How to Find the Main Ideas in SAT Reading Passages

SAT reading passages can be a little hard to pick apart. They’re not light reading, and you probably won’t have any real interest in the topic. And they’re full of detail, a lot of which ends up being pretty unnecessary for the questions.

It’s true that there are lots of questions that ask about specific parts of the passage, but you won’t know ahead of time which of those little bits are the juicy ones. You’ll need to search out that info in the reading after seeing the question.

While you read, then, you shouldn’t worry about the little things. Instead, you want to focus on the author’s approach and the passage’s structure.


The main idea of SAT reading passages

Since SAT reading excerpts are pretty short (compared to the texts they’re taken from), they’re usually about one clear topic that’s explored in a limited way and concluded neatly. They’re self-contained.

That means it’s usually pretty easy to find the main topic of the reading in the first few sentences of the passage. The first paragraph, at least, will have a sentence or two which are key to whatever it is the author is trying to get across. Because of that, the introduction to the passage deserves special attention. Find those key thoughts! They may not be thesis sentences exactly, because they might not make an argument, but they’ll be crucial in some way.

Make connections

Read most of the text pretty quickly, without worrying about getting every detail. Focus on finding the main point of each paragraph.

The next part is absolutely critical for nailing SAT reading questions. Every time you have the main idea of a paragraph, ask yourself two questions:

How is this related to the main topic (from the beginning)?

How is this related to the paragraph before it?

There are a number of common connections such as explanation, contrast, cause and effect, listing, and contextualizing.

There will be some connection or another—otherwise they wouldn’t belong to the same passage—so make sure you’ve jotted down at least some kind of purpose for the paragraph or section in your notes. And yes, you should definitely be taking notes.


When reading the conclusion

At the end of the passage, revisit that original question. What was the purpose of all this? Why did they author write this passage at all? Is it something out of a history text book, or are they arguing an opinion? Revise that “thesis” based on the final thoughts, thinking especially about the writer’s tone.


Why SAT reading structure is important

A whole lot of questions on your SAT will ask things that require you to understand the overall point of the passage. Big picture questions aren’t the only ones; inference questions and questions about the author’s intentions also test you on it.

Go into the questions having picked apart the structure of the passage and you’ll be a lot better off.


By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!

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7 Responses to How to Find the Main Ideas in SAT Reading Passages

  1. lamara October 4, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

    how do you find a main idea in a passage

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas October 10, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

      Hi Lamara,

      I’m afraid of repeating what’s above, but I think I can summarize the main takeaway, and that might help 🙂

      1. Pay special attention to the first paragraph. Read slowly and carefully. There is usually one sentence that really shows the main idea. There’s no single way to identify it, but if it seems to introduce a bigger topic or present a specific opinion, that’s a good sign!
      2. As you read the rest of the passage, try to tie the themes and ideas of each paragraph back to that first paragraph or to each other.
      3. Take short notes about the general topics of each paragraph. Revise your idea of the main point of the passage to include those topics. The final paragraph of the passage is especially noteworthy, here.

      I hope that helps to clarify!

  2. Jake Long August 25, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

    I have trouble understanding the passage sometimes, like when they use 100 words to explain just one simple point. Is there any way to help me understand the passages  more?

    • Kristin Fracchia
      Kristin Fracchia August 27, 2015 at 9:50 am #

      Hi Jake, that’s a really good question without a simple answer. Are you having trouble understanding the passage because of the vocabulary? Or is it because of the syntax (using long and complex sentences to explain a point, as you say)? Or are you having trouble determining what to focus on? If you let me know, maybe I can give you a more specific answer, but in general, I would say to not get caught up in the details, unless a question asks you to. If a question is asking about a really specific point, you are likely going to have to go back to that portion of the passage anyway and reread. Like Lucas says above, the most important part is understanding the overall main idea (I like to concentrate particularly on the first and last sentence of each paragraph–the main idea might not be there, but it often is.) Even on sentences that ask about a detail, you will often find that knowing the big picture main idea will help you. For example, on a question like “Why does the author most likely include the argument between Sarah and John at the beginning of the passage?” the answer is almost always in some way going to be “to support the main idea (of the paragraph or passage)”. Of course, the actual answer choice will be something more specific, but if you focus on finding answer choices that connect to the main idea, you will more easily be able to eliminate wrong answer choices. So again, concentrate the most on the beginnings and ends (the first paragraph and last paragraph and the first and last sentence of each paragraph). Slow down as you read these parts and stop after you do to paraphrase them in your head; this will help you keep track of the main idea and structure of the passage as you read. Then you can pick up your reading speed to normal on the rest of the passage. If vocabulary is an issue, I have to say that more reading and direct vocab study with flashcards are going to be your best friends. Practice reading passages that are on the same level as the SAT. There are some good sources under #2 on this post: Hope that helps!

      • Jake long August 30, 2015 at 12:07 am #

        On yeah the parts I get most confused on are the syntaxes and play on words. Like when the passages use words that don’t fit the context. For example

        “Who dared to call only last week for an investigation of the Buildings and Grounds Department and begged the dietitian to unscramble”

        Idk how unscramble works in this sentence and ones similar to this. 

        And thanks for the response it helped a lot

  3. muska August 2, 2019 at 1:59 am #

    hi Kristin Fracchia i have same problem with english mostly i dont understand the passage what it is about i think it is because of my english but i cant improve it now but i want to understand the sat reading part

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 22, 2019 at 5:54 pm #

      Hi Muska,

      If you struggle with these passages, you may have to improve your general reading comprehension skills. It might also help to concentrate on building your general English skills. The best way to do this is to read as much as possible. We have some suggested reading sources that you can use, and keep in mind that this strategy takes time! You should read every day to prepare.

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