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TOEFL Reading Question Type – Prose Summary

Text Summary questions will make you grateful for the time you’ve spent outlining readings and essays (if you haven’t done that, it’s a good idea!). To answer a Text Summary question, you’ll have to read and understand the entire passage and be able to distinguish between major and minor ideas.

After you read the passage, you will be given a topic sentence that summarizes the passage. There will be five answer choices, and you should pick the three that summarize the most important ideas of the passage. The order in which you choose the ideas does not matter. Partial credit is possible on these questions. If you choose one incorrect answer, you can still earn one point (two points are possible).

There are two traps you can fall into in a text summary question. The first and most obvious is to choose an answer choice that contains incorrect information or that is not stated in the passage at all. The other is to choose a minor rather than a major idea. You can try an real example example text summary question from ETS to see what I mean.

The Passage and the Question

The passage we’ll look at is about dinosaurs. This is a good typical TOEFL Reading topic to practice with. As Lucas has mentioned before, the TOEFL loves animals. This passage and its prose summary question can both be found in ETS’s free online TOEFL Quick Prep Volume 2 PDF.

The passage is on pages 4 and 5 of the above-linked PDF. The question is on page 8, and the answer choices are on page 9. Read the passage, go through the question, and then see my explanation of the answer choices below.

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Answer Explanations

The correct answers are B, D, and E. If you’re not sure why B is true, double check the second and third sentences of the paragraph 2, and all of paragraph 3. This part of the passage is summarized by B. Answer D summarizes the part of the passage that starts with the final sentence in paragraph 4 and ends with the first sentence in paragraph 6. Answer E is a summary of the information in paragraph 6 as a whole.

A is not true: the extreme changes in climate occurred at the same time as the retreat of the seas. A represents a common trick in prose summary questions. Itt takes two ideas that really are in the passage, but changes the meaning and relationship of the ideas.

C is true, but the retreat of the seaways is not as important in the passage as the ideas directly related to the dinosaurs’ demise. C also demonstrates a common trick for this question type. Always remember that you are not merely being asked to identify details form the passage. You are being asked to select only the most important details.

F is probably true, but the passage doesn’t deal with the Mesozoic period. Instead, it deals with the Cenozoic and Cretaceous periods. Again, we see a common prose summary trick answer choice. This answer gives an idea that seems like it easily could be true. Don’t forget, though, only ideas directly stated in the text, confirmed as fact, can be part of a text summary.

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22 Responses to TOEFL Reading Question Type – Prose Summary

  1. Max February 26, 2014 at 9:57 am #

    Hi Kate,

    I am unable to find the introductory sentence for Prose summary question.
    Please help me with that.

    • Kate Hardin
      Kate Hardin March 6, 2014 at 1:58 pm #


      Sorry about that! I’ve added it in. Thank you for pointing that out.


  2. Luca July 14, 2014 at 4:41 am #

    I’ve got a question. Does the order of the answers count? I mean.. BDE gives 2 points as wells as EDB or any other combination made with those 3 letters???

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas July 14, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

      That’s a great question! No, order doesn’t matter: if BDE is a correct answer, then EDB is, too.

      • Luca July 17, 2014 at 7:42 am #

        Sure? Because on the Barron’s book, in the answers and examples section, the correct answer is presented in a precise order..
        The test is also in the drag and drop form…so can’t really figure out if the order count and there’s no explanation anywhere!

        • Lucas Fink
          Lucas July 21, 2014 at 11:00 am #

          Yes, Luca, I’m sure. 🙂 It’s in the Official Guide—trust that above Barron’s.

  3. Gourab September 29, 2014 at 12:22 am #

    Hi, in the reading section, if I drag and drop the correct choices for the summary question, but do not pay attention to the order, will it be ok? In the test it was mentioned that drag and drop the choices where they belong. I am confused with the “where they belong” part, does this implies that I have to maintain the order? Please clear my doubt.

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas September 29, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

      Hi Gourab,

      See my response to Luca’s question above for the answer to this (it’s also in the second paragraph of the blog post. 🙂 )

  4. saugat upreti December 24, 2014 at 7:36 am #

    Scoring: Fill in a Table Questions(ETS official guide)
    To earn points, you must not only select correct answer choices, but also organize
    them correctly in the table. What does it means sir? Whether I have to maintain order or drop to answer to correct locations in the table in any order?

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas December 30, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

      It looks like you’re referring to these questions, rather than summary questions:

      And in that case, just like in summary questions, the order of statements doesn’t matter, no. You only need to put them in the correct category, not order them within the category. Fortunately. 🙂

  5. Ketan April 21, 2015 at 10:32 am #

    If I give partial right answer for example only 1 or 2 correct. Will I get partial points?

  6. David Recine
    David Recine April 27, 2015 at 3:21 pm #


    Yes, according to The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test (, you can get partial credit on these kinds of questions. If you have any more questions for Magoosh about scoring or other things TOEFL, let me know! 🙂

  7. Vivienne April 28, 2015 at 1:34 am #

    I originally thought of the prose summary as a short passage, which must make sense as a whole, including the introductory sentence. But after practicing a few reading passage, I found that I can hardly hold the meaning of each sentence together, regardless of the order.
    What I want to ask is that, is it true that if every single answer choice is fit as a relatively important sentence, then this choice is correct, and I do not need to read all four sentences as a integrated passage? thx~

  8. David Recine
    David Recine April 30, 2015 at 2:12 pm #

    Hello Vivienne,

    Your suggestion that you can put the sentences in any order is correct. The questions don’t need to read as if they were a short, organized, miniature passage. As it says on page 51 of The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test ( “The order in which you choose your answers does not matter fro scoring purposes.”

  9. Rakib August 9, 2015 at 2:14 am #

    is there any strategy available or any step should we follow to find out the best three ?

    • Lucas Fink
      Lucas Fink August 11, 2015 at 3:37 pm #

      Yes, definitely! The simplest is to summarize each paragraph yourself before you look at the answer choices. If you can put the main point of each paragraph into one sentence, you will have clear idea of the most important ideas in the text. It also helps to look carefully for answer choices that are too specific. That is a common trap—an answer choice that only relates to one small detail from the text cannot be a good summary. You can find more strategies like this in our premium material:

  10. Hannah April 27, 2016 at 2:56 am #

    In the category question, is the number of bullets given for each category indicative of the number of answers I have to drag or is it just randomly put there?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 30, 2016 at 9:56 am #

      The number of bullet points does represent the number of answers you drag up to the answer field– as seen in Kate’s example, three bullet points, three sentences that need to be correctly selected!

  11. rasel October 21, 2016 at 7:41 am #

    How should i tackle this type of question?Should i read the whole passage at first and make a summary?If i do so it will eat a lot of time.Is there any alternate less time consuming strategy?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert October 22, 2016 at 11:30 am #

      Hi Rasel,

      You should definitely read the whole passage first! I know it takes time, but it is really not possible to answer these questions without a full understanding of the passage. If you take any shortcuts, you may fall into one of the wrong answer traps! Your goal should be to improve your overall reading comprehension skills so that you can go through these passages more quickly. The more you practice these questions, the better you will become at these questions!

  12. Rolex June 13, 2017 at 4:14 pm #

    In a summary question that’s meant to have three answers, and is usually worth two points, what would be the number of points I would get if I only chose one correct one out of the three.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 15, 2017 at 4:47 am #

      Hi there 🙂

      Happy to help! As Lucas explain in this blog post, “If you choose all three correct answers, you’ll get two points. If you choose two correct answers, you’ll get one point. And if you choose one correct answer (or none), you won’t get any points for that question.

      Hope this helps! 🙂

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