How to Avoid Common Main Idea Mistakes

Avoid Those Main Idea Distractor Answers

When you are taking a multiple choice test that requires you to read for the main idea, like the SAT, ACT or just your average exam in English class, the good news is that when it is time to figure out a main idea question, you will have answer choices from which to select! You won't have to figure out and then compose the main idea all by yourself. The bad news is that you have answer choices. What? Answer choices are both good and bad? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but yes, answer choices are both negatives and positives in your multiple choice testing experience. Answer choices can lead you toward making common main idea mistakes, but with a little bit of practice, you can teach yourself how to avoid them. Read on for the strategies. 

Main Idea Mistake #1: Choosing an Answer That's Too Narrow in Scope

Don't choose a narrow answer choice on main idea questions
Getty Images | Dennis Walton

Let's say you read a passage about Leonardo da Vinci's genius. Several paragraphs talk about his sculpting, charcoal drawings, and paintings. Another paragraph mentions his skills in science. The final paragraph gives a hefty description of his insight into mechanical engineering.

If you select an answer that only describes his artistic work with sculpting, charcoal drawings, and paintings, then your choice is too narrow: it only uses part of the information from the passage.

How to Avoid the "Too Narrow" Mistake: Be sure to choose an answer that encompasses every major idea in the passage, not just a few.

Main Idea Mistake #2: Choosing an Answer That's Too Broad

Don't choose a main idea that's too broad
Getty Images | Pankaj Upadhyay / EyeEm

Suppose the next passage you read on your test is a summary of a Blue Angels United States Navy Flight Teams' performance in Reno last May. The passage explains the maneuvers, tricks, and near-misses that happened during the performance. It showcases the daredevil approach of the newest pilot on the team. The middle section congratulates the veterans on their mastery of the techniques that wooed the record-breaking crowd. If your answer choice for "What is the main idea of this passage?" mentions the entire history of the Blue Angels, complete with how they earned their name, then your choice is too broad: it goes beyond the scope of the passage and gives information not discussed.

How to Avoid the "Too Broad" Mistake: Choose an answer that doesn't step outside the passage. Remember, on a test, you can't dive into your own personal knowledge bank of facts. If you happen to be obsessed with this flight crew, that's cool, but you should be able to answer every question on the exam based on the passage alone. If you can't find the idea or infer the idea from the info in the passage itself, then it is not the correct choice.

Main Idea Mistake #3: Choosing an Answer That's Complex, But Opposite

Getty Images | Marcus Masiking / EyeEm

The third passage you read on your exam argues that the haiku is a better poetic form than the tanka. The author explains each ancient Chinese poetic form and describes how the tanka has changed throughout centuries to fit into a modern-day approach, while the haiku has remained intact, which is nobler. While explaining the length of lines, syllables, and format required, the author gives poems from each to demonstrate how superior the haiku is over the tanka.

Be careful not to select an answer choice that the tanka is better than the haiku! Sometimes, test writers will make an answer choice that sounds really good because of the length of lines and similarity to the passage but actually states that the opposite is true. Writers often slip the opposite meaning into an answer choice to check your reading comprehension.

How to Avoid the "Complex, But Opposite" Mistake: Read the answer choices carefully. Do NOT choose an answer because it merely "sounds" right. Put the answer choices in your own words so you can dissect the meaning better. You must choose the choice that actually reflects the main idea, not its opposite!