4. Find the Big Idea
Look for unusual language that makes an important point. Pay more attention to the first and last paragraphs.
Find the Big Idea
Wouldn’t it be easier if GRE essays had a title? If they did, you would have a good idea from the start what the main point of the essay would be. The writers of the GRE purposefully exclude the title so that it is up to you to decipher the essay and its main idea.
The Big Idea for us is several paragraph main ideas combined to make one conclusion of the entire passages. So, a main idea of an individual paragraph might be a premise (something assumed to be true) for the conclusion (something the author is grasping at facts and persuasion to prove). You have to be able to distinguish many minor ideas from the Big Idea.
We use Big Idea just to differentiate paragraph main ideas from passage-wide Big Ideas. However, everywhere else and on the GRE, main idea will typically refer to the passage.
Most of the GRE questions, particularly higher skill-level questions, aren’t about details; they concern the main idea (aka the Big Idea). The tone, scope, and implications of the main idea usually hold the key to answering more than half the questions on a given passage.The main idea is the Rosetta stone of a passage. It helps us to decipher the passage and discern its structure. The tone, scope, and implications of the main idea usually hold the key to answering more than half of the reading comprehension questions. Accordingly, we must focus our strategy on easily finding the author’s point of view and the main idea.
In nearly all GRE passages, the author will make an argument of some form. Don’t expect the main point of a passage to be a detail issue like “World War I was fought from 1914 to 1918.” Instead, it’s more likely to be “World War I was extended by Britain’s needless and poorly executed intervention.”
An author can’t make such an argument without substantial support. This means that the argument must contain the elements of persuasion:
- Refutation of possible rebuttals
- Subsidiary points
Most essays will put up clear signposts and make the Big Idea pretty obvious — so long as you know to look for the following.
Slam-on-the-Brakes Language signals that you should slow down your reading pace and start reading very closely. There is a good chance the author is about to reveal a central point and his opinion. It is like when the needle starts jittering during a lie detector test.
Here are some common Slam-on-the-Brakes words:
The first and last sentences of the first paragraph and the first and last sentences of the final paragraph are important, since they often introduce or summarize the main points.
Here is the first paragraph of an essay:
One of the most persistently troubling parts of national domestic policy is the development and use of water resources. Because water management technology involves similar construction skills, whether the task is the building of an ocean jetty for protection of shipping or the construction of a river dam for flood control and irrigation, the issues of water policy have the mingled problems of navigation and agriculture. A further inherent complexity of water policy is the frequent conflicts between flood control on the one side and irrigation on the other and between the requirements for an abundance and those for a scarcity of water. Both problems exist in America, often in the same river basins; one is most typically the problem of the lower part of the basin and the other the problem of the upper part.
Let’s look at the first sentence: One of the most persistently troubling aspects of national domestic policy is the development and use of water resources. This is a clear topic sentence. “Troubling,” in the context of water management, is rather strong language. We know, from the start, that there is a serious problem with water management and that the author is going to explain what it is.
Nevertheless, the most startling fact about the history of water projects in the United States is the degree to which their shortcomings have been associated with administrative failures. Again and again these shortcomings have proved to be the consequences of the inadequate study of water flow, of soil, of factors other than construction technology, and of faulty organization. In 1959, the Senate Select Committee on National Water resources found that twenty different national commissions or committees charged with examining these problems and seeking solutions had emphasized with remarkable consistency the need for coordination among agencies dealing with water.
This paragraph closes in very specifically on the author’s opinion—the failure of government agencies to effectively deal with water management. The first paragraph introduces the general idea and this paragraph focuses in on the area for correction —the government’s lack of administrative coordination.
In that final paragraph, look at how the Slam-on-the-Brakes words emphatically signal the author’s point:
Nevertheless, the most startling fact about the history of water projects in the…. shortcomings have proved to be the consequences of the inadequate study of water flow, of soil, of factors other than construction … seeking solutions had emphasized with remarkable consistency the need for coordination among agencies dealing with water.
By focusing on these triggers, we can see how the author consigns the problem of water management to the government’s failings. This gives us access to the Big Idea.
Every essay has a “big idea”—the main idea around which the essay is constructed. You must find the main idea. It will help you answer many of the questions.
Three common places for the Big Idea
- First paragraph: first sentence
- First paragraph: last sentence
- Last paragraph: Anywhere
Look for “slam on the brakes language”—signposts to the main idea. For harder essays, also look at structure and patterns.
Main Idea Questions
How to identify ‘Main Idea’ questions: Some typical phrasings for Main Idea questions are:
- What is the main point of the passage?
- What argument is the author making?
- The author is primarily concerned with advancing which of the following points?
- What is the main idea?
- Which of the following best summarizes the author’s argument?
Keep an eye out for words like main, general, summarize, and argument.
How to tackle them: If you follow the Five Steps strategy, you should be able to easily locate the main idea. Next, translate your conception of the main idea into something that matches one of the answer choices.
Passages on the GRE are relatively short. Therefore, the answer to a main idea question cannot be too general or too specific. Main ideas tend toward medium focus. If stuck, eliminate the options that are at the extremes of specificity: either very general or very detailed. This may leave you with one – probably, the right – answer; even if it leaves you with more than one, you have still improved your chances of guessing correctly.
Guessing Drill: What is the main idea of the passage?
(Note: you are answering this question without seeing the question and are just evaluating answer choices to make a best guess).
A) The Native Americans of Wichita have a long and rich cultural history.
B) Native Americans have traditions.
C) Chief Running Horse of the Wichita Native Americans enjoys the traditional New Year’s dance because he likes to watch his neighbor, Lone Tree, dance.
D) People have traditions.
E) The Native Americans of Wichita use dance in many of their traditions.
Now analyze the answer choices, looking for super-specific or super-general wording. Which choice is the most general? Which is the most specific?
(D) People have traditions is extremely general. A book might be able to cover such a broad topic, but a short passage can’t address a wide enough variety of topics for this answer to make sense.
(B) Native Americans have traditions is still too broad. Native Americans have traditions, but what traditions? If the answer choice says something so general and so obvious that there’s no need to write an essay about it, it’s probably wrong.
(C) Chief Running Horse of the Wichita Native Americans enjoys the traditional New Year’s dance because he likes to watch his neighbor, Lone Tree, dance is far too specific. The inclusion of this much detail and the lack of any generalized wording are strong indicators. This idea can probably be found somewhere within the passage, but it’s almost comically specific; it’s an idea, but not the MAIN idea.
This leaves us with two answer choices. Having eliminated the answer choices with overly specific and overly general wording, we can assume that the answer is probably (A) or (E). Let’s take a closer look at them both:
(A) The Native Americans of Wichita have a long and rich cultural history.
(E) The Native Americans of Wichita use dance in many of their traditions.
Choice (A) sounds very main idea-ish: note the balance of detailed (Native Americans of Wichita) and general (rich cultural history) description. Choice (E) is a bit less general, but could very well be the main idea of a different sort of passage. They are both of adequate focus for a GRE essay, but by this process of elimination you have improved your chances of choosing the correct answer from 1 in 5 to 50/50.
Look at the Questions for the Big Idea
If, as we have said, many Macro questions revolve around the Big Idea, then isn’t it possible to get clues about the main idea from the questions from the essay? If all fails, look at the first question and maybe it will give you a clue about what the GRE considers important about the essay. In addition, as you get to the second and third question on the essay, this will help tighten your understanding of the essay.