Main Idea Questions in GRE Reading Comprehension

Everything you read is focused on some core concept, often called the main idea or primary purpose. The GRE passages are no exception. Each passage contains a main idea, usually established early in the passage, like in the first paragraph. Sometimes the passage builds to the main idea in which case it will be at the end of the passage, like in the last paragraph. Other times, the main idea may not be explicitly stated and you will have to infer the main idea from the main points addressed in the passage.

Either way, ETS will be asking you about the main idea. It’s one of their favorite questions to ask. So let’s take a look at how to identify a main idea question, strategies for approaching these questions, and the common wrong answers often associated with these questions.


How to Identify Main Idea Questions

The Main Idea question-type will include a word or phrase letting you know you’re being asked about the main point of the passage as a whole. The key words are bolded below.

  • “The author’s primary purpose in this passage is . . .”
  • “The passage is mainly concerned with . . .”
  • “The best title for this passage would be . . .”
  • “The author’s discussion of … is primarily intended to explain . . .”
  • “Which of the following most completely and accurately describes the passage . . .”


Strategy for Main Idea Questions

1. Attack the Passage

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Passive reading will not help you on the test. You need to devour passages like a ravenous bear waking from hibernation. Tear apart the passage to find the main idea, determine the main flow and structure of a passage, and understand the author’s tone and purpose. Stay out of the details and minutiae. Hungry bears want big meals—not tidbits of berries and moths. Take notes to activate your mind and track this information.

2. Rephrase Question

After attacking the passage, time to attack the question. Read the question and put it into your own words. This will force you to synthesize the prompt and understand what it is asking. Look for hints and clues too. Line numbers, paragraph references, concepts from specific parts of the passage, and any words like “except” or “not”—these clues must be noted to answer the question correctly.

3. Anticipate an Answer

After orienting yourself and understanding the prompt, make a prediction about the answer. If you do step one correctly and focus on identifying the main idea, you shouldn’t have to spend anytime anticipating an answer. You should already have a strong sense of what should be included in the answer choice.

4. Eliminate Wrong Answers

Usually you will need to go through the answer choices more than once. On the first pass, always be on the look out for the common wrong answer types. This is an easy way to narrow down your possibilities. As you go through each answer, make a mental note of possible correct answers or answers that match what you anticipated. Then on your second pass, you should have two answer choices left. This is when you may have to return to the passage to do a little research to confirm that all the information in the answer choice is actually supported by the passage.


Common Wrong Answers in Main Idea Questions

Too Narrow or Too Broad

No main idea question is complete without one of these trap answer choices. ETS loves to craft answer choices that are too broad for the passage. That is, the answer choice will cover the ideas in the passage, but also include many others that are not in the passage. They also like answer choices that focus narrowly on one aspect of the passage. Sometimes these answer choices will pull details from the last part of the passage hoping to trap students who are not thinking about the big picture of the passage.

Distorting the Passage

Another common wrong answer that we see in other question types, distorting the passage in main idea questions usually involves shifting the direction of an idea. ETS likes to take an idea from the passage and reverse it, making it imply the opposite of what the passage actually is saying. Also, this can take the form of distorting the tone and purpose of the passage. If the author was describing a phenomenon or informing the reader about a concept or theory, the answer choice will make it seem like the author was arguing a point or supporting one side over another.

Extreme Language

“Always,” “any,” “all,” “never,” “none,”—these should be huge warning signs for a wrong answer when you see them. The passages on the GRE are well-reasoned and balanced. Even when the passage is arguing for some idea, the author will include concession points and balanced analysis of their position. So any answer choice that makes a bold claim, a broad generalization, or a simplified statement about the main idea of the passage will more often than not be wrong.

Unsupported or New

Always be on the look out for new information in an answer choice. Whether it is something related but unsupported by the passage or related but not a part of the passage, these trap answers can be quite tempting, but wrong. Sometimes ETS includes an idea that might fit the general discussion, but is ultimately outside the scope of the passage. Sometimes they like to talk about actual numbers and values when the passage only mentions percentages. Don’t fall for this trap. Make sure that everything in the answer is actually in the passage.


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12 Responses to Main Idea Questions in GRE Reading Comprehension

  1. Bidur Shrestha March 31, 2016 at 3:29 am #

    Hellow Kevin

    I m preparing myself for the GRE. but while solving the passages i find some difficulties about my cognition and to interpret the paragraph. I m glad that you are helping to minimize our difficulties. I want to know here that what is the difference between primary purpose and scope of the passage? Plz try me to get out of this problem.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 11, 2016 at 5:29 am #

      I’m glad you found Kevin’s post so helpful, Bidur. 🙂 “Scope” and “primary purpose” are different concepts, but they are interrelated. “Scope” refers to the subject matter that’s actually discussed in the passage. “Primary purpose” refers to the reason the passage was written, and the messages/themes/information the author is trying to convey.

      If a passage’s primary purpose is— for example— to inform readers about the artistic decisions that Mozart made with regard to a specific famous musical composition he created, it’s likely that detailed information about other composers would be outside of the scope of the article. Broader information about classical music as a whole would also probably be outside of the article’s scope. So while this information would be relevant to the primary purpose of the article as part of a larger argument, it probably isn’t actually a correct answer choice. When you see information that isn’t related closely to a reading passage’s primary purpose, carefully check the article to see if the information is actually included in the passage’s scope. More often than not, this information is relevant but out-of-scope, and is designed to distract you from the real answer.

