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How to Write Common Application Essay 4: Describe a Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve

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How To Write 2017 Common App Essay 4 Describe a problem you've solved or would like to solveAre you a budding scientist with research ideas? Do you have an idea for a product that solves a problem? Have you figured out a way to make everyday life a little easier?

Then Common Application essay prompt #4 may be for you.

This is the fourth of my seven-part series on how to write the Common Application essay prompts.

You’ll learn about the question, the keywords, and the dos and don’ts of answering, I’ll also give you successful Common Application essay topic examples.

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’ve actively worked on a solution OR have an idea about what steps you’d take to work toward a solution.

What Can Colleges Learn About You From This Question?

  • An idea or experience you truly value
  • Your problem-solving skills
  • Your critical thinking skills
  • The course you plot when you have a goal
    how to write 2013 common app essay

    Pitfalls to Avoid: 

  • Answer the Entire Question. The question has three parts: (1) Describe a problem; (2) Explain its significance to you; (3) Identify a solution and either how to get there or how to begin to get there. You must answer all three parts.
  • The Problem Isn’t Meaningful Enough to You. You could write about lobbying for longer lunch periods at school, but so what? Don’t be superficial. Your topic tells the colleges who you are and what you care about. 
  • Vague or Generic essays. The prompt says you can write about anything “no matter the scale.” But broad topics still need to be of personal significance, with the emphasis on personal. Sure, you can write about world peace—but can you demonstrate your passion and connection? Be specific about how a topic has touched you or meant something to you—and put your personality squarely on the page.

  • Don’t Skimp on the Solution. I’ve seen students devote most of their essays to the problem and only a couple of sentences to achieving a solution. Don’t skimp on this section—you’re showing colleges what kind of critical thinker and problem solver you’ll be at college—show them you’ll be a darn good one.

How to write Common Application essay describe a problem you've solved or would like to solveHot Tips: You don’t need to fly solo. Problems can be complex and so can their solutions. So when you’re thinking about your solution, you don’t need to be the only one involved. You may require a team or teams of people with specific skills to achieve your goal.

You don’t need the perfect answer. The prompt gives you the chance to explain the steps you’d take to identify a solution. As long as you discuss the process—the way you’d get to a solution—that’s okay, even if you’re not quite sure what the exact solution might be.

Examples of Successful Essay Topics

Brain Farts

Kenny was driving home and missed the turn down his street. He was stumped. He couldn’t figure out why he’d missed doing something he had done a hundred times. Kenny wanted to know what caused his “brain fart,” so he found the scientific name (maladaptive change) and developed a two-part experiment to identify and predict when these changes would occur. Kenny hopes to conduct his experiment when he gets to college. With an interesting and personal essay topic, Kenny was able to demonstrate his scientific mind and problem-solving skills.

Water Pollution Detective

Last summer, during a school research project, Liz helped identify the source of pollution flowing into a local river. Helping her community meant a lot to her, and she wanted to do more. So now Liz plans to contact local authorities and work with them to set up a better monitoring system to prevent future spills. She hasn’t implemented the solution yet, but can explain the steps she’d take.

Saving the Crops

Lily, a student from China, witnessed locusts destroy her entire community’s harvest. Lily reasoned that if scientists could understand more about insect life cycles, they might be able to save crops and even combat hunger. To work on the problem, she plans to set up a research project in college. The project will use mathematical applications to more accurately predict the insects’ life cycle. Lily dreamed big, but at the same time her story was specific: She had a personal connection and a passion for solving a large-scale problem.

Interested in Common App essay #4? Include your decision-making process. Explain how you came up with (or would come up with) a possible solution (Research? Thought? Talking to people?). Make sure you explain why this topic is meaningful to you. And write a great problem-solving essay.

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

Read the entire series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: An Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
Coming Soon:
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

Related links:
Huffington Post: The Common App Prompts Are Changing
The Common Application Announces 2017-2018 Essay Prompts

For the entire list of 2017 Common Application essay prompts click here.
If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, click here for more info.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills


Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee. First Impressions College Consulting teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. Our tutors are award-winning writers and published authors who work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, video and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.



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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.

7 thoughts on “How to Write Common Application Essay 4: Describe a Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve

  1. Pingback: How to Write 2017 Common Application Essay 3: A Time When You Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea | Applying To College

  2. Pingback: How to Write 2017 Common Application Essay 2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles | Applying To College

  3. Pingback: How to Write 2017 Common Application Essay 1: Background, Identity, Interest or Talent | Applying To College

  4. Pingback: How to Write Common Application Essay 5: Accomplishment, Event, or Realization that Sparked a Period of Personal Growth | Applying To College

  5. Pingback: How to Write Common Application Essay 6: What Makes You Lose All Track of Time | Applying To College

  6. Pingback: How to Write Common Application 7: Topic of Your Choice | Applying To College

  7. Pingback: How to Write 2017 Common Application Essay Prompts 1-7 | Applying To College

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