How to Answer Prompt 4 for the Common App
for your College Application Essay
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.
You almost can’t go wrong if you pick this prompt to write your college application essay for The Common Application.
It sets you up perfectly to tell an engaging story, which makes the best personal statement-style essays.
If you read through the lines, this prompt breaks down to a simple formula:
Find a problem you faced or are still facing, share what you have done to deal with it, and then go on to explain what you learned in the process and why it mattered. That’s it!
This might be the only time in your life that you’re happy you had problems.
The authors of this prompt try to help you by offering some type of sample problems you could write about: an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma. But these are just some suggestions.
Their main point is that your problem can be “anything” that mattered to you.
HINT: It’s not necessary, but if your problem (or the personal quality you used to deal with it) relates to one of your current and future academic interests, that could make your essay more relevant and effective to college admissions officers.
Also, when they say, “no matter the scale,” the message is that this problem can be big or small.
In other words, it doesn’t have to have been a catastrophic life event. But if you did face a crisis in your life, this could make an excellent essay, too. You get to pick.
The beauty of this prompt is that if you write about a problem, you almost can’t help include some type of story.
Think back to English class. Remember the two things you need to make a story?
A character and a conflict. In these essays, since you write about yourself, you are the “character.”
And the “conflict” is the problem you faced or are facing.
Remember that conflicts (problems) can come from many different places–from within yourself (internal: you have a personal issue or hang-up that caused you pain or trouble) to outside yourself (external: something bad happened to you.)
To put it simply, a conflict is just another word for a problem. Problems come in all forms. They do not need to be traumas or a crises, although those can work, too. (HINT: Basic, everyday problems work best! Check out this post about “mundane” topics.)
Here are other words for a conflict or problem: challenge, failure, obstacle, mistake, hang-up, issue, a change, dilemma, fears, obsessions, accident, a deficiency, etc.
Some variations of problems: you are shy, competitive, stubborn, were bullied, are obsessed with Twilight, didn’t make the team, got injured, have big feet, frizzy red hair, smile too much, someone quit at your work, don’t have own car, can’t spell, adhd, ocd, don’t eat meat, perfectionist, slob, lazy, drunk driving, have a mean grandparent, no money, etc…
Man, there are a lot of problems out there! But for the purposes of writing these dreaded essays, that’s a good thing for once!
(If you want help making sure your problem was or is “significant” to you, start by Finding Your Defining Qualities.)
Once you remember a juicy problem, follow these steps to share it in a narrative (storytelling) essay format:
1. Describe the time you had a problem or describe a specific example of your problem. Include what happened and how it made you feel. Try to start at the moment it hit, or happened for the best impact. Include the 5Ws–who, what, when, where and why!
Stick to one or two paragraphs. Include a snippet of dialogue. These mini-stories from real life are also called anecdotes, and you can learn more by reading my post on how to write an anecdote.
2. Background the history of this problem (when did it start, why/how did it happen or get this way.) Give it some context. “It all started back when…”
3. Talk about how you dealt with that problem. What you did about it. Describe the steps you took to handle it.
4. VERY IMPORTANT: Analyze and reflect on that problem, and your response. How did you think about it? How did you feel? Did handling it change you in any way or how you think about things? Share your thoughts on the good and the bad.
This is how and where you can “explain its (the problem’s) significance to you.”
5. What did you learn from dealing with that problem–about yourself, others or life in general? Anything good come out of it? Did you develop or demonstrate a core quality–determination, problem-solving, creativity, passion, patience, respect…–in the process?
Talk about that. This is your chance to develop more “its significance to you” in your essay.
6. To wrap it up, update the reader on the current status of that initial problem you shared in the introduction. You don’t necessarily have had to solve it. Just explain briefly how things are going for you now, today.
You could also give examples of how you have applied the life lesson(s) you learned in other parts of your life.
7. End by projecting into your future. Go ahead and share your goals and dreams as they relate to what you have learned about yourself.
If you can think of one, end with a “kicker,” which is a memorable last line that can show that you are witty, funny, passionate or don’t take yourself too seriously.
This is just a sample outline for a classic narrative-style essay to help you get started. You don’t need to stick to every step, and feel free to take your essay in whatever direction you want. Just remember that the point is to reveal how you think, what you care about and how your learn.
It’s called your “intellectual vitality,” and colleges love to see it in all shapes and sizes.
Check out this sample narrative essay. Can you tell what his “problem” was, and the steps he took to deal with it, and what he learned?
Good luck with your own problems. This may be the only time in your life that you are glad to have them! ; )
In case you don’t have them all, here are all five prompts for The Common Application for 2015-16:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- 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.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
NOTE: Please ignore the comments at the bottom before April 1, 2015, since they were in response to an old prompt 4 which has been replaced with the current one. Comments posted after this date will be relevant. Thanks!
Check Out These Related Posts!
As we have been approaching this year’s January 1 Regular Decision deadline, I’ve been concentrating on essays in my posts here. Today, I want to show you some more samples of excellent Common Application essays so that they might inspire you to a better level of writing.
First, let’s review the choices of topics the Common Application offers. Here are the prompts from which you may choose:
– Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
– Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
– Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
– Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
– Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
These five prompts provide a wide latitude of possibilities for you to conjure an effective statement from the world around you or your personal life and circumstances. Let’s take a look at a quartet of excellent examples that have crossed my path.
Here’s one about a brotherly-sisterly relationship:
I vividly recall asking my mother why her waistline was steadily expanding. She took my hand, placed it on her stomach, and said, “Meet your baby sister!” I was six years old and family life had always been focused on me and my needs. Suddenly, I felt uncertain about my future. How would my life change? Would my new sister and I like each other? My father assured me that I would be a kind, loving brother, but I was not so sure!
Hours after Lauren’s birth, on a snowy February day, my dad took me to the hospital to meet her. I insisted on wearing my souvenir Burger King crown because I liked it, and thought that she’d like it, too! Amid all the fanfare and excitement, somehow there was a special gift from Lauren to me: a shiny red fire truck! As I opened my gift, I wondered how she could have known that trucks were among my favorite toys (although I didn’t ponder that too long).
Daily life quickly changed for me in ways I hadn’t imagined. Initially, my big-brother role was mostly that of helpful assistant, who dutifully gave her a bottle or held her. After I had been assisting with her physical care for some time, I volunteered more meaningful contributions, such as encouraging her to crawl and walk. To my surprise, I secretly started to enjoy my new role. I was getting unexpected pleasure from my increasing responsibilities and from my rising family status. No longer was I simply the older brother; now I was also her close friend, teacher, and coach. Her respect for me made (and makes) me feel more mature, capable, adult-like. I treat her questions seriously and trust that she finds the lessons I teach her from my experience helpful and relevant. I welcome the opportunity to mentor her and she shows me her appreciation.
Lauren has definitely benefited from my help, and I can see that our relationship is more mutually beneficial than I had anticipated. The lessons that I have taught Lauren have shown me the benefits of compassion, patience, communication, and understanding the so-called feminine “mystique.” When she broke her collarbone, I helped her with daily duties, such as getting dressed and carrying her books. I was pleased to be able to help her during this difficult and awkward time. I’m also patient with her when we’re active in shared interests like music, swimming, or tennis.
As Lauren matures into more of a peer, I value her feminine point of view. Despite our age and gender differences, my parents enabled a lifelong bond between us, and I foster that bond as we grow. I appreciate Lauren’s opinions about things. She feels sufficiently comfortable to comment on my friends (“they dress funny”), my clothes (“too preppy”), and my haircut (“grow it out; it’s too short!”). We laugh and sometimes get angry with each other, but we always resolve our differences, which serves to strengthen relationship.
Thinking back to the year she was born, I realize that my dad’s prediction was accurate. I have become the wise older brother, with a greater appreciation for the dimension and richness that a positive sibling relationship can bring. Our mutual support, trust, and love have brought out the best in me, and I know that the best is yet to come.
This one centers on what you can pull from seemingly mundane observations around you every day and in school.
There is a certain delight in feeling little. I mean little in the context of the word belittle. As negative a connotation the word has adopted, in a different frame of reference, it’s quite enthralling. An example:
I have an unconscious tendency to strategize my position in a classroom. I prefer the front-row-middle seat always.
An early Saturday morning earlier this month found me standing under the doorframe of my assigned classroom, staring at the redheaded girl who had stolen my seat. I spent 54 seconds telepathically explaining to her and her Starbucks coffee that THAT was MY seat. All I got back was static. Giving up grudgingly, I wandered to what seemed to be the absolutely most irritating seat in the entire room—middle-row middle seat. Amazingly, the tallest students of the class found it absolutely necessary to sit in the front two rows, creating a grade-A wall between any view of the front and me. Quite an advantage if the teacher threw erasers, though, but an unlikely possibility in this class—Quantum Theory and Relativity.
My teacher stepped in. Quick punctuated biography of Hayn Park: Born South Korean. Raised South American. Schooled Harvard, Moscow, Columbia. Specialty: quantum physics. Korean military service. Columbia again. His opening bit of wisdom to my class: “Stay in school, at least they don’t make you dig ditches.” He had me at Panama.
He opened class with the insanely attractive “Common sense doesn’t apply here.” His follow-ups were even more alluring. “Next class we won’t be working in three-dimensional space anymore, we’ll start with 3+1 space” and “If something travels faster than light, then your cause will happen after you effect” and my ultimate favorite, “Here’s how to make a black hole.”
It’s been six classes, and I now know what it means to have one’s breath taken away, to literally have the air stolen from my lungs by some magnificent invisible force. For two-and-a-half hours every seven days, I enter a world where boredom has no time to invade, where math is the only language, and theory the only absolute. One class a week to grasp knowledge I did not know existed, to learn that what I thought was impossible could be.
The seat I was forced to take that first day has ever since been my greatest blessing. From all four corners I am constantly saturated by brilliance. Angular people lopsidedly focused on a particular subject, speaking with fluency in that one subject. Vulcan at his forge. A distinctive pride arises when I realize I can call these my peers. A distinctive pride with an attached humility. Feeling small is a boon when I see all the room I have to grow.
During breaks, I listen to Hayn’s off-topic trivia about anti-matter and