This week, Noodle Pro Jennifer Rosen discusses Prompt 4 of the Common App essay: 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.
Jennifer has been an SAT, ACT, and writing tutor for 12 years. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University.
What’s Your Problem?
Have certain problems kept you up at night? Do particular issues compel you to grapple with their rough edges and complexities? Does a cause provoke a deep sense of passion, anger, discomfort, or curiosity within you? If so, Common App prompt #4 may be just right for you.
This prompt allows you to put your problems to good use. Start the brainstorming process by making a list of such issues and then assessing which one holds the most personal significance. Which one offers the highest stakes for you? Which one strikes at your very core? The problem can be of any scale, internally or externally driven, small or large in scope, so long as it resonates with the reader. It does not necessarily need to come with a clear cut, tidy solution. In fact, the more layered and messy the problem, the better.
For example, let’s say you are passionate about climate change, and you are passionate about finding and implementing renewable energy sources at a large scale. This is a great issue to write on (if it happens to be your issue), because it is relevant, pressing, and most importantly because, with the excellent college education that you will receive, you can reasonably be a part of the solution in the years to come.
After you have identified your problem, you have some room to describe it to the reader in your own words. As these issues tend to be intellectual in nature, this prompt is well suited for more cerebral students who revel in identifying and untangling intellectual challenges. In fact, a big part of the gratification from writing this essay should come from the relishing in the challenge of trying to persuade the reader of your view of the problem and your proposed solution.
It’s important not to rush through your description of the problem. Make sure to spend sufficient time reflecting upon the problem in order to give college admissions officers access to how you think, how you learn, and what matters most to you.
But how do you describe the problem in an engaging way that makes the reader want to support your solution? An appealing quality about this prompt is that it lends itself nicely to a storytelling format. Conflict and character serve as the foundational ingredients of any good story. They also serve as the central components of this essay prompt.
Find compelling statistics, anecdotes, and/or research to support your problem, and focus on examples that will make an impression on the reader. Ideally, these will be the same examples that first caused you to be passionate about the issue. When people talk about climate change, they often mention melting glaciers, or endangered polar bears, or Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the wildly popular climate change documentary that has a recently-released sequel. These examples are used so frequently because they work – they evocatively illustrate the problem and compel the reader to want to find a solution. This is the effect you want to create in your writing.
It’s important not to rush through your description of the problem. Make sure to spend sufficient time reflecting upon the problem in order to give college admissions officers access to how you think, how you learn, and what matters most to you. Pair your “show” with a “tell.” You cannot afford to go into very extensive detail in 650 words, but it’s crucial that your reader gets an authentic sense of your excitement, and commitment.
Another good strategy is to provide context for the reader as to why you are passionate about this problem over others. A personal anecdote works well here (“I grew up in a town that is severely affected by drought”), or direct link to your future ambitions (“I realized that I wanted to channel my love for Geology into solving this crucial problem”). Use your choice of problem to provide insight into how you perceive the world. And when you get to the part where you propose a solution, explore how taking steps to solve the problem helped cultivate or reveal your core values such as an unexpected strength, an untapped creativity, determination, resiliency, diplomacy, a firm sense of justice, or compassion.