Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

How to Write 2015 Common App Essay #4: Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve


how to write 2015 common application essay problem you've solved or would like to solveThe Common Application essay topics are out.

How do you choose which essay to write?

This 5 part series helps you figure out which question on the 2015 Common Application essay is right for you.

Ready for number 4? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #4:

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Problem you’ve solved or would like to solve”“Personal importance”“No matter the scale”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

Answer yes IF

  • You’ve identified a problem with meaning and importance to you.
  • You can see down the road from problem to possible solution.
  • You have actively worked on a solution OR you have plans for a solution but haven’t put them into action yet.

how to write 2013 common app essayPitfalls to Avoid:

  • The problem isn’t meaningful enough to you. Sure, you could write about lobbying for longer lunch periods at school, but so what? Don’t be superficial. Your story should tell the colleges what you value and give them an idea of your outlook on life.
  • Vague or generic essays. Essays should never be generic, but keep a special eye out if you’re writing about “larger” problems. For instance, if you say, “The world has too many people and I want to do something about it” — that is not specific enough. Gather your facts and know what you’re talking about.
  • Don’t forget the question has three parts: (1) Describe a problem; (2) Explain its significance to you; (3) Identify a solution. You must answer all three parts.

Great News! This Question is Broad — There are Many Ways to Answer:

  • You saw a problem and implemented the solution. (“When I saw that the kids at the teen center didn’t always have enough nice clothes to wear, I set up a “free clothes” rack inside the door. Now they can take anything they want.”)
  • You haven’t implemented the solution, but you can explain it. (“Now that my partners and I have identified the source of the pollution flowing into the river, I plan to work with local authorities to set up a better monitoring system to prevent future spills.”)
  • Your topic is small in scope. Don’t mistake small for mundane, boring, or unimportant. If you’ve found a solution to an everyday problem of personal importance, write about it! I always tell my students, “You don’t have to have something big to write about. The topic just has to have meaning for you.”
  • Your topic is large in scope. If you prefer to tackle bigger problems, this prompt lets you do that. If you’re not sure, ask yourself, “If I had the power, what kind of lasting change would I like to see in the world or in my community, and how would I achieve it?” It’s okay to dream big with this essay — just make sure to include a possible solution and be as specific as you can. (“After I saw how locusts destroyed the harvest, I realized that if scientists could understand more about insect life cycles, then we might be able to save the crops and even combat hunger. That’s why, in college, I want to set up a research study and use mathematical applications to help predict these terrible years.”)

What Colleges Learn About You From This Question:

  • Your problem-solving skills.
  • How you think when you’re faced with challenges.
  • An idea or experience you truly value. Hooray! This is a major part of what colleges look for. Did you devote one of your birthday celebrations to raising funds for an animal in need of medical care? They’ll see you’re compassionate. Did you find a new meeting place for seniors after fire destroyed their first venue? They’ll see you’re determined. The problem and solution you choose to write about tell the colleges who you are.

Write a Winning Essay — Tell a Story

This essay prompt lends itself to story telling, which is one great way to write a winning essay. Here’s an example of how you might structure this essay:

  • Begin with the action in your story. (This is an excellent way to draw in your reader.) Start at the moment you discovered or realized the problem.
  • Set the scene for the reader. Explain where you were, why you were there, and what you were doing.
  • Discuss who/what was affected by the problem and why that was meaningful to you.
  • Explain how you came up with a possible solution (Research? Thought? Talking to people?) Colleges like to see how you think, so include your decision-making process.
  • Make sure you identify your solution, or what you might like to see as a solution.

Next time: How to Write Common App prompt #5.

Also in this series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: A Time you Experienced Failure
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: Transition from Childhood to Adulthood


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. A Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, Sharon teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. Sharon lectures extensively on essay writing. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype and email. Visit her website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

Author: Sharon Epstein

College consultant, teaching students how to write memorable college application essays, grad school and prep school essays, and succeed at job and college interviews.

5 thoughts on “How to Write 2015 Common App Essay #4: Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve

  1. Pingback: How to Write 2015 Common Application Essay #5: Transition from Childhood to Adulthood | Applying To College

  2. Pingback: How to Write 2015 Common App Essay #3: Reflect on a Time When You Challenged a Belief or Idea | Applying To College

  3. Pingback: How to Write 2015 Common App Essay #2: Failure | Applying To College

  4. Pingback: How to Write 2015 Common App Essay #1: Background, Identity, Interest or Talent | Applying To College

  5. Pingback: How to Write 2015 Common Application Essay Prompts #1-5 | Applying To College

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