Essay Prompt #4: 2016/17 Common Application

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.

 

Much like all the other essay prompts, number 4 is all about passion.

Schools want to see what you feel strongly about, because that’s where people tend to do their best work. If you feel so strongly about a problem that through describing it you will illuminate key parts of your character, choose Prompt #4.

 

There are five main ideas to this prompt.

 

“Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve”

 

This is where you describe the bulk of whatever topic you choose to cover. Pretty self-explanatory, just make sure you choose something that’s unique.

 

“It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma”

 

This part just broadens the scope of what you can cover. Some examples:

  • You strongly oppose gender stereotypes that you constantly see in your school and community, so you decide to stand up and speak out.
  • You had to create a last-minute solution to fix your robotics team’s creation and save you from embarrassment.
  • Faced by peer-pressuring, you chose to go against someone’s bad advice and stick with your gut.

 

“Covers anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale”

 

The examples I just gave may be vague and rigid at surface level, but if they’re filled with personal details and interesting voice then they can all be very effective essays. But in general, try going for a more specific, complex, even nuanced issue that actually picks you apart from the regular crowd. In a pool of 30,000+ applicants, those who stand out generally find more success.

 

“Explain its significance to you”

 

Relate between the event that occurred and its direct effect on you. This is crucial. If you have an interesting childhood anecdote that avoids being hackneyed, now is the time to use it.

 

“Explain what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution”

 

Whew. You’ve explained the issue and how you are affected by it. Now you’ve got to make sure you have enough space to explain what you did. Instead of simply stating your strengths, describing the actions you take in a situation like this is more persuasive and convincing.

 

Example:

Statement: “I am empathetic and I like to help others.”

Action: “Having been excluded from social circles ever since I became the “new kid” back in second grade, I naturally felt an urge to approach and ask the dejected-looking student what was bothering him and if there was anything I could do to help.”

 

Which was more powerful? Which makes you believe that I care about others? It’s obviously the second one. Don’t tell me your passion. Show me how and why you’re passionate about it.

 

Actions speak louder than words.

In general, these essays are an exercise of “showing” rather than “telling.” Don’t simply state a quality that you show. Instead, make the reader believe you have that quality by using anecdotal evidence.

 

As always, craft an attention-grabbing hook and finish with a thought-provoking ending.
Final tips: don’t actually use the word “passion” and make sure to nail home the internal feelings and thoughts that accompanied you through the process of solving the issue.

gabecederberg

Gabe Cederberg

Gabe is an elementary school troublemaker turned assiduous student. He engages in a variety of academic, artistic, and athletic activities, and will study at Harvard University following his gap year. Gabe enjoys making videos, learning languages, and fighting fires. Follow his articles to learn some of his tips and methods for achieving success.