Find the Main Idea in an SAT Reading Passage

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

When you tackle an SAT reading passage, you may be asked to find the main idea of the passage. You generally get choices that fall into the too-broad, too-narrow, off-base, or just-right categories.

A just-right choice includes all the supporting points and details in the passage, but it isn’t so broad as to be meaningless.

For example, imagine that you’re trying to find a main idea for a list that includes the following: jelly, milk, waxed paper, light bulbs, and peaches. A main idea that fits is things you can buy at the supermarket. One that is too broad is stuff. A too-narrow choice is food, because very few people like the taste of light bulbs — and everyone who does is locked up in a padded room somewhere. A completely off-base main idea is canned goods.

Here’s an example. Read the following history passage taken from To and Through Nebraska, by Frances I. Sims Fulton, describing settlers traveling to the West during the 19th Century:

Sample passage

During all this time, and despite the disagreeable weather, emigrants from the cities of the Northeast to the wilderness in the West keep up the line of march, traveling in their “prairie schooners,” as the great hoop-covered wagon is called, into which, often are packed their every worldly possession, and have room to pile in a large family on top. Sometimes a sheet-iron stove is carried along at the rear of the wagon, which, when needed, they set up inside and put the pipe through a hole in the covering. Those who do not have this convenience carry wood with them and build a fire on the ground to cook by; cooking utensils are generally packed in a box at the side or front. The coverings of the wagons are of all shades and materials. When oil cloth is not used, they are often patched over the top with their oil-cloth table covers, saving them from the rain.

Based on this passage, answer the following question:

  1. Which of the following titles best fits the main idea of this passage?

A. Cooking on the Frontier

B. A Pioneering People

C. Prairie Schooners

D. Wilderness Encounters

The passage describes covered wagons, also known as “prairie schooners,” according to the first sentence. Therefore, Choice (C) is perfect. Choice (A) is too narrow, and Choice (B) is too broad. Choice (D) is off topic because no one encounters anyone else in this passage.