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The SAT Reading Comprehension: Basic Principles

Step 1: Read Slowly Until You've Identified the Author's Main Idea
No doubt about it, you don't have enough time on the SAT to read the passages at a leisurely pace. You'll have to push yourself to read the passages faster than you might like.

Now, when I say you'll have to read quickly, I don't mean that you should try to skim through an entire passage at the same rapid pace. Surprisingly, skilled readers actually read more slowly than unskilled readers over the few important ideas, and skilled readers make up for the lost time by reading much faster over the larger mass of less important details. It's a bit like driving a race car: knowing when you have to slow down on the dangerous curves, and then letting the car rip on the straightaways.

Focus Especially on the Four Key Sentences of Every Passage
Regardless of the subject matter, the main idea of SAT reading passages is almost always located in one of four key places. You are probably familiar with the notion of "topic sentences," and this concept is helpful to us, also. The first and last sentences of each paragraph tend to summarize the paragraph's content. For the passage as a whole, though, where are we likely to find the main idea?

The main idea of a passage will probably be located in the first or last sentence of the first paragraph, or in the first sentence of the second paragraph. The main idea of the passage is often echoed in the final sentence of the passage.

In other words, by the time you get through the first sentence of the second paragraph, you should already know the main idea of the passage, and be prepared to accelerate the pace of your reading dramatically.

Be Absolutely Sure You Distinguish the Author's Opinion from What "Other People" Think—the Conventional Wisdom
One of the dangers in finding the author's main idea is that, on the SAT, the passages often begin not with the author's belief, but rather with what other people think, also known as the conventional wisdom. Many of the passages on your SAT will not be strictly factual passages, but rather "opinion" passages. The author usually presents his opinion on a topic, and then supports it. Before the author presents his or her view, however, he usually presents the conventional wisdom, or the "other side" of the issue.

Think about it: if the author agreed with what other people thought, what would be the point of writing the passage? On the SAT you'll never find a passage that begins with a sentence like the following: "Most historians of technology believe that the mechanism of differential gears is relatively modern—and hey, I think they re right." The author will not necessarily disagree with the conventional wisdom completely, but his viewpoint will be different.

You have to read carefully—especially the first paragraph—because it is easy to mistake the conventional wisdom for the author's perspective, especially when the author goes back and forth between the two as the passage progresses.

The author will usually introduce the other side with a sweeping statement attributed to a large group (scientists, historians, critics, artists, educators, philosophers, rock musicians). Here are illustrative phrases that tip off that the author is merely articulating the common viewpoint he or she will go on to oppose in some way: widely thought, commonly believed, often asserted, previously speculated, one approach, some feel.

Again, don't feel that you have to memorize this list. With a little practice you'll be able to instantly recognize whether the author is speaking for himself or the "other side."

The tricky thing is that the author may be articulating the conventional wisdom without clearly indicating he or she is doing so. Read the following passage carefully and see whether you can determine in which sentences the author discusses his or her view and in which sentences the other side's:

    It is commonly assumed that the government's
    insurance of bank deposits makes them safer. If
    the bank somehow fails by investing customer
    deposits in risky loans that are not repaid, the
    government will make good the lost funds. Thus
    reassured, the public will not find itself in the
    grips of financial panic and create "runs" on the
    bank to demand back their money such as
    occurred during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

    Ironically, however, the perception of this
    "safeguard" induces banks to extend far riskier
    loans than they would otherwise, thereby
    increasing the likelihood of catastrophic bank
    failures. In the final analysis, bank deposit
    insurance may undermine rather than bolster
    public confidence in our financial institutions.

1. Which of the following is the main idea of this passage?
  1. The government's insuring of bank deposits may have unintended consequences.
  2. Financial panics and bank runs are not likely to occur in the future since bank deposits are insured.
  3. If the government had taken the proper steps, the Great Depression could have been prevented.
  4. The government should take greater steps to insure customer deposits.
  5. Banks should not put customer deposits at risk by making loans that might not be repaid.
Discussion: The phrase it is commonly assumed in the first sentence tips us off that the author is discussing the conventional wisdom. The second and third sentences are elaborations of a commonly held view, not statements of the author's position. What the author is actually saying in the first three sentences is this:
    It is commonly assumed that the government's
    insurance of bank deposits makes them safer. It is
    assumed that
    if the bank somehow fails by
    investing customer deposits in risky loans that are
    not repaid, the government will make good the lost
    funds. It is assumed that thus reassured, the
    public will not find itself in the grips of financial
    panic and create "runs" on the bank to demand
    back their money as occurred during the Great
I've inserted phrases (italicized) to clarify that the author is articulating what other people think. It is not until the fourth sentence—the clue is the word however—that the author tells us what he or she thinks. The answer is choice A.

So again: read slowly and carefully until you've nailed down the author's point of view. If you aren't clear about which side—the author's or the other's—you're dealing with as you read a paragraph, you'll lose the train of the author's argument.

If the passage begins with the conventional wisdom, the author's main idea will most likely be located either in the last sentence of the first paragraph or the first sentence of the second paragraph. The sentence will usually contain a direction reversal word like but, although, or however.

Next: Page 8 >>

From The RocketReview Revolution: The Ultimate Guide to the New SAT and the PSAT by Adam Robinson. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here.

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