Lesson - Critical Reading Skill: Main Idea

GRE Critical Reading: Main Idea

The main idea of a passage is the point that the author wants to make about the topic.  To capture that idea in 1 to 2 sentences, readers can paraphrase the topic sentence or use this equation:

The Topic + The Point that the Author Wants to Make About that Topic

The topic is the subject of the passage.  It can be captured in a word or phrase.

What is the topic of this sample passage?

     The term "shelter," which is often used to define housing, has a strong connection to the ultimate purpose of housing throughout the world.  The mental image of a shelter is of a safe, secure place that provides both privacy and protection from the elements and the temperature extremes of the outside world.  This vision of shelter, however, is complex.  The earthquake in Bam, Iran, before dawn on December 26, 2003, killed in excess of 30,000 people, most of whom were sleeping in their homes.  Although the homes were made of the most simple construction materials, many were well over a thousand years old.  Living in a home where generation after generation had been raised should provide an enormous sense of security.  Nevertheless, the world press has repeatedly implied that the construction of these homes destined this disaster.  The homes in Iran were constructed of sun-dried mud-brick and mud.

(Source: CDC, "Healthy Housing Reference Manual," 2003)

 ~ All of the sentences relate to housing, so "housing" is the topic. ~

How can you figure out what point the author wants to make about housing?

For Paragraphs

  • Search for the topic sentence.  That sentence directly states the point that the author wants to make about housing.  Topic sentences are usually found toward the beginning or end of a paragraph.

- There is no definite topic sentence in the paragraph above.

  • If a main idea is not directly stated, ask yourself what idea do all of the details support?

-  The definition of shelter as a protective place
-  The counterexample of a disaster that killed thousands in their homes.
-  The idea that living in a house passed on through generations gives one a sense of security
-  Yet the press repeatedly blamed the construction of the homes passed down through the generations
-  The houses were made out of materials that most likely could not withstand extremes

~ All of these sentences deal with the problem of insecure housing. ~

 > So, what does the author want to say about housing?

Houses need to be built to endure over time and withstand any harsh conditions that may occur in their regions.

For Multi-Paragraph Essays or Articles

  • Search for the thesis statement.
    (See "theme" for multi-paragraph narratives.)


  • In a longer passage of multiple paragraphs, the thesis statement is usually found in the introductory paragraph and sometimes restated in the conclusion.  The main idea of each paragraph will support this thesis/claim in essays and articles that are published on standardized tests.

Read the two passages below and determine the main idea of each one.

Passage 1

     With the accession of Elizabeth I to the throne, a new age approached.  The Renaissance, a spirit which had kindled the fires of learning in other countries, spread to England with its vibrant, intellectual queen to assist it rather than to contain or extinguish it.  With Mary or sickly Edward and his protector and governor, Edward Seymour, the spirit of the Renaissance might never have spread to a receptive assemblage of subjects, and England might have continued its stifling asceticism and unproductive civil strife.  Elizabeth brought not only her remarkable leadership to the throne, but also her intense desire to unify and help her people.  Her education allowed her to appreciate the vitality of the times and to capitalize on it.  Rather than resisting the restless individualism of the age, she nurtured it by her own unique example.  The people had a woman to idolize and emulate -- someone who led by ability rather than by force.  And the people followed her out of gratitude and love.  Writers praised Elizabeth in prose, drama, and verse, and the Queen and her subjects delighted in reading the literary homage.

Which sentence best states the main idea of this passage?

A)    The Renaissance was the rebirth of intellectual growth.
B)    Queen Elizabeth I helped to encourage a new age of literary brilliance.
C)    Writers praised Queen Elizabeth I in prose, drama, and verse.
D)    Queen Elizabeth I's reign was one of great leadership.
E)    Without Queen Elizabeth I, England would not have become a super-power.

Passage 2

     When I moved to Houston in 1963 and complained about the humidity of South Texas summers, a grizzled native replied, "If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes, and it will change."  Though trite, his comment proved to be rather astute.  Where else can you go outside on a cloudless day to get the newspaper and get rained on before you can get back in the house?  Where else can you run your air conditioner and your furnace on the same day?  Where but Houston does your underarm deodorant give out before you can lower your arms?  One can probably reasonably observe that the more unpredictable the weather, the more inclined we are to perpetuate weather lore and, at times, even to practice it.

Which point do the details in this passage support?

A)    Houston has very humid weather.
B)    Everyone in Houston talks about the weather.
C)    The weather in Houston changes frequently.
D)    There are many tall tales about Houston weather.
E)    Talking about the weather is a popular conversation-starter

Answer Key

Passage 1

Choice B covers the ideas in the paragraph. Choices A and D are general statements which are supported by the paragraph, but not the main idea of it. Choice C is a supporting detail for the paragraph rather than its main idea.

Passage 2

Choice C is correct because all of the examples in the passage relate to changeability of the weather. Choice A is incorrect because the "humidity" is only one of the examples in the passage. Choices B and D are mentioned frequently, but are not the main point.