choices to sway you, and unless you write it down you risk forgetting or distorting your prediction as you read. As you write it down, trust that you’ve read the passage carefully and instinctively know what the correct answer should be.

1 comment

  • Quick question:

    I just started studying on my own for the GMAT (2 months studying). So far I've had problems with CR and SC but I've done better in RC. In CR and SC, the questions I got wrong were not obvious to me. In fact, If I had another 30 minutes to look at the questions I probably would have picked the same answers. On that I need a bit of work.

    On reading comp, however, I usually get 80-90% of the questions right, but I take a considerable amount of time getting the main idea down. Sometimes I use up 20-30 minutes on a single RC passage with 4 questions.

    What advice can you give me to improve my timing?
    Note: I already subscribe to "reading for structure and main idea" principle

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