Main Idea Questions in the Reading-Comprehension Sections of the PSAT/NMSQT

By Geraldine Woods

Main-idea questions in the reading-comprehension sections of the PSAT/NMSQT may come with a straightforward label (“What is the main idea of this passage?”) or pop up disguised as title questions (“Which of the following is the best title for this passage?”).

Either way, turn to the process of elimination for this sort of question. The test-makers often place way-too-general answers alongside answers that are too narrow. Cross off these obviously wrong answer choices first. Then look at the remaining possibilities. If you’re deciding between two, go for the more specific if you’re sure it includes all the subtopics of the passage.

The main idea of a paragraph is often expressed in one sentence, known as the topic sentence, that sums up the point. The topic sentence can be anywhere: top, bottom, or mid-passage. As you read, underline the topic sentence of each paragraph.

At the end of the passage, reread everything you underlined. You have a skeleton of the passage and are ready to find an answer that covers those points. Of course, if you’re working on a short passage with only one paragraph, once you find the topic sentence, you’re done!

No time like the present to go main-idea hunting. Read this passage, which is an excerpt from Landscapes in History: Design and Planning in the Eastern and Western Traditions, by Philip Pregill and Nancy Vokman (Wiley). Answer the question that follows.

In early America there was space on which to experiment, and a corresponding psychological need to fill that space with “civilized” uses. The capture and management of plants and space was one way to assert control over an environment which was, at once, seen as both fruitful and hostile. Americans were less attuned to and less adept at urban planning and urban design.

The American Revolution created a demand for an urban design that would manifest the ideals of a democratic republic. As a result of this demand, the first planned city of the “enlightened” age in North America was created as the new national capital, Washington.

Which of the following is the best title for this passage?

    (A)    Urban Planning and Urban Design

    (B)    Managing Plants and Space in Early America

    (C)    The Meaning of Planned Cities

    (D)    Design and Democratic Ideals in Early America

    (E)    Washington, the Planned Capital

Now check your answer:

D. Three categories occur in this short passage: too broad, too narrow, and just right. In the “too broad” category you have Choices (A) and (C). Those titles could refer to New York, Singapore, and, well, any city that has a plan. Next up, too narrow: Choices (B) and (E).

The passage mentions managing plants and space, but it also talks about urban planning, which includes buildings and streets. Also, Washington is the topic of only one sentence, the last. In the just right category is Choice (D), because it captures everything discussed in the passage.