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Central ideas and details | Lesson

A guide to "central ideas and details" questions on the digital SAT

What are "central ideas and details" questions?

On the Reading and Writing section of your SAT, some questions will present a short passage for you to read. The passage may be excerpted from a work of literature or from a scholarly essay.
Once you read the passage, you'll be asked either to identify the main idea of the text or to answer a specific question based on the text.
Central ideas and details questions will look like this:

Central ideas and details: Example
Many intellectual histories of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s rely heavily on essays and other explicitly ideological works as primary sources, a tendency that can overrepresent the perspectives of a small number of thinkers, most of whom were male. Historian Ashley D. Farmer has shown that expanding the array of primary sources to encompass more types of print material—including political cartoons, advertisements, and artwork—leads to a much better understanding of the movement and the crucial and diverse roles that Black women played in shaping it.
Which choice best describes the main idea of the text?
Choose 1 answer:

How should we think about central ideas and details questions?

Central ideas and details questions focus on reading comprehension, and they do so in a fairly straightforward way.
We won't need any outside knowledge. We won't need to analyze the text too deeply or do any complex reasoning. We'll simply need to read the passage carefully.

Central ideas

Central ideas questions ask us to identify "the main idea" of the passage. Since the passages for these questions are fairly short, finding this main idea shouldn't be too tricky.
The main idea should
  • cover a majority of the details introduced in the text.
  • mention any particular points of emphasis from the text.
The main idea should not
  • focus too intently on just one detail from the text.
  • introduce new ideas not addressed within the text.
  • contradict information from the text.


Details questions ask us to answer a specific question about an idea contained in the passage. Details questions can usually be answered using information from one particular sentence in the text.
These questions will contain words, phrases, or ideas that direct us to the appropriate part of the text. Once there, we simply need to find the correct detail needed to answer the question.

How to approach central ideas and details questions

To solve a central ideas and details question, consider following these steps:
Step 1: Summarize the text in your own words
Don't just skim the passage. Read it closely, and try to summarize the ideas you encounter in your own words. By the time you finish reading, you should have a strong understanding of the information contained in the passage.
Step 2: Determine the task
The question that follows the passage will reveal your task. Does it ask about the "main idea"? Or does it ask about a particular piece of information?
Step 3: Revisit the text
If the question is about the main idea, then revisit your summary of the text to find the overarching theme.
If the question asks about something specific, then head to that section of the passage to search out the correct detail.
Step 4: Predict and eliminate
Based on your understanding of the passage, you should be able to answer to the question fairly accurately without even looking at the choices. If someone asked you to summarize the text, what would you say?
For instance, in the example question above, we might predict that the main idea is something like
"Ashley D. Farmer has improved the study of the Black Power movement by exploring the roles of women."
Once you predict the answer in your own words, it should be pretty easy to find a match among the choices. If you're still not sure, you can eliminate your way to the answer by getting rid of choices that contradict the passage or introduce new ideas.

Top tips

Stay specific

Don't stray beyond the focus of the passage. Eliminate choices that broaden or blur the ideas in discussed in the text. And look out for small twists and turns that make a choice seem relevant when it actually expresses something unsupported by the passage.

Keep your prediction as short and simple as possible

If your prediction is just as long as the passage itself, it’s not simple enough! Keep simplifying it until you can sum it up in one brief idea, then use that prediction as a test. The more concise your prediction, the quicker and easier it will be to check it against the choices.

Use keywords as a map

When a question asks about a detail from the passage, it will often do so by referencing key words and phrases from the text. Find those words in the passage: they'll direct you towards the answer you seek!

Your turn

Central Ideas and Details
The following text is adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel Treasure Island. Bill is a sailor staying at the Admiral Benbow, an inn run by the narrator’s parents.
Every day when [Bill] came back from his stroll he would ask if any seafaring men had gone by along the road. At first we thought it was the want of company of his own kind that made him ask this question, but at last we began to see he was desirous to avoid them. When a seaman did [stay] at the Admiral Benbow (as now and then some did) he would look in at him through the curtained door before he entered the parlour; and he was always sure to be as silent as a mouse when any such was present.
According to the text, why does Bill regularly ask about “seafaring men”?
Choose 1 answer:

Want to join the conversation?

