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How to Write Common Application Essay 4 Problem You Solved or Would Like to Solve


How to Write Common Application Essay 4: Problem You Solved or Would Like to Solve

How to Write Common Application Essay 4 Problem You Solved or Would Like to Solve

Are you looking for college essay help?

Do you want to find your best college essay topic, or learn which Common Application prompt is right for you?

Would you like to write a creative and memorable essay?

You’ve come to right place. This is my series on the 2018 Common Application essay prompts. In this post, you’ll learn about Common Application Prompt 4 and discover if it’s right for you.

Ready? Let’s do it!

Common Application 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”…”Steps you took or could be taken”

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 – Although you haven’t taken any steps, you have an idea what steps are necessary to find a solution.

Why Should You Consider This Topic?

  • It’s the chance to write about a meaningful idea or experience.
  • You can show off your problem-solving skills.
  • You can show off your critical thinking skills.
  • Colleges love to see how you think. This question lets you show them how you’d plan a course of action to achieve a goal.
    how to write 2013 common app essayPitfalls to Avoid: 
  • Answer the Entire Question. The question has four parts: Describe a problem, explain its significance to you, identify a solution, and describe either how you achieved it or might begin to achieve it. You must answer all four parts.
  • The Problem Isn’t Meaningful Enough to You. You could write about lobbying for longer lunch periods, but so what? Make sure the problem you’re writing about matters to you.
  • Don‘t be Generic. The prompt says you can write about anything “no matter the scale.” But even a large-scale topic needs to be of personal significance. Sure, you could write about world peace—but can you demonstrate your passion and connection? Or will you be writing phrases like, “Everyone should get along” and “Peace will help save the world”? Be specific about how a topic has touched you or means something to you. That’s the only way your personality will land squarely on the page.
  • Don’t Skimp on the Solution. If your essay spends most of its time describing the problem and only a couple of sentences on achieving a solution, then it’s unbalanced. Make sure to devote space to discussing your solution. This should include your thought process—what you’re thinking, why you’re thinking it, and the decisions that result. 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.
  • You Don’t Have to Solve The Problem Alone. You 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:

  • Are 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?
  • Were you ever creative or resourceful when it came to solving a common problem?
  • Have you been involved with a group, program, or internship where you’ve learned about a problem that became important to you, and now you have ideas about how you can continue to think about or work on it?

Examples of Successful 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 doing 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. Jeremy hopes to get the chance to conduct his experiment when he gets to college. In this essay, he was able to demonstrate his scientific mind and 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 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.

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sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon 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. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

Read the entire “How to Write” 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: Questioned or 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: Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
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



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How to Write Common Application Essay Prompt #5: Transition from Childhood to Adulthood

How to write Common App prompt 5 discuss an event that marked your transition from childhood to adulthoodThe Common Application essay prompts are out.

How do you choose which essay to write?

In this 5 part series I help you figure out which question on the 2016 Common Application essay is right for you.

  • For the complete list of 2016 Common App essay questions click here.

We’re down to the last one. Whew!

Ready for #5? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #5:

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Accomplishment or Event” … “Transition from Childhood to Adulthood” … “Culture, Community or Family”

What the Keywords Mean:

  • “Accomplishment or event” is a very broad phrase. That’s good! It means you can choose almost anything you’ve done, experienced or accomplished.
  • “Transition from childhood to adulthood.” Don’t feel quite like an adult yet? That’s okay—you can still answer the question. The Common App really wants to know how you’ve become more mature or responsible over time.  
    • Ask yourself these questions: Have you taken on more responsibility? Do you make decisions in a more mature way? Are you more dependable? Do you teach younger students what you’ve been taught? Does your family or community ask you for advice on an issue you’ve become knowledgeable about? Have you been through a religious or cultural rite of passage that was meaningful to you? There are many ways we grow into adulthood.

Still Looking for a Topic?

  • Here are a few more questions you can ask yourself: Did you set a goal for yourself that you achieved? Did you work hard at a task, hobby, or skill that you eventually were able to master? Did you have a relationship with an important person that helped shape you? Did you have a life event that forced you to take on more responsibility? Did you have an experience that helped you become more compassionate or understanding? Did you experience a traumatic event that made you see the world in a different way? Did you need to find a way to get yourself out of a difficult situation? Did you start your own business? Did you learn how to allocate your own money? These are just a few ideas—make sure to keep thinking!

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid: 

  • Don’t forget to include a learning experience. Although the prompt doesn’t specifically ask for it, colleges want to know how you grew or what you learned from your experience. How did your experience shape your attitude, outlook or actions? How did it help you become the person you are today? Make sure to tell them.

Essay Topic Example

“Dance Studio”

A young woman began dancing before she could tie her shoes. The tradition at her dance studio was that the older dancers mentored the younger ones. As she grew older and became more accomplished, she started teaching the younger students. Now she helps them in the studio and outside of dance. As she has matured, the student has learned what it takes to be a friend and mentor, and is helping continue her dance studio’s tradition.

Is this Example Successful? Yes.

  • All the keywords are addressed.
    • The student writes about an accomplishment in her community.
    • Her transition from child to young adult is marked by taking on more responsibility and becoming a teacher and mentor to the younger dancers.
  • She learned from her experience.
    • The student has matured and become more responsible.

What Can Colleges Learn About You From This Question?

  • Your level of maturity.
    • Schools can get a feeling for how well you will interact with your peers and instructors, your decision-making abilities, and even your possible leadership skills.
  • Your ability to develop important relationships within your family, culture, or community.
    • Schools can learn what kind of community member you will be at college.
  • The kind of idea or experience that’s truly meaningful to you.
    • Your essay topic tells the school a great deal about what’s important to you. Make sure you choose a topic that is meaningful to you and says good things about you.

We’re done! We’ve covered all the prompts. If you’ve read the blog posts I’ve written on how to answer each question, you should be able to choose the right topic and write an essay that makes you shine. If you have any questions, drop me a line and let me know.


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 tutors teach students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. We work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.