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Tips for Writing 2019-2020 Common Application Essay Prompts 4-7

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Helpful Tips to Write 2019-2010 Common App Essay Prompts 4-7

Welcome! This article gives you helpful tips for writing the 2019-2020 Common Application essay prompts 4-7, so you can create a strong, compelling and memorable essay.

Click here for tips on writing Common App prompts 1-3.

In this post, you’ll learn what schools look for in Common Application essays, how to choose a prompt, Common App do’s and don’ts, and how to avoid college essay pitfalls. We’ll look at each prompt, and you’ll get to see Common App essay examples too.

Ready? Let’s do it!

How to Write Common Application Essay Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve.

Here’s the prompt:

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 common app essay  describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve

“Problem you’ve solved or would like to solve”“Personal importance”“No matter the scale”…”Steps you took or could be taken”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

Answer yes IF:

1. You’ve identified a problem with meaning and importance to you.
2. You’ve actively worked on a solution OR can discuss the steps needed to get there.

Why Should You Consider This Topic?

1. You get to write about a meaningful idea or experience.
2. You can show off your problem solving skills.
3. You can show off your critical thinking skills.
4. Colleges see how you’re able to plan a course of action in order to achieve a goal.

how to write 2019-2020 common app essay  describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve

Pitfalls to Avoid: 

This Question Has Four Parts: Describe a problem, explain its significance to you, identify a solution, and describe how you achieved it or might begin to achieve it. Make sure you answer all four parts.
Don’t be Generic. Let’s say you want to write about world peace. Do you have something specific to say, or will you be writing empty phrases like “everyone should get along” and “peace will help save the world”? Choose a topic with a personal connection and drill down with specifics.
Don’t Skimp on the Solution. Set up the problem and then devote most of your essay to the solution. That’s how you’ll show off your critical thinking skills.
It’s Not Always a Solo Act. Your solution may require a team or teams of people with specific skills to achieve your goal. That’s okay. Write about who they are (scientists, politicians, researchers..?) and what they’ll contribute. Part of your problem-solving process is to figure out what support you’ll need.

Not Sure This Question Relates to You? Here Are Questions You Can Ask Yourself:

— Am I a budding scientist with research ideas?
— Do I have an idea for a product that solves a problem?
— Have I figured out a way to make everyday life a little easier?
— Was I ever creative or resourceful when it came to solving a common problem?
— Have I been involved with a group, program, or internship where I learned about a problem that became important to me, and now I’ve got ideas about how I can continue to think about or work on it?

Examples of Successful Common App Essay Topics

“Brain Farts”

Jeremy was driving home and missed the turn down his street. He was stumped. He couldn’t figure out why he’d missed something he had done a hundred times. He 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.

In his essay, Jeremy lays out the two part experiment he devised to predict these brain changes. He hopes to get the chance to conduct his experiment when he gets to college. In this essay, Jeremy was able to demonstrate his scientific mind and his problem-solving skills.

“Water Pollution Detective”

During a school research project, Liz helped identify the source of pollution flowing into a local river. Helping her town meant a lot to her, and now she wants to do more. 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 Liz can explain the steps she’d take to get there.

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

How to Write Common Application Essay Prompt #5: Accomplishment, Event or Realization

Here’s the prompt:

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords

how to write 2019-2020 Common App essay discuss an accomplishment event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth

“Accomplishment, Event, or Realization”…”Personal Growth”…”New Understanding of Yourself or Others”

Do The Keywords Apply To You?

“Accomplishment, event or realization” is a broad phrase. That’s good! It means you can choose almost anything, large or small, that you experienced, accomplished or realized.
“A Period of Personal Growth” is when this occurred. It’s also the process of what was changing inside you.
“A new understanding of yourself or others” is your learning experience. It’s what you learned and how your perspective changed. When you’re writing this section, think about how your experience shaped your attitude, outlook or actions, and how it helped you become the person you are today.

Why Should You Consider This Topic?
Colleges Can Learn About:

1. Your maturity
2. Your ability to develop relationships within your family or community.
3. Your insight — your ability to reflect on how an experience shaped you.

how to write 2019-2020 Common App essay discuss an accomplishment event or realization that sparked a period of personal

Pitfalls to Avoid:

Answer the Entire Question. This question has three parts: Describe your accomplishment, event or realization; explain your period of personal growth; reflect on your new understanding of yourself or others. Make sure to answer all three parts.
Don’t Be Superficial. Dig deep for your learning experience. It’s a key way you can differentiate yourself in your application.

how to write college essays

How to Make Your Essay Deeper

Let’s Look at a Before and After Essay Example:
Alex tutored younger children. In his first draft, he wrote that by tutoring he realized he liked to help people. While this was true, lots of students like to help people. Alex needed to tell the reader something more — something that was unique to him. He needed to dig deeper.

