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How to Write the 2016 Common Application Prompt #4: Problem Solving

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As of August 1, the Common App published its five personal essay prompts. Since then, we’ve been hard at work here at CollegeVine to come up with how-to guides to approach each of these essay prompts individually. In this post, we’ll focus on giving you a seriously in-depth analysis of the fourth prompt. (But if you really want to take a holistic approach to writing your personal statement and feel like doing a little reading, it’s not a bad idea to read our posts on Prompt #1, Prompt #2, Prompt #3, and Prompt #5 as well).


For now, let’s focus on Prompt #4.


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.


Now read it again. Seriously. This prompt has a few different questions rolled into one, so make sure you’re acquainted with what it’s asking you before you continue.


Once you feel like you’ve got a handle on the prompt, remind yourself of your overall goal as you write your personal statement. It’s actually quite simple: just talk about yourself honestly, genuinely, truthfully, and in your own voice. You can do this. All you need to do is put in some time and serious effort — and read on for our guide to success.


The Question: What is it asking? Should I answer it?

Before we launch into explaining how to answer this prompt, we want to make sure you are answering the right one. As far as personal statement essay prompts go, this one is a bit more specific than some of the others on the Common App. This does not mean that it is more impressive if you answer this prompt versus any of the others, but it does mean that you should only answer it if you actually can readily think of a problem that you want to solve.


In other words, this essay will be extremely hard for you to write if you must first come up with a problem to solve that you haven’t previously thought about or considered. The best responses to this question will demonstrate a student’s vested interest in a particular dilemma, and for this reason, you shouldn’t approach this question as an opportunity to become newly interested in a problem only to quickly think of some way to solve it. There simply isn’t enough time to become truly invested in an issue such that you’ll be able to write genuinely and thoughtfully about its solution.


At the same time, do not feel intimidated by this question. Do not think that you are only allowed to discuss so-called “big” problems like the issue of hunger in America, global political unrest, or the lack of a cancer cure. It is acceptable to talk about problems of any size in this essay; in fact, the more personal or unique you are able to make your essay, the better. This is to say that you can interpret the term “problem” loosely and discuss personal problems, interpersonal issues, familial problems, or research problems — really, anything problematic that you have encountered that has meant something to you.


Likewise, you shouldn’t feel like you are required to provide a definitive solution to the problem you discuss in your essay. This is certainly the case if you decide to discuss a large-scale, complicated problem such as the issue of creating a modern healthcare system that serves people of varying ages and medical needs. Just as well, you are not expected to solve all of your own problems, be they ongoing, lingering from childhood, or otherwise. This essay simply asks that you propose solutions. There is never one way to solve a problem; thus, there is no single way to answer this question well.


The Process

Now that you’ve decided upon a personal essay prompt to answer — and you know what this specific question is asking — let’s get down to business and start writing.


Step 1: Brainstorm

The best way to begin a prize-winning (or admission-worthy) essay is to brainstorm — in other words, to spend some time just thinking, focusing on the content of your essay without worrying about the way your thoughts sound or look on the page. You can save the step of finessing your writing for much later on in the process.


Let’s start brainstorming together, shall we? Below, we’ve written out the brainstorming prompts that one of our essay specialists might guide you through were they in the room with you during a consultation. Try to come up with at least some response to each one.


  1. Can you think of any “problems” (at least one major and one minor, personal, or small-scale) that you have experienced in your life? Remember that you can interpret the word “problem” openly here because it is open to interpretation.
  2. For each “problem” you enumerated in Step 1, list at least one solution method.


a. If this method is exhaustive or requires in-depth explanation, one solution will suffice here. For example, if you have always been wildly fascinated by world economies and have done extensive reading on how global economies work, such that you have developed your own foolproof method for keeping the American economy stable until the end of time, you obviously need only to discuss your one method; don’t waste time discussing lesser methods just to provide several in your answer.


If you choose to take this route, you should be sure to point out the various strengths and weaknesses of your solution method, and give credit to others who have inspired you where it is due.


b. Similarly, if you are writing about a personal problem that you already solved, it is probably a good idea to start by describing how you actually solved the problem. In this case, you have played out the “solution” and seen how effective it was in real time. Make use of this real-life experiment and the insight it affords you!


In this case as well, though, feel free to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the solution(s) you used to solve the problem you have chosen to discuss. Certainly, if you want to imagine how other solutions may have worked better or worse now that you have the benefit of hindsight, you should do so.


c. Alternatively, if you have decided to discuss a problem that has not yet been solved, and you can think of several possible solutions that are strong for some reasons and flawed or weak for others, it is important that you discuss at least a few of these and weigh them against each other.


