3. Identify Organization
Make a road map of the essay and/or draw an outline.

Here we will uncover the author’s organization and develop a roadmap of the text. A roadmap essentially paraphrases the main point of each paragraph.

Why do you need to make a mental roadmap of an essay?

In order to uncover the author’s main point, you will often need to combine the author’s statements and the organizational structure.

  • Outlining the structure will make the essay’s purpose and underlying reasoning more apparent.
  • Detail questions ask for answers related to specific information in the essay. If you know the organization of the essay, you will be able to more efficiently pull out details because you have a good idea where the needed information is located.
  • Writing down content doubles its exposure to your brain, increasing the retention rate of the content. This makes re-reading less necessary and ultimately saves you time.

Video Courtesy of Kaplan SAT prep.


Not at first. You might accidentally skim over the Big Idea. As a beginner, you should concentrate on finding the Big Idea and using the 5 steps for working through a passage. Skimming is an advanced skill, as it demands you quickly distinguish between the significant and the extraneous. If you skim over the important stuff, you’ll have to go back — or even worse, you’ll get the questions wrong due to misreading.

This video reviews how to map reading comprehension essays in a specific fashion to the SAT.

Paraphrase Each Paragraph

Understand what each paragraph is about (Tone, Main Idea, relation to preceding paragraph) and jot down a short summary of its Main Idea. For example, a science essay might have the format:

P1: Background
P2: Main idea: stem cell therapy faces many problems
P3: Problems in stem cell research
P4: Radical solution to stem cell problems
P5: Conclusion that we should promote the new solution


Read the paragraphs strategically:

  • Read the first paragraph the most closely (usually every word), unless it is a backgrounder (an introductory paragraph that introduces background information, with little description of the author’s point of view).
  • Go relatively quickly through the content of body paragraphs. In going more quickly through the body paragraphs, you should focus entirely on understanding the Tone, Main Idea, and relation to preceding paragraphs. This system keeps you focused on getting the important secondary content without wasting time on details. Remember to look for any conspicuous language signaling transitions and ideas.
  • Read the last paragraph with second-to-highest priority.

How can you tell if you are reading too quickly?

If, when you finish an essay, your first reaction is confusion, then you probably read it too quickly, weren’t reading for the writer’s idea, got buried in details, or got lost in a blur of jargon. When you are done with reading an essay, you should have a general idea of the content.

If you have to return to the passage extensively for Macro questions, then you probably read it too quickly. You shouldn’t have too much trouble answering general idea questions without going back.

Sample Passage with Map

Nearly twenty years ago, biochemists found that a separable constituent of the cell deoxyribonucleic (or DNA) appeared to guide the cell’s protein-synthesizing machinery. The internal structure of DNA seemed to represent a set of coded instructions that dictated the pattern of protein-synthesis. Experiments indicated that in the presence of appropriate enzymes each DNA molecule could form a replica, a new DNA molecule, containing the specific guiding message present in the original. This idea, when added to what was already known about the cellular mechanisms of heredity (especially the knowledge that DNA is localized in chromosomes) appeared to establish a molecular basis for inheritance.

P1: DNA is the molecular basis of inheritance.

The first paragraph here is actually mostly fluff. This is scientific background that prepares the reader for the drama ahead. Don’t get intimidated. Skim over it without getting into a panic if you don’t understand all the jargon.

Proponents of the theory that DNA was a “self-duplicating” molecule, containing a code that by itself determined biological inheritance, introduced the term “central dogma” into scientific literature in order to describe the principles that were supposed to explain DNA’s governing role. The dogma originally involved an admittedly unproven assumption that whereas nucleic acids can guide the synthesis in other nucleic acids and of proteins, the reverse effect is impossible, that is, proteins cannot guide the synthesis of nucleic acids. But actual experimental observations deny the second and crucial part of this assumption. Other test-tube experiments show that agents besides DNA have a guiding influence. The kind of protein made may depend on the specific organism from which the necessary enzyme is obtained. It also depends on the test tube’s temperature, the degree of acidity, and the amount of metallic salts present.

P2: DNA is not the only game in town. The reality is more complex.

When you see “dogma” or some other powerful term, bells should go off. Read S L O W L Y because you are getting to the good part. You have just found the purpose of the passage: our author is challenging a “dogma!”

What is the author using? “Actual experimental observations.” Like Galileo using the movements of the planets to rail against the established orthodoxy of his time, our author seeks to use his experimental observation to challenge the “dogma.” That’s part of the controversy here: a conflict between dogma and actual experimental evidence. Do you want to bet that a few of the questions hinge on this paragraph and that simple theme?

The central dogma banishes from consideration the interactions among the numerous molecular processes that have been discovered in cells or in their extracted fluids. In the living cell, molecular processes — the synthesis of nucleic acids and proteins or the oxidation of food substance — are not separate but interact in exceedingly complex ways. No matter how many ingredients the biochemists’ test tubes may contain, the mixtures are nonliving; but these same ingredients, organized by the subtle structure of the cell, constitute a system, which is alive.

P3: Cells are unbelievably complex and their parts all work together.

Brace yourself…. our molecular biologist is about to let loose: “the central dogma banishes from consideration…” Wow! That is strong language. We just know that he is going to follow up that line with his main point: “the interactions among the numerous molecular processes that have been discovered in cells or in their extracted fluids.” And voila! There it is.

So we know this is the old “simple vs. complex” conflict. In the prior paragraph, it was “dogma vs. experimental evidence.” In this paragraph, it is “simple” dogma versus more “complex” understanding of interactions of molecular processes and all kinds of extremely complicated things that go on in a cell.

Consider an example from another field. At ordinary temperatures, electricity flows only so long as a driving force from a battery or generator is imposed on the circuit. At temperatures near absolute zero, metals exhibit superconductivity, a unique property that causes an electric current to flow for months after the voltage is cut off. Although independent electrons exist in a metal at ordinary temperatures, at very low temperatures they interact with the metal’s atomic structure in such a way as to lose their individual identities and form a coordinated, collective system which gives rise to superconductivity.

P4: In case you don’t get the idea of complexity, here is another example: metals are complicated and the parts work together.

What does electricity have to do with DNA? The last sentence says, “…lose their individual identities and form a coordinated, collective system.” What could be the “coordinated, collective system?” Aha! The author is drawing an analogy to complex and coordinated cell function. Basically, the purpose of this rambling, extended analogy is just to make sure that you, the reader, really, really, gets it — we are dealing with COMPLEX systems with all sorts of coordinated things going on. Simple concept of cells = bad “dogma.” Complex coordinated systems in cells = good.

Such discoveries of modern physics show that the unique properties of a complex system are not necessarily explicable solely by the properties that can be observed in its isolated parts. We can expect to find a similar situation in the complex chemical system of the living cells.

P5: Okay, one more time: cells are complex, highly coordinated systems.

Just in case you didn’t get the superconductivity analogy, the author hammers his point for the third paragraph in a row… just one last time for good measure. Clearly, the writer has got this thing for “complex chemical systems” in cells. So you can expect many of the questions to turn on this issue.

Organization Questions

How to identify ‘Passage Organization’ questions: Look for questions asking about organization.

  • Which of the following correctly describes the organization of the passage?
  • In which of the following ways is the passage organized?
  • In the third paragraph, the author does which of the following?

How to tackle them: Knowing the function of each paragraph is key to being able to answer organization questions. If you make a mental roadmap of the essay as you read, you will already know how the passage is organized when you reach the questions. Then, answering an organization question is simply a matter of referring back to your roadmap.

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