  2. Anadi Pandharkar April 28, 2015 at 9:51 am #

    Hey Kevin! Your post was really helpful. I read it quite a few times and your tips really began helping me out. But I really face difficulties on solving questions that contains broad terms like ‘ subjective ,objective’ and the question which contains boldfaced letters . In boldfaced letters we are asked to figure out the position taken by the argument and what does boldfaced sentences implies to it. I get confused with these type of questions. Please help me out .

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin May 4, 2015 at 3:52 pm #

      Hi Anadi,

      Thank you for your kind words! I am glad that the post was helpful! 😀

      In terms of boldfaced questions, those can be really tough! I recommend reading about these question types to learn more about them. You will find links to practice questions and strategies on this page:


      Also, I would recommend taking a look at this post from our GMAT blog. The boldfaced questions are actually on the GMAT too, so you would definitely benefit from reading about the question and how to approach it, even if it is in the context of the GMAT. They are the same question type:


      I hope this helps a little with your studies! 😀

      Best of luck! 🙂

  3. Amit January 6, 2015 at 2:49 am #

    Hi kevin,
    I am newbie to GRE, I solved couple of passage yesterday.all the answers were wrong, i am not able to disect the passage & most importantly it took an hour to solve those passage. I read your blog, got some idea, but want some detail on how to identify main idea?? plz help

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin January 6, 2015 at 10:10 am #

      Hi Amit!

      Welcome to the world of the GRE! I know that it can be frustrating when you start out. There is a lot to learn, and I see many students struggle early on. With practice and study, these students are able to reach their goal, though. They hit the score they are aiming for by dedicating to their studies. You can do the same too. Don’t lose heart because you missed a lot of questions. There is still a lot that you can learn. 😀

      As for finding the main idea, there are a few strategies I recommend. Paying attention to the very beginning of the passage and the very end of the passage. Most of the passage will introduce the topic at the very beginning. Sometimes they will even state the main point or idea early on too. Usually this will happen in the first 3-5 sentences. But be careful. Sometimes the idea is introduced but over the course of the passage, it changes and the author states the main idea at the conclusion of the passage. So you need to be aware of what happens to the topic as you read through the passage. Sometimes the passage will support that idea or sometimes it will evolve and change the idea.

      Also, I recommend paying attention to the author’s tone. This will help to inform your understanding of the main idea, especially giving you some tools for eliminating wrong answers. Sometimes an author will have a positive opinion about the main idea and a wrong answer choice will express the main idea in a negative tone. That’s a wrong answer every time.

      Finally, pay attention to the concepts and words that seem to appear throughout the passage. The main idea of the passage will be mentioned throughout. Otherwise it wouldn’t be the main idea. Pay attention to the concepts and ideas that seem to be appearing over and over throughout the passage. That will give you a clue about the main idea of the passage.

      If you’d like a demonstration of finding the main idea, I recommend watching this video about active reading.

      I hope that this helps! 😀 Best of luck with your studies, Amit! 😀

  4. Karthik February 8, 2014 at 10:59 am #

    Hello kevin

    First of all a nice post on how to attack the main idea questions can you please brief out how to actually tackle the reading comprehension questions since when i wrote the GRE for the first time i liberally failed to actually do the reading comprehension questions i dont really understand how to get fair in RC sections please help me and also please try to suggest how could one get good score only from reading comprehensions.

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin February 10, 2014 at 10:24 am #

      Hi Karthik!

      I am glad to hear that you liked the post! 🙂 Reading comprehension questions can be tricky and do require a lot of practice. We have to read a lot outside of just studying to improve our reading comprehension skills, in general. Also, reading a lot will help you to read faster. In addition, we have to do a lot of practice so we are comfortable identifying all the question types and common wrong answer traps. To help you improve, I recommend going through our resources on the blog. These resources will cover many aspects of reading comprehension and help you to improve.

      In a future video, I can cover an example RC question and model how to work through the passage and the question. 🙂 Happy studying!

      • Luyanda visagie June 11, 2014 at 11:40 am #

        Thank you for your tips hope they will help me in the exams coming tomorrow.thanks a lot god bless you.

        • Kevin Rocci
          Kevin June 11, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

          Best of luck tomorrow! 🙂

  5. Steve January 11, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    Kevin, I appreciate you posting this because the last time I took the GRE the reading comprehension was the part I felt I struggled the most. I just had one question. The last time I took the GRE I overall did not find too much difficulty with the text completions, and the sentence equivalence questions, so do you think it would be wise to skip right to the reasoning comprehension portion of each verbal section and do that first? Last time I took the test I had very little time to complete the questions regarding the text and thought this might be a way to help utilize the time. Thanks

    • Kevin Rocci
      Kevin January 13, 2014 at 9:40 am #

      Hi Steve, glad to hear that you liked the post! 🙂 As for your question, I think that can be a good strategy for the verbal section. I usually recommend that students try to go through each section twice, answering all the questions they find easy first, and then going back and answering all the harder questions. For your strategy, you would be doing something similar. I recommend that you at least look at the TC and SE questions as you are moving through the section the first time. Answer any question that you know you can answer in 30 seconds. If that isn’t the case then move on. Finally, I recommend that you experiment with this strategy a few times on full practice tests to see how it works out. You don’t want test day to be the first time you try this out. Happy Studying! 🙂

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