If this is the case, see how creative you can be with varying your approaches to problem solving. The more creatively you think about these solutions, the more fun you’ll have writing your personal statement and the more exciting it will be for adcoms to read.


Confused about how to do that? Think about any skills or hobbies you have cultivated that you want to demonstrate to admissions committees, and see if you can use those various modes of thinking to come up with unexpected solutions to your problem. Perhaps you love to read autobiographies and are able to reference a historical figure who has dealt with a personal problem that is similar to your own. Can you borrow his or her method of dealing with it?


Maybe, instead, you’re dealing on a math problem that is particularly difficult to understand, but you are able to implement a method that you learned in your engineering class to reach a solution.


  1. Is there anything about yourself or your character that you feel must make it into your personal statement — in other words, something integral to your identity that the adcom will not hear about if you do not include it here?

Step 2: Commit and Plan

Sooner or later, you’ll need to choose a “problem” of the many you’ve enumerated in your brainstorming session to “solve” — so do it now, in Step 2. Don’t worry if you feel unsure that you have picked the right one. Choosing the topic for your personal essay can feel like a big gamble, but trust us: it isn’t. Your essay will change tremendously between this first attempt and your last draft. By the time you attach it to the Common App and send it to your colleges of choice, it will undoubtedly communicate everything you want.


So look through your brainstorming notes (the more detailed they are, the more helpful they will be to you). Take a highlighter and mark each of the “problems” you enumerated, paying special attention to the ones that inspired you to come up with solutions that you are particularly proud of or that you think are unique or exciting. As we mentioned earlier, this essay is best written about a problem and set of solutions you truly care about. Ultimately, you should try to choose to write about a problem based upon the solutions it inspired you to draft rather than the problem itself.


In other words, there is no correct type of “problem” to tackle here, and you shouldn’t feel like you need to write about a “bigger” or worldlier problem if that isn’t what you’re most passionate about.


Suppose you are deciding between two problems. The first is that of world hunger, which you care about deeply but are unsure how to solve. The second is a communication problem that you’ve noticed between your two little sisters: They fight often, and you know exactly how you could fix this. For this second problem, you have come up with several solutions that make you proud and that exhibit your ability to handle tense situations diplomatically. This should be a no-brainer: discuss the second problem and forget world hunger (at least, for now).


Once you’ve decided on the problem you want to talk about, create an outline that includes three parts: 1) an introduction that sets up a tension or problem you need to solve, 2) a climax (perhaps the moment when you apply your solution(s) to the problem or, if you’re recounting a problem from your own life, the moment you actually solved it), and 3) a conclusion (this can be an insight that you are able to have, an analysis of why your solutions will or should work, or a guess as to what the potential outcomes might be).


Finally, revisit the third and final section of your brainstorming notes. Think about ways to incorporate any outstanding aspects of your identity that have not yet come up in your writing plans. The easiest way to incorporate information about yourself in this prompt is to think about the ways that your personal experiences or opinions have led you to the solutions you have proposed to solve your problem.


Step 3: Draft

Now comes the fun part: get some words on the page! To avoid writer’s block, remember that this draft doesn’t need to sound nice — just write what’s on your mind. After all this thinking and planning and brainstorming, that should not be too difficult.


Write your whole story, start to finish, replete with details about the problem (and why you consider it a problem, if that isn’t obvious) and what you learned from it. When you feel confused, reread the prompt. Same goes for the moments when you feel yourself drifting off topic, forgetting what you’re talking about, or wondering if you are doing this thing right. Trust us, those moments will come. Just power through them.


And then, once you have it all down, close your computer and take a break.

Step 4: Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Edit. Rewrite some more.

After finishing Step 3, you’ve earned at least a full day of rest before you can even think about starting Phase 4. Here, you will edit and revise what you have already put to paper. Since you have written material to work with, this should not be too challenging.


First, make sure that you have said everything you wanted (and needed) to say. Have you identified a discrete problem to solve? Since this prompt is a hefty one, you should mention this problem as quickly as possible in your essay. If you can’t get it into your first paragraph, see if you can fit it into the second.


Second, make sure you explain your chosen problem. If it is complex — for example, a science research question that requires some technical knowledge — make sure you define any necessary terms. If it is a personal problem, be certain that your reader understands the stakes. Why is this important to you? Why should we care about solving it?


Third, Make sure you get around to proposing solutions quickly and take care to explain these solutions as well. Why do they work? And how do they work? What are their strengths and/or weaknesses? Do you know how they will play out? If not, can you guess? Why do you think these are the best solutions to this problem? And, most importantly, what specifically about your life experiences made you think that these solutions (rather than some other mixture of solutions, or a completely different set altogether) would be the best way of solving the problem?


