LSAT Reading Comprehension: Main Idea, Scope & Tone

Main point or main idea questions are easy to spot, and it’s pretty clear what the question wants you to do. If you told someone about the passage in one sentence, you’d have the main idea. Main idea questions are straight forward and generally easy points, but sometimes they can be a little challenging.

How To Find the Main Idea

  • The Main Idea is clearly stated

    If you are lucky, the passage will follow a traditional essay structure and the author will explicitly state the main idea near the beginning of the passage, most likely in the first paragraph. Think back to when you first learned how to write an essay with a thesis statement, supporting sentences and a conclusion. That thesis statement that comes before everything else is the main idea. It most likely won’t be the first sentence because quality writers use this space to engage the reader in the topic. But the thesis or main idea will definitely be clear before you get too far.

  • The Main Idea is not clearly stated

    Other authors never state the main idea. These types of passages build the main idea piece by piece, each paragraph leading into the other until it becomes clear in the final paragraph. Here you will have to come up with a sentence on your own summarizing the whole passage. If you briefed the passage by making good summary notes in the margins, this shouldn’t be too difficult. But there are two other elements of the passage (that you also should have noted while briefing the passage) that will help you define the main idea.

Tools To Find the Main Idea

In passages where the author hasn’t stated the main idea, it’s easy to second guess yourself when picking out the correct answer choice. But with the scope and the author’s voice as a guide, you can quickly answer these questions and save precious time for the more difficult ones.
Scope is kind of a big deal in main idea questions. The Main Idea will fit nice and neat within the scope of the passage. It won’t include concepts the author never discusses, nor will it leave any of the author’s points out. Don’t ignore this handy little tool just because main idea questions tend to be easier ones.
The author’s voice is another important tool. The main idea won’t attribute an opinion to the author that isn’t clear from the words in the passage. For example, the following main idea implies the author has a critical view of New Urbanists: “In their critique of policies that promote suburban sprawl, the New Urbanists neglect to consider the interests and values of those who prefer suburban lifestyles.” But language in the passage indicates that the author supports the views of the New Urbanists: “However, the New Urbanists do not question people’s right to their own values.”

What Is Scope and How Can It Be Used

The subject of a passage is the general topic the author has chosen to write about, for example, fractal geometry. Because the author could easily write an entire series of books on such a broad subject, the passage is focused on a very small aspect of the subject, for example, whether the fractal geometry has a lasting role in the field of mathematics. The scope is to the subject as the Chihuahua breed is to the dog species.
  • How to Identify the Scope of the Passage

    You should be able to identify the subject of the passage fairly easily from the first paragraph, if not the first sentence, because it’s the one thing the author keeps mentioning over and over. But scope can be a little bit trickier. It helps to think about the scope as a stepping stone between the subject and the main idea. For example, the subject of a passage is the work of Amos Tutuola. The author wants to discuss the opinion a certain group of literary critics holds regarding Tutuola’s work. This is the scope of the passage. The main idea is a narrowly tailored point the author makes regarding these critics’ collective opinion: “The most useful approach to [critiquing] Tutuola’s works, then, is one that regards him as working within the African oral tradition.”

  • Using Scope as a Tool

    Keeping the scope in mind can help you on a number of question types, specifically Infer Broad questions and Gist questions (such as main point or purpose questions). The correct answer to Gist questions will fit neatly inside the scope, like your foot inside your shoe. It won’t include aspects of the subject outside the scope (like the influence of Tutuola’s work on other authors), ignore any aspect the author covers (like the characteristics of a folktale), or falsely attribute a view point to the author (numerous translations won’t affect the integrity of Tutuola’s work).
    With Infer Broad questions, the scope of the passage can help you identify inferences that are too broad or too narrow to be correct. For example, imagine a question asks you to find the inference best supported by the information in the passage on fractal geometry. The correct answer won’t make claims outside the scope (about mathematical theory in general) or claims that don’t fill the scope (that fractal geometry will have practical applications in the future, which doesn’t include the opposing view that the theory will not be useful).

  • Scope of the Question Prompt

    Often, scope is defined and used as a limiting criteria in the prompt. For example, an Infer Broad question containing the phrase “most likely to agree” might be asking with which statement is the author is most likely to agree. Or, more narrowly, it might refer to one side of the debate that the author discussed in the passage, such as “enthusiastic practitioners of fractal geometry.” Keeping the scope of the prompt in mind when analyzing the question and answer choices will help you not only avoid misleading answer choices but also identify correct answer choices faster.

Tone of the Passage

You’ve probably seen an LSAT question that looked like this: “The author’s tone in the passage is best described as….”
LSAT Reading Comprehension questions that ask about tone and the author’s attitude may not be as common as detail or inference questions, but they often come up on the LSAT. To solve them, you must follow one major rule: look at the adjectives. How does the author describe the topics in each paragraph? Adjectives are colorful descriptive words that reveal opinion. Pay close attention to them as you read the LSAT passage the first time. If you do the work up front, it will pay off when you get to the questions!
Unlike LSAT Detail questions, there are no line numbers to help you find the answer for tone/style questions. Only by paying attention to the author’s voice and style as you read will you be able to get these questions right.
Now let’s talk strategy. What to do if you encounter a tone/attitude question:
  • Go back to your notes

    Ask yourself, what does the author like and what does he dislike? It’s important to note that while the author will have opinions, they may not be obvious. The passages are often scholarly and balanced in tone, so you must look carefully back to the adjectives and adverbs!

  • Write down a prediction

    Don’t even think about reading those answer choices until you come up with your own prediction. If you’re tempted, cover up the choices with your hand. The LSAT Reading section is testing your ability to think critically, and you must remember that the answer choices are not there to help you. Once you read them, you’ll never get them out of your head. Use the descriptive words of the passage as your prediction, or even a simple positive (+) or negative (-) sign.

  • Eliminate answers that are extreme or out of scope

    Look for the subtle differences between any remaining answer choices. You may encounter two words with very similar meanings, for example “dislike” and “despise.” How do they differ? Is one of them overly emotional, informal, or extreme? Unless it’s truly appropriate to the passage, go with the more “middle-of-the-road” word. In this case it would be “dislike.” The tone of most LSAT passages is academic and technical, not emotional.

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