How to Determine the Main Idea in a Paragraph for the ASVAB

By Rod Powers

Questions on the Paragraph Comprehension subtest of the ASVAB frequently ask you to identify the main point of a reading passage. How do you get better at identifying main ideas? Practice. The main idea, which is the most important point the author is making, is sometimes stated and sometimes implied in a piece of writing.

Finding a topic sentence

Often, the author begins or ends a paragraph or passage with the main idea, which is located in what’s called a topic sentence. A topic sentence, reasonably enough, describes the topic that the author is writing about.

If you’re looking for the main idea, start off by checking the first and last sentence of the passage. (No, this doesn’t mean that you should skip the rest of the passage.) For example, suppose you read the following paragraph:

The local school district is facing a serious budgetary crisis. The state, suffering a revenue shortfall of more than $600 million, has cut funding to the district by $18.7 million. Already, 65 teachers have been laid off, and more layoffs are expected.

No, the primary theme of this passage isn’t “schools in our area suck.” The main point of this paragraph can be found in the opening sentence, “The local school district is facing a serious budgetary crisis.” What follows are details regarding the budget crisis.

Sometimes a passage builds up to its main idea, and sometimes the main idea is implied instead of stated. Consider the following paragraph:

The farmers market reopened on the second weekend of May. Amid the asparagus and flowers, shoppers chatted about the return of temperatures in the 70s. Across the street, children (and their dogs) played Frisbee in the park. Finally, spring has come to town.

In this paragraph, you may think that the farmers’ market’s reopening is the main point, but the other information about the temperature and the kids’ playing Frisbee tells you that the main idea is something a bit broader than the market’s opening. The main idea is stated in the last sentence: “Finally, spring has come to town.”

In boot camp, your drill instructor may say, “Some of you better check to see that your bunks are properly made.” Or he may rip your bunk bed apart and say, “Now make this $%*& bunk the right way, you moron!” Both comments mean the same thing. In the first statement, the drill instructor implies the meaning; the second statement is a bit more direct.

In other words: Rephrasing passages

One of the best ways to identify the main point of a paragraph is to put the paragraph into your own words (paraphrase it) or to sum up the basic idea of the paragraph (summarize it). By quickly doing this when you take the Paragraph Comprehension portion of the ASVAB, you can be confident that you’re answering the question correctly. In other words (to paraphrase), you’ll know you understand what the paragraph is talking about.

You likely won’t have time to write down the main point or to jot down your paraphrase or summary. Instead, as you’re reading, simply try to mentally keep track of what’s being said by putting it into your own words.

Look at the following paragraph:

The local school district is facing a serious budgetary crisis. The state, suffering a revenue shortfall of more than $600 million, has cut funding to the district by $18.7 million. Already, 65 teachers have been laid off, and more layoffs are expected.

Now spend a few moments paraphrasing the previous paragraph. Come on. Pick up that pencil and get those brain cells firing. When you’re done, come back to this page and compare your ideas to the passage. If you wrote something like the following, you’re right on track:

The school district has a budget crunch because the state has a budget crunch. The state cut funding to the school district. Some teachers have been laid off already. More may be laid off soon.

Now if you wrote something like, “It’s finally May, and shoppers and kids-at-play are out and about, enjoying the warmer temperatures of spring,” then you’re not paying attention. Turn off the TV and give it another try.

As you study for the ASVAB, practice paraphrasing reading passages. You can paraphrase or summarize any short passage you read — a few sentences or a paragraph or two. Read different passages from a book or magazine and then set them aside. Get out a pencil and jot down your paraphrases. (Remember, you won’t have time to do this on the test itself, but the practice helps you mentally prepare for when you take the test.)