  • stelly orange style avatar for user That Soviet player
    a common situation tat I encounter on the blue book is that the words are super complicated and cant really summarize it into my own words and get confused.
    (113 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Terence Tao
      I am facing the same problems and even though I haven't overcome them I think these tips can help:

      Collage board for some reason just loves giving weird names for basically everything in the passage. Instead of reading the entire name just remember the first letter of each word in a name, for example:

      "Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel
      Americanah chronicles the divergent experiences of
      Ifemelu and Obinze, a young Nigerian couple... "

      I'd read it as-
      "C N A’s 2013 novel
      Amr chr the divergent experiences of
      Ife and Obz, a young Nigerian couple..."

      2] If you can't summarise paragraphs, summarise sentences.
      Now, this shouldn't be your first option, try summarising the passage as a whole. If and only if you get stuck do this coz it takes a bit longer and you can't do it on every question but you can prob pull it off on a few of the tough ones.

      3] If you don't know a particular word try splitting it and determining its meaning.
      Now granted you might have to learn a few common prefixes and suffixes to do this but that's way better than learning a dictionary.

      4] Take it slow.
      I don't consider myself to be very good at the reading and writing section but I still am able to complete the practice test modules 5 to 8 mins ahead of time so just sold down, and as David says "you got this." :)
      (379 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user ISKO.SALIMJANOV
    It would be so much better, If there were vocabulary bank especially for SAT in Khan Academy
    (81 votes)
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    • sneak peak green style avatar for user G. Tarun
      SAT tests vocabulary in context: it's about understanding how a word means one thing in one context, another thing in another.

      If you want to rapidly expand your English vocabulary, though, try working through the book Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis. It teaches words as symbols for ideas, and teaches using the root word and word-origin (etymology) approach. Merriam-Webster's Word of The Day is also a great way to learn vocabulary using a similar approach. I've also heard students recommend vocabulary.com though I have never used it myself.
      (31 votes)
  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Slushy
    Is it possible to have more than 1 central idea?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user yubrajkhatri005
    finding the main theme or the any kind of central ideas is most hardest part for me, even the trick from khan academy itself doesn't work for me can you tell how you guys encounter this type of question?
    (7 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user 24gargaa
      The key to answering a central idea/ theme question is to look for the general gist or scope that the passage is trying to "outline." Whenever I read a short story, I focus on the details that lead me to find the general idea of the passage. The SAT is designed such that you are not forced to grasp every detail that a passage offers, so try not to get too caught up on the passage. If you should not focus too much on unnecessary details as they may incorrectly guide you. If you find summarizing the passage in your own words difficult, it may be helpful to just directly go to the questions. Though this strategy may be useful, it is still vital that you understand the claim and other essential points stated in the passage. I would finally suggest selecting an answer choice that isn't too specific. Specificity is important when considering answer choices, but getting too specific will draw you away from the MAIN idea of a passage.
      (26 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user cuc.diamond
    Where I can find exercises that are similar to these kinds?
    (14 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user DorianA
    What is supposed to be so hard about this? Both times the answer is directly stated and can be found in the first two sentences.
    (9 votes)
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  • purple pi teal style avatar for user Shishir
    The last question has a grammatical ERROR. In the last sentence, there is a conjunction (and) after the semicolon which is incorrect according to Khan Academy → DSAT → Reading & Writing → Lesson 11 → Boundaries → Punctuations.

    Please correct me if I am wrong and please provide me with an explanation.
    (9 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Ayush_K.
      That Lesson 11 is standard english, and like occarius (in the comments section of your section) said, English has changed a LOT from the 1880s. Although from a longer time, thee was prevalent around the end of the 18th century, and now thee is no longer used except if an author chooses to incorporate it for formal purposes or really just for the "fun" of it. You will see "thee" a ton if you read Shakespeare's plays, stories, poems, etc.
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Larissa Rampazzo
    do you have any tips on how to practice? besides de 4pdfs on college board and practice tests from bluebook. would you use the old sat tests to study for the digital one?
    (8 votes)
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    • starky sapling style avatar for user jlee26
      I would definitely use those after I exhaust all the Bluebook and Khan Academy resources. They're actually a great way to bolster your reading comprehension skills and have quite a lot of useful information that still applies to the DSAT, although some may say otherwise.
      (7 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Nadia
    How do I understand the main claim / central idea of a short poem? I find this part very difficult and end up with the wrong option! Need some help in understanding short poem based central idea.
    (9 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Logan Kopp
    I hope that whoever sees this has the best day of their lives.
    (9 votes)
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