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TOEFL Listening Question Type: Main Idea

Every listening sample will begin in the same way: with a main idea question. These questions ask you to identify the main point of the lecture or conversation. They usually take one of the following forms:

Why does the professor ask to see the student?
What problem does the student have?
What is the main idea of the lecture?
What subject is the professor mainly discussing?

When you see this kind of question, remember that you should only be concerned with the main idea of the passage. Supporting ideas, examples, and counter-examples will not be correct answers. Just because an answer choice is true doesn’t mean that it’s the correct answer. It must be the most important of all the correct answer choices.

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But there’s one important exception to make: if the question asks for the main purpose of a conversation (like in the first example given above), that might only be talked about in the beginning of the conversation. That’s because sometimes conversations change topic, and therefore what was originally the purpose of the conversation changes slightly. So, for example, a student might go to an administrative office to ask about where they can park their car on campus, but then the conversation might change to the application process for receiving a parking permit. Now, the purpose of that conversation is for the student to find a place to park their car on campus, although a lot of the dialogue is about an application process.

In either case—in main idea or main purpose questions—the answer will often be in the very beginning of the recording, although the wording in the answer choice will be slightly different from that in the sample.  For example, the wording in the question may be more abstract or general than the wording in the lecture.

Take these examples from the listening practice sets in the Official Guide.


When answering these questions, consider two things: how did the recording start, and what were the main topics mentioned? The main idea is where those two piece come together.

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