Common App Week: Prompt 4 Breakdown and Brainstorming Tips

Welcome back to another edition of common app brainstorming. Today we look at a classic favorite, prompt 4. Here’s what the prompt is: “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.”

We love prompt 4, which asks students to talk about a problem and how they solved or are planning to solve it. This question is similar to prompt 2 in that it is meant to tease out your problem-solving skills and provide a glimpse into an applicant’s frame of mind when dealing with challenges. It also provides a few bonus opportunities for creative expression, leaving both the scale and the time frame for setting up a problem/solution wide open.

You should think about everything from more traditional obstacles you’ve had to overcome to the small predicaments that have inspired them to think about what they really value. Applicants should also keep in mind that this asks why this problem has significance to you. Good responses here will reveal something about yourself that helps the reader get to know you and your life better. And note that the prompt also states, “ matter the scale.” It doesn’t have to be world hunger you’re trying to solve. It may actually be something quite personal. The key here is to pick something that you can (1) clearly identify as a problem, and (2) break down into identifiable steps you took or would take to solve it. That’s why choosing a global topic like human trafficking because you think it will sound impressive might prove to be more difficult, and less effective, to write about than something you’ve dealt with in your own life.

Some other questions to ponder:

  • When have you been proactive in attempting to effect change? What inspires you to action
  • How do you think you can positively contribute to a cause that is important to you?
  • If you had the power to make a lasting impact in any area at all, what would it be?

And examples to use as food for thought:

  • Has your love of nature inspired you to start a charity to help save local endangered species
  • Did your desire to help your grandparents help you create home automation technologies?
  • Has your commitment to pursuing medical research inspired you to contact your favorite professors and researchers looking for summer lab positions, and to read every scientific paper you can get your hands on?

It's important that the problem you choose is linked to your life and world in a meaningful way. The whole purpose of this essay-writing exercise is to reveal something valuable about yourself to admissions, so be sure to link the problem you highlight to your passions, actions, or aspirations. And don’t forget to detail at least a few steps you would/could take to solve your chosen quandary. While the prompts don’t really matter in the initial conception phases of an essay (as you now know), once you’ve backed into your prompt of choice, following instructions to the fullest and answering all parts of each question are critical.

We hope these blog posts are helping! Comment with any questions you might have or come over and we can have a chat!