So I asked Alex to write a list of words that showed the positive results of helping people and choose a word to focus on. He chose “potential.” In his revised draft, Alex wrote about how he came to understand how much he enjoyed helping people achieve their potential and how tutoring helped him realize his own potential as well. When Alex dug deeper for his learning experience, he found a way to differentiate his essay and show the reader something special about him.

Still Not Sure This is Your Topic?
Here are Questions You Can Ask Yourself:

— Did I have an experience that helped me become more compassionate or understanding?
— Did I have the opportunity to teach younger students and found that I grew or matured in the process?
— Did I have a life event that forced me to take on more responsibility?
— Did I start my own business or volunteer program, and in the process become more understanding of my community, or my own responsibilities or actions?
— Did I undertake a task, trip, or adventure that helped me mature and understand myself better?

Example of a Successful Essay Topic

“On the Flip Side”

Paige was a successful competitive gymnast until she got injured and couldn’t compete. She felt lost — much of her identity was wrapped up being a gymnast.  A few months later, she started volunteering as a coach of the local Special Olympics gymnastics team. Paige made practices fun. Most of all, Paige taught her athletes that it didn’t matter if they won or lost, as long as they competed as a team. While her team lost at the state competition, they supported each other. To Paige, that was a win.

As time went on, Paige found herself growing as a coach and mentor. She discovered she was capable of making sports a positive experience for others. And as she helped her athletes become more confident, she became more confident too. Paige also realized something fundamental about herself — that it was important to her that every person, regardless of differences, gets the chance to win, lose and compete. While Paige isn’t sure of her career plans, she knows she wants to continue to work with people and support them so they can achieve their best.

Why This Topic Succeeds:

All the Keywords are Addressed:
Paige became a Special Olympics coach and trained her team for state competition — an event. She developed as a coach, teacher and role model —a period of personal growth. When she realized she didn’t have to be a gymnast to feel accomplished, she came to a new, more mature understanding of herself. She also ended with a new understanding of others: working with Special Olympians helped her realize how important it is to give everybody the opportunity to win, lose and compete, no matter their differences.

Tip: While Paige had a new understanding of herself and others, you only need to write about one to answer the prompt.

How to Write Common Application Essay Prompt #6: A Topic, Idea, or Concept That Makes You Lose Track of Time

Here’s the prompt:

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2019-2020 Common App essay topic idea or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time

“Topic, Idea or Concept”…”Lose All Track of Time”…”Why”…”What or Who Do You Turn To”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

“Topic, Idea, or Concept” is a very broad phrase. That’s good! It means you can choose almost anything, large or small.
“Lose All Track of Time” is self-explanatory. You’ve found yourself so engrossed in something that you didn’t realize how much time had passed.
“What or Who Do You Turn To When You Want to Learn More?” This is how you learn independently. You might ask a teacher questions after class, search Google, read books, watch videos, etc.

Why Should You Consider This Topic? Colleges Can Learn:

1. You’re curious. When something intrigues you, you do something.
2. You’re resourceful. You seek out new sources of information.
3. You’re independent. You can direct your own learning.
4. You’ll be an independent, curious learner in college.

how to write 2019-2020 Common App essay topic idea or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time

Pitfalls to Avoid:

Answer the Entire Question. This question has three parts: Topic, idea, or concept; why it captivates you; who or what you turn to when you want to learn more. You must answer all three parts.
Don’t Shortchange “Why.” Discussing “why” is one of the most important things you can do in an essay. Through “why,” schools learn about you. They see how you think, what you care about, or what concerns you. After you’ve written your draft, read it again and ask yourself if you’ve explored all the reasons “why.”

Avoid the Boring Trap!

how to write Common App essay 6 a topic or idea that makes you lose all track of time

To me, this essay prompt is missing something — it doesn’t ask you to look for that little bit of grit in your story. Most of the best essays have some grit – they’ve got an obstacle thrown in someone’s path, a problem to solve, a decision that must be made. Grit makes your story more interesting. It uncovers more of you.

So when you’re writing this essay, find the time you had to think a little harder, become a little more self-reliant, make a decision, or solve a problem. You’ll make your essay more interesting and avoid the boring trap.

Example of a Successful Essay Topic

“The Artist”

Joanne is an artist, and when she’s painting she loses track of time. Art gives Joanne an expressive outlet for her thoughts and imagination and it has helped her develop her sense of personal expression. She tries to interpret her world through her choice of colors, shapes, and setting.

In elementary school, Joanne’s teacher told her that she had to draw people so they looked real. For a while, she did it the teacher’s way. But then she decided she didn’t have to be like anyone else and Joanne’s been drawing her way ever since.

In her essay, Joanne writes that she’s been influenced by two painters who use color and shapes in different ways: Grandma Moses and Georgia O’Keefe. She describes how she looks carefully at the way they portray their worlds, which gives Joanne ideas about how she can find original ways to interpret hers. It has also taught her the importance and value of appreciating the world from other people’s perspectives, whether she’s looking at a painting or listening to friend with a different view.

Whenever she can, Joanne takes art classes. She reads about her favorite painters and she’s learning about new ones. Next, Joanne says, she’s going to experiment with clay. She’s not sure what she’ll be creating or what she’ll learn about herself in the process, but she can’t wait to get started.

Why This Topic Succeeds

All the keywords are addressed. Joanne identifies what makes her lose track of time, discusses why it captivates her, and says what she does when she wants to learn more.
She doesn’t shortchange “why.” Joanne digs deep to say why art captivates her. She discusses two artists and their influence on her. The schools get to see she’s smart, interesting, and a self-motivated learner. And she takes it a step further, showing how a lesson learned from art has made her more understanding of others, which is a great core value.
She avoids the boring trap. Joanne’s story about being told how to draw is important because it adds a little bit of grit that shows off her personality. The reader sees she’s an independent young woman who likes to follow her own path.

How to Write Common Application Essay Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

Here’s the prompt:

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Is this Prompt for You? Answer Yes IF:

1. The other prompts don’t speak to you.
2. You’re inspired by another school’s prompt.
3. You want to ask and answer your own question.
4. You’ve already written an essay that showcases you as an excellent college candidate.

how to write 2019-2020 Common App Essay topic of your choice

Pitfalls to Avoid:

Don’t Stress Over this Prompt. This prompt is meant to reduce your stress, not add to it, says Scott Anderson at The Common Application. Anderson adds, “Topic of your choice doesn’t mean default choice.” If the prompt feels too unstructured, use one of the other prompts.
Don’t Submit Less Than Your Best. If you’re submitting an essay you’ve already written, make sure it’s well written and showcases you as an excellent potential college student.
Don’t Forget the Fundamentals. Prompt #7 doesn’t provide as much guidance as some of the other prompts. So this is a good time to recap what schools look for in a Common Application essay:

— Your writing skills
— Your ability to communicate your ideas.
— Your personality – what makes you laugh, think, hope, dream, care.
— Your thought process
— Most of the best essays also have some kind of conflict, like an obstacle in your path, a problem you need to solve, a decision you have to make, a realization you came to, or some other circumstance that helped shape you into who you are.
— Essays include reflection—you need to be able to take a step back from your experience to understand how it’s shaped you and/or your goals.

Example of a Successful Essay Topic

“Conversation with a Philosopher”

James loved the novel The Stranger, by Albert Camus. In it, the title character, Meursault, is estranged from the world, indifferent to society and unaffected by feelings. James knew his personality was the complete opposite.

So James wrote an essay where he argues with the book’s main character over his philosophy of life. In it, James tells Meursault that he attempts to live a purposeful life. He tries things for pleasure, like teaching himself to cook, because trying and learning give him a better understanding of the world. He tells Meursault about the joy of learning music. He talks about how he designed his own science experiments, and how he learned that if you soak chicken bones in hydrochloric acid they’ll bend at 45 degrees. No information is useless, James stresses to Meursault. At the end of the essay, he tells Meursault that he will always be glad he’s forged his own path and that he has lived life to the fullest.

Why Does this Essay Topic Succeed?

-This topic didn’t fit into any of the other prompts, so prompt #7 was the natural choice.
-James uses the conversation to show off his personality: he cares, he’s eclectic, and he’s engaged.
-James highlights his positive qualities of intellectual curiosity, joy of learning, and zest for life.
-It’s creative and original.

A Word in Support of Some of My Favorite Prompts from the University of Chicago:

If you’re looking for essay inspiration, check out the University of Chicago’s essay prompts. UChicago prides itself on uncommon, fun essay questions. Read the ones I’ve listed below to see, with a little imagination, how you can let your imagination and personality fly.

A Sampling of UChicago prompts:

— History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (Either real or imagined). — How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
— Chicago author Nelson Algren said, “A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street.”…Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical.
— “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”—Miles Davis (1926–91)

Click here to read more UChicago prompts.

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Sharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into creative and memorable college application essays. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on 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.

One thought on “Tips for Writing 2019-2020 Common Application Essay Prompts 4-7

  1. Pingback: Tips for Writing 2019-2020 Common Application Essay Prompts 1-3 | Applying To College

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