“Primary Purpose” Questions in SAT Reading

Your SAT reading comp sections will include a few questions that look something like this:

The primary purpose of this passage is to

Or this:

The authors overall tone could best be described as

And in order pick the right answers for these big-picture questions, you need to zoom out. There are a lot of details in SAT reading passages, of course, and not being clear on which are the more important ones can really throw you off. There will be a couple of wrong answers which focus too closely on specific details in the passage that just aren’t universal enough in scope.

It’s pretty easy to get tricked by answer choices like that unless you have a method.


Sketching the big picture

If you take one thing away from this post, it should be this: take notes about the big picture while you read.

Besides keeping you focused, notes also help by giving you a zoomed out picture. You’re only going to put the most important details and how they relate to each other in your notes—thinking about their function in the overall passage—so when you look at those, later, you’re not going to get distracted by the little details.


Why zooming out is important

Imagine I have a picture of a river. I took the picture while sitting on the bank, skipping stones and eating a sandwich. What’s in the picture? Water, trees, rocks, sky, moss, bugs…lots of stuff. Then I ask you what shape the river is. Is it curvy? Straight? While you might see a curve in the picture, you’d have a pretty hard time sketching its overall shape. Any one little section of an SAT reading passage is like that. Even if I gave you a whole bunch of pictures, it’d be pretty hard to decide, just like using the whole text without notes would be.

You don’t want that; you want a satellite image to see the river’s shape. Sure, it won’t show the bugs, the rocks, or my sandwich, but it’ll show the big picture. And that’s what the question was asking for.


Making sure you’re ready for the main point

Taking the right kind of margin-notes on your SAT is a skill that takes practice. You have to remember to ask yourself those questions for staying focused: “What’s the main idea of this paragraph?” “How does this paragraph relate to the next one?”

Practice that, and these big-picture questions will be a cinch.



  • Lucas Fink

    Lucas is the teacher behind Magoosh TOEFL. He’s been teaching TOEFL preparation and more general English since 2009, and the SAT since 2008. Between his time at Bard College and teaching abroad, he has studied Japanese, Czech, and Korean. None of them come in handy, nowadays.

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

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