How To Answer A “Big Picture” Reading Question On The ACT Or SAT

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One of the universal issues I see most of my students struggling with when they first come to me has to do with a question type that they’ve probably been answering for years: the ubiquitous “Big Picture” question.


What do I mean by a “Big Picture” question?

Take these examples, taken straight from past ACT and SAT tests:

  • “The purpose of the passage is to…”

  • “The passage as a whole can primarily be characterized as…”

  • “The author’s attitude towards the subject of the passage can best be described as…”

  • “Which choice best describes what happens in the passage?”

  • “Which choice best describes the developmental pattern of the passage?”

  • “The central claim of the passage is that…”

  • “The author uses the word ‘we’ throughout the passage in order to…”


Now, what they all have in common should help you see what I mean: each of these “Big Picture” questions asks about the passage as a whole. There are no specific line numbers you can refer to to help you out. They each involve your understanding about what the passage is about, what the author thinks of it, what the main idea is, what the general structure is, and what the principal rhetorical devices employed by the author are. 

I just typed “main,” “general,” “principal” a lot. Those should be your clues.

Now, in typical Ivy Lounge Test Prep fashion, I’m going to unveil what most other test prep companies and even highly-respected books will advise you to do…and then show you how to ACTUALLY approach these questions in the way that I’ve seen work for my students way better. Consider it another episode of “Kristina Ruins Everything,” but with a happy ending.



Strategies You’ve Probably Already Heard Before

1) Create a title for the passage

The idea is that you should create a headline for the passage as if you were placing it on the front page of a newspaper (remember those?).

While a FANTASTIC EXERCISE to do with your tutor when you want to flex your “main idea” muscle for half an hour (or more), this is NOT time-effective! You have 13 minutes per passage on the SAT and 8 minutes 45 seconds for each passage on the ACT. YOU DON’T HAVE TIME.


2) Pick the broadest/vaguest answer: 

This idea is that “general” questions should have “general” answers. Cross out anything too detailed, and voila!

Ummm…that’s only half right. Yes, the answer to a “main idea” question should ideally be an answer choice large enough to enclose or contain the details of the body paragraphs, BUT that might only eliminate an answer choice or two. Especially on the SAT, there will be multiple “non-detailed” answer choices. Might be better to actually understand what the “Big Picture” IS.


3) What’s the topic/subject that the passage is talking about? Pick the answer choice with THAT in it.

This one is getting closer. That said, it seems like this is just another faulty quick-fix “tips-and-tricks”-style technique to bypass actually understanding what the passage is about! Next.


4) Spend hours upon hours with your tutor dissecting the “topic” vs “central claim” vs “main idea” vs “general structure” vs “purpose” vs “author’s attitude” vs “author’s tone.”

If you’re being tutored for AP Literature or AP Composition, sure!

Don’t get me wrong: these are great skills to have. If you’ve practiced these long-term skills and have a handle on them, you WILL be able to handle “Big Picture” questions with more ease and celerity (hey, you’re taking AP English classes here) than if you haven’t. But you don’t have a whole year to analyze literature greats to get the 3 to 7 “Big Picture” questions correct. That’s just not time efficient for standardized test prep!


4) Read the introductory and concluding paragraphs.

When in absolute doubt, these are the exact places I would go! Hurrah! That said, we can do better than emergency measures, can’t we?


So those are the ones you’ve probably encountered before.

They’re in your test prep books, your study guides, and the approaches of many tutors and test-prep professionals. Now here’s what you HAVEN’T seen before…



The Ivy Lounge Test Prep Method for Answering “Big Picture” Questions

So, this might be totally counterintuitive, but for about 90% of my students, it works wonders…AND saves a tremendous amount of time in prep.

First, let me ask you: where do you usually see these “Big Picture” questions? Like, when are they being asked?

Give up?

If you said they’re usually the first questions to be asked, you’d be right!

Yes, in the ACT and the SAT, when “Big Picture” questions are asked, they are usually asked in the first question or two of your long list of 10-11 questions. And if you’re like all of my students before we’ve worked on these together, you’ll attempt to answer them first, as well.


However, does it make sense to try and answer a question concerning the entire passage when you’ve only just read the passage for the first (and hopefully only) time and might still be struggling to understand what just went down?


Yeah, no. No sense at all. You’ll immediately go back to the passage, reread paragraphs (if not, the entire thing!), waste valuable time, and still might get it wrong. Oh yeah, and then there are 9 other questions.


So here’s my revelatory thought: DON’T spend another moment analyzing. Just answer the “Big Picture” questions last.


Here’s what I mean:

  • You’ll read your passage however you read a passage (I have four main strategies, out of which there’s always one that works wonders for each of my students).

  • Then you answer the questions in whichever way you’ve worked on answering questions (again, I come up with very personally tailored systems of what order to answer questions in for each of my students). Just DON’T answer any “Big Picture” questions until the others are answered.

  • Finally, answer any “Big Picture” question—LAST!


Here’s why it works:

Instead of spending time digesting what the passage is about in order to answer this question type separately, you’re killing two birds with one stone (I do hate that expression—seems so violent!). You’re processing and digesting what the passage is about…by working through and answering the other 8-9 questions! After you’ve worked through those, you will have a MUCH more in-depth knowledge of the passage as a whole. Now, when you go back to answer the “Big Picture” questions, you probably won’t need to refer back to the passage at all! You’ll just know! Brilliant!


An added bonus: you didn’t have to spend 5-10 tutoring sessions on rewiring your brain for how you interpret material you read. You can handle those more nuanced literature conversations for Honors English class when your class is discussing the theme of “prejudice in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” ;)

So that’s the technique that works for my students! I hope it works for you too. If you need more help, you know where to find me!