Words of Warning

It’s important to remember above all else while writing that the main point of the personal statement is to tell college admissions officers about you.


Trust us, at some point between the brainstorming session and the last revision, every student becomes so wrapped up in giving the “right” response to their chosen prompt that they forget that the true function of the personal statement is to show admissions officers what you are truly like.


Especially with this prompt, that can lead students down the path towards technical, detailed discussions about substantive topics, you need to be careful and look out for yourself. The students answering the other prompts will be laser-focused on discussing themselves — their personalities and experiences—and you need to do the same.


Tricks of the Trade

Not sure how to make certain that this essay communicates a great deal about you while also discussing a problem and solving it too? We’ve got more than a few methods that you can use to help yourself and give your essay the edge it needs to succeed.


  1. Pay attention to voice. Make sure that, as you are writing and re-writing your essay, you take special care to write in a way that is true to your personality and spoken tone. While there are obviously certain rules that apply to writing, it is okay and even encouraged to write your personal statement in a more casual tone than you would write a formal analytical essay for school. This is one great way to give college admissions officers a nice snapshot into your personality through the personal statement.
  2. Use anecdotes. Anecdotes are small stories that you can use to inject imagery and color into your personal statement while also recounting a story that demonstrates your personality to adcoms. An anecdote does not need to be long — some can be squeezed into one sentence. For example, if you want to illustrate that a certain problem-solving method is one you have used continually in your life, you can do it like this:


Back in preschool, when I was afraid to leave my mom and walk into the classroom each morning, I would whisper one sentence to myself: You can do this, and you’ll be proud when it’s over. Once again, this time in high school, I brought that mini pep talk back into rotation.


See the color and personality anecdotes can add to your personal statement? Obviously, your whole essay cannot be made up of anecdotes, so choose one or a couple and use them judiciously. In the same vein, you should only use an anecdote if you think it adds something to your personal statement by communicating something important about you to adcoms.


  1. Experiment with different creative introductions. Maybe you want to start with a carefully-chosen quote or poetic one-liner. Do you want to introduce yourself to adcoms with humor? Drama? Sarcasm? Maybe you want to shock your readers by presenting your problem to them in the very first sentence. Whatever you do, think about it carefully and make sure it has the desired effect — perhaps ask a friend, family member, or teacher to screen it before you send it off to admissions committees. Like anywhere else in life, first impressions in college admissions are important.
  2. Try to squeeze in as many personal insights as possible. Remember, that’s the whole point of the personal statement anyway. As often as possible, circle back to a discussion of yourself, your life experiences, your opinions, your personality, and your values. Why does this problem matter to you? How are you specifically equipped to solve it? And how have your life experiences, opinions, and values allowed you to come up with a unique solution?


Meanwhile, do not forget the less creative approaches to editing your essay — they are just as important as the creative ones we mentioned above. It should be a given that you need to edit for correct grammar and spelling, and you should likewise carefully consider your word choice. Show off your vocabulary, but maintain your voice as we advise above in Item #1 in the “Continued Interlude” section (adcoms know the difference between someone with a robust vocabulary and someone with a thesaurus).


As you are working through Phase 4 of this process, feel free to turn to teachers, friends, and parents for editing advice. While integrity is of the utmost importance here — your essay must be your own work — it is a good idea to have a few people whom you really know and trust look at your essay and give you feedback.


As well, feel free to turn to our blog, which is rife with articles covering the topic of essay writing and editing. Feeling pressed for time? Check out this piece on writing an essay on a tight schedule. Need motivation to plan ahead or help editing yourself? Check out our blog post 5 DIY Tips for Editing Your Own College Essays. Looking for more general information on the process of writing your personal statement? Look no further than the blog post Planning a Personal Statement Strategy: How and When to Write the Right One!


Step 5: Edit for word count, keeping the piece at 650 words or less.

Save this for last, because you shouldn’t let the word limit keep you from discussing everything you want to communicate. Our essay specialists encourage their students to use their words efficiently so that they can say as much as possible in their personal statement, and we’re giving the same advice to you.


So write your essay with every vital detail intact, and then go back with a red pen once all of your thoughts are written down. This way, you’ll have written down everything you want to say, and all that will remain for you to do is say it in fewer words.


Want more help writing your Common App essay? Check out How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.


Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

Lily Calcagnini
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Lily is a History and Literature concentrator at Harvard University who is doing her darnedest to write a thesis about all of her favorite things at once: fashion, contemporary culture, art journalism, and Europe. A passionate learner, she cares deeply about helping high school students navigate the process of college admissions, whether it be through private essay tutoring or sharing advice on the CollegeVine blog.