Choosing a Main Idea

Once you”ve narrowed the topic, it”s time to decide what to say about the topic. That is, you need to devise an idea that will become the purpose, or point, of the essay. An essay shouldn”t simply be “about,” say, hard work, heroism, beauty, or any other topic. What counts in an essay is the statement you make about hard work, heroism, or beauty—in short, its main idea. Essays may be written with beautiful words, contain profound thoughts, and make readers laugh or weep. But without a main idea, an essay remains just words in search of a meaning. You don”t want readers coming to the end of your essay scratching their heads and asking, “Huh? What”s the point?”

Every bit of your essay from start to finish should contribute to its main idea. (Some people prefer to use the word thesis instead of main idea.) Any material that wanders from the main idea should be discarded. It not only wastes words but detracts from the impact of your essay. Naturally, the main idea of your essay will depend on your response to the particular issue presented by the prompt. It will be a statement of your opinion.

Let”s say the issue relates to the fundamental rights of high school students. So, you think about the issue and narrow the topic by focusing on high school dress codes. Your main idea might be any of the following:

1. Yes, a high school may implement a dress code without violating a student”s basic rights.

2. No, a high school should not be permitted to violate its students” rights by instituting a dress code.

3. High schools should be allowed to impose dress codes but only on students under age 16.

4. High school dress codes not only destroy students” rights but also imply that students lack good judgment.

5. Dress codes improve a school”s environment, thereby enhancing students” rights to a good education.

6. A strict dress code teaches students about living in a repressive society.

7. A strict dress code encourages students to appreciate the rights that they enjoy as citizens in a free society.

Using one of these main ideas as its starting point, the essay would then discuss the validity of your opinion.

Another SAT question may ask you to address an issue related to teenage drivers. Let”s say, for instance, you are asked to write about seat belt laws that require everyone in a car—driver and all passengers front and back—to buckle up. Your main point might be that seat belt laws infringe on a driver”s freedom of choice. Or the essay”s point might be that safety laws supercede a person”s right to choose whether to wear a seat belt. Or you might use the essay to prove that driving without seat belts is not a real issue because to do so is dangerous and stupid.


Topic: The prompt gives you an issue to write about.

Main Idea: The main idea is a statement of your opinion on the issue.

Purpose: The essay gives you an opportunity to develop support for your opinion using reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observation.

If possible, choose a main idea that matters to you personally. SAT readers won”t find fault with opinions with which they disagree. If you give your readers only what you think they might want, you”re being dishonest, posing as someone you are not. Likewise, because you don”t want to sound pompous or pretentious, avoid picking a main idea solely to show off intellectual superiority or political correctness. An essay that is truthful and comes from the heart will serve you best.

At the same time, however, steer clear of main ideas that are clichés and platitudes. Consider your readers. As they plod through scores of SAT essays on the same topic, they”ll appreciate and reward those that contain fresh ideas. Try, therefore, to devise a main idea that will set you apart from other students. Not that your main idea should be off the wall. Creativity helps but it”s not essential. You”ll never be penalized for a clearly written, sober essay that demonstrates insightful thinking and beliefs.

The SAT will probably ask a question you can respond to without much strain. But what if you hate to write and don”t care for the given topic? Is it possible to write a decent essay on a topic that makes you yawn?

The answer is a resounding YES! because you have no choice. You may be bored, and writing an essay on demand may rub you the wrong way. But raising a stink about it won”t get you far. Instead, accept the challenge, and create the illusion that you care deeply about the issue. Show your resilience—a quality that college admissions officials value and admire. Regardless of the topic, psych yourself to write the essay of your life.

Practice in Choosing a Main Idea

Directions: Respond to each of the following prompts by writing three or more sentences that could serve as main ideas for an essay.

1. “Whether you think you can, or that you can”t, you are usually right.”

Henry Ford, 1863–1947

Assignment: Does attitude determine success and failure in an endeavor? Plan and write an essay that develops and supports your views on this issue.


2. There”s an old proverb, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Assignment: Which is a more effective way to teach children to behave—to promise rewards or to instill a fear of punishment?


3. Advertisements for the New York State Lottery say “All you need is a dollar and a dream,” a slogan that encourages the fantasy that a big win will solve all of life”s problems. Yet, many lottery winners have suffered unexpected negative consequences. Their dreams have often turned into nightmares, and their lives are worse than they were before.

Assignment: Should state and local governments sponsor lotteries that can leave both winners and losers worse off than before? Plan and write an essay that develops and supports your views on this issue.


4. “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk to Freedom

Assignment: Do we need to understand our past in order to understand ourselves? Plan and write an essay that develops and supports your views on this issue.


5. “Destiny is not a matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925)

Assignment: Do you think that a destiny achieved by the decisions and choices you have made is preferable to a destiny that comes from chance or luck? Plan and write an essay that develops and supports your views on this issue.


Suggested answers