SAT Reading: Main Idea Questions

In SAT Reading, the Main Idea Questions can be the source of problems if you don’t understand what is being asked and can’t differentiate a detail from a main point.

Just the Facts…

The main idea of the passage is composed to 2 parts. The topic and the author’s opinion or point about the topic.

Step 1 Identify the topic by looking at what is referenced the most throughout the passage. Pay attention to synonyms and pronouns that are all referencing the same idea.

Step 2 Identify the author’s position on the topic. You can do so by identifying the tone (positive, neutral or negative) and/or what the author wants to tell the reader about the topic.

Step 3 Understand the difference between a Main Idea Question and a Purpose/Function question.

SAT Reading : Main Idea Questions are usually phrased like this

  • Which choice best describes what happen in the passage?
  • The central claim of the passage is…
  • The central concern of the passage…
  • Which choice best summarizes the passage?
  • The main idea of …
  • The central idea of…
  • A major theme of the passage…
  • One central idea of the passage…
  • The central tension between the 2 paragraphs…

Step 4 Main Ideas are neither too narrow nor too broad. They are just right. Use process of elimination and get rid of wrong answers rather than trying to identify the right answer.


When Beatrix Potter wrote about Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, a hedgehog who also laundered the clothing for the animals in her rural neighborhood, Potter only increased the public’s fascination with the hedgehog. These animals, native to Great Britain, appear to be a cross between a mole and a porcupine. Their size makes them appear cute and cuddly, and while they are sometimes kept as pets, don’t be fooled. The hedgehog has a secret defense mechanism. When a hedgehog encounters a particularly noxious substance, a rotting fish for example, the hedgehog will mix some of the offensive substance with its saliva a coat its quills with it. This serves two purposes, repelling some predators with its smell and irritating the skin of any attackers that get too close to its quills. This protective measure combined with its ability to roll itself into a spiky ball keeps the hedgehog safe from most predators.

What is closest to the main idea of the paragraph?

  • a) An author created a craze for hedgehogs
  • b) Mammals have secret defense mechanisms
  • c) an animal keeps itself safe in an unusual manner
  • d) Hedgehogs roll into a ball to protect themselves
Hedgehog in the fall leaves. This image will help students understand the animal described in the reading passage.


a) This is not the main idea because the majority of the paragraph is about real hedgehogs and not the fictional one

b) Too Broad–the passage is about a specific mammal and not all mammals

c) CORRECT–the hedgehog is an animal and the main idea is located in the short sentence “The hedgehog has a secret defense mechanism.” This answer is closest to that idea.

d) Too Narrow–this is a detail later in the paragraph and isn’t the main point of the paragraph

Path to a better score…

Step 5: When you have identified the Main idea, WRITE IT DOWN beside the passage. Writing the main idea will allow you to reference it later as you work through the questions.

Being able to identify the main idea is important beyond just being able to answer Main Idea Questions. Correct answers for other questions tend to align better to the main idea than wrong answers.

Link to SAT Reading Resource library
Link to blogpost that describes how to make notes while tackling the SAT reading passages.
Cover of SAT Practice Passage: My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass

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