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How to Successfully Answer Common App Essay Prompt #4

Today we’ll continue our investigation into the first-year Common App main essay prompts. As you know, writing a strong personal statement is a critical piece of your admissions success. It’s likely that the people reading your file will not have met you in person; this is your opportunity to speak for yourself in your own words.

The fourth prompt reads as follows: 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 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.

Think this might be the most appealing entry point for your personal statement? Read on to learn a few important guidelines to keep in mind as you tackle this prompt.

Zoom the Lens

By adding “no matter the scale” to the question, the Common App has given you permission to think as broadly as you’d like about a problem you’ve solved or want to help solve. However, too much broadness can lead to vagueness, which in turn will make your essay ineffective.

Zoom the lens as narrowly as you can, so you can write with conviction and specificity. For example, rather than choosing poverty as your topic, consider a specific condition—like the unequal access to test prep or preventive healthcare—that arises from poverty. Better yet, focus on your experience with one person or family facing these issues. You will have a much easier time creating a meaningful argument and being able to show your connection to the issue when the focus is narrow.

Remember, the more common your theme is, the more likely you are to not be the only one who has thought of it. Your main goal is to set yourself apart in a positive light. Sharpening the scope of your topic will help you accomplish this.

What’s Your Problem?

There are so many issues plaguing the world today. Even outside our current pandemic, I’m sure you can think of several dire situations locally and globally. And while you may feel deeply empathetic to those suffering, be careful to select an issue with which you have some personal experience.

Have you been personally affected by some form of injustice or inequity? Have you wrestled with a difficult ethical dilemma for which there seemed to be no right answer? Perhaps you’ve gotten heavily involved in the fight to bring about some kind of lasting change to local or state politics.

Your reader wants to get to know you better through your essay, so the issue you choose must reveal some important truth about your life. If you aren’t sure how deeply you feel about a problem or dilemma in this way, consider choosing a different prompt as a starting point. For this one to be successful, you must identify an issue that has caused you enough anxiety or discomfort to bring about meaningful growth or change.

Pro tip: A common supplemental essay topic is about why students have chosen a particular major; often their rationale overlaps with whatever problem in the world they’ve identified as being most important to them. Before choosing this Common App essay prompt, assess whether you can convey this information through one of your supplements, leaving room for another meaningful story as the basis for your personal statement.

What’s Your Solution?

More important than the problem you identify is your solution. Hopefully, it goes beyond theoretical and points to tangible work you are doing to bring about the change you seek.

Your essay needs to strike a balance between philosophizing on why the issue you’ve identified matters (both to you and more generally) and reflecting on what you’ve done to resolve it. If you’ve done outside reading, taken a class, or contacted experts or legislators to advance a cause, these all make for strong evidence of your commitment to the issue.

What steps are you taking toward eliminating the problem, resolving the ethical dilemma, or advancing the research? Highlight your efforts to educate yourself as well as others. It’s OK if you haven’t found the perfect solution yet; many goals in life are always works in progress. But you should be able to show how you’ve been wrestling with the issue and, thus, grown as a thinker and a person.

Create an advocate for yourself in the admissions office by showing how you’ve turned an interest into your own advocacy work. If you’ve taken steps to solve a problem that’s important to you or advance a cause beyond the traditional ways high schoolers typically do this, Common App prompt #4 can be a great avenue for you to reflect on that.

The expert admissions consultants at Wise World Prep have helped hundreds of students maximize their potential of being admitted to their top choice colleges and universities. Over 20 years, we have successfully guided students through each stage of the application process – from choosing competitive high school courses to building an appropriate college list to drafting winning essays to writing persuasive update and appeals letters. We would be happy to answer your questions and partner with you to create a successful admissions roadmap.

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