ACT Reading: Main Idea and Generalization Questions

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  • 0:02 Big Questions
  • 1:11 Strategy
  • 3:52 Practice
  • 7:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth Foster

Elizabeth has been involved with tutoring since high school and has a B.A. in Classics.

Main idea questions can be some of the toughest nuts to crack on the ACT. In this lesson, you'll get some hints and tips for managing them like a pro.

Big Questions

On the ACT, some reading questions ask you about little details in the passage. But other questions ask you to zoom out. Way out! OK, not quite that far out. But main idea questions or generalization questions still ask you about the passage as a whole, not just one part of it.

In other words, you have to take a step back from the details and summarize the argument of the passage, identify the author's purpose in writing it, or describe the tone of the passage as a whole.

You'll typically see one or two main idea questions on each reading passage. These questions can be tough and time consuming, but they're not impossible! In this lesson, you'll get some hints for tackling them, including when you should forget about them completely and move on to greener pastures.


There's no special method for answering main idea questions - just read the question, scan the passage for anything that might help you answer, and choose your answer. But here are some tips to help you work through them:

  • Approach main idea questions last. Reading questions on the ACT aren't arranged in order of difficulty, so the main idea questions on a passage might be the first questions on the page. But you're allowed to answer in any order you want, so just circle them, move on to the detail questions, and then come back to the main ideas later. This lets you get a sense of the passage by answering easier questions before you have to generalize about the passage as a whole.

  • Find specific evidence. Yes, you're generalizing. No, there's no one line that will give you all the evidence you need. But you should still be able to point to at least one specific detail or sentence in the passage that backs up your answer choice. If you can't find any evidence at all for your answer, you might want to rethink it.

  • Know when to skip. If you always run out of time on the Reading section, agonizing over main idea questions isn't the best use of your time. Main idea questions take longer than detail questions, but they're worth the same number of points. If you know you won't get to all the questions anyway, just skip the hard ones and move on to the 'low-hanging fruit' in the next passage. It's better to answer 35 detail questions (which gives you 35 points) than 30 details and 1 main idea (which only gives you 31 points).
    • Just as a side note, though, when you skip questions, don't leave the bubble blank. There's no guessing penalty on the ACT, so you might as well put down some random answer in the hopes that you'll get lucky.

  • Eliminate. You might not know the answer. But can you cross off at least one of the four choices? This will give you a much better chance of guessing correctly.


Now let's take a look at how all this plays out in practice. Here's a very short ACT-style reading passage:

I do not know whether genetically modified (GM) foods cause disease. However, I refuse to let that ignorance become paranoia. New technology is not automatically evil simply because we do not understand it. It may be true that GM foods are dangerous - but until we have scientific evidence of that, conducted by creditable researchers and replicated in multiple studies, uncertainty should not be taken as proof positive of evil.

The author's primary purpose in this passage is to…

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