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How to Write 2016 Common App Essay #4: Problem You’ve Solved or Problem You’d Like to Solve

How to write 2016 Common App essay prompt 4 Problem You've Solved or a Problem You'd Like to SolveAre you good at problem solving? Then Common Application essay prompt #4 may be for you.

It’s one of a five-part series on how to write the Common Application essay prompts.

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?

  • Your problem-solving skills
  • How you think when you’re faced with challenges
  • An idea or experience you truly value
    how to write 2013 common app essay

    Pitfalls to Avoid: 

  • 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. Choose a topic that tells the colleges who you are and what you care about. The problem and solution you decide to write about tell the colleges who you are.
  • 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. So, you could 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 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.

  • Part three isn’t strong enough. I’ve had students spend much of their essay describing the problem, but only devote a couple of sentences to what they’d do about it.  Don’t skimp on this section—it’s where the schools see your critical thinking skills. It also helps them visualize the kind of problem solver you’ll be at college (and you want them to know you’ll be a darn good one).

Essay Topic Examples:

  • A student recognized that some of the kids at his teen center didn’t always have enough nice clothes, so he worked with the staff to set up and manage a “free clothes” rack. Now teens can take anything they want and always have something to wear. He saw a problem that was meaningful to him, and created a solution.
  • A student conducting a school research project helped identify the source of pollution flowing into a local river. This project meant a lot to her because it affected her community. Now, she plans to work with local authorities 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.
  • A student who broke her leg rigged up a solution that allowed her to turn the light in her room on and off while she was in bed, giving her more independence. This student found a creative solution to her everyday dilemma.
  • A student from China saw locusts destroy an entire community’s harvest. She reasoned that if scientists could understand more about insect life cycles, they might be able to save the crops and even combat hunger. To work on the problem, she planned to set up a research project in college and use mathematical applications to help make these predictions more accurate. This student 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.

Colleges like to see how you think, so include your decision-making process. Explain how you came up with a possible solution (Research? Thought? Talking to people?) Identify your solution, or what you might like to see as a solution. Make sure you convey why this topic is meaningful to you. And write a great problem solving essay.

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


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 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 and work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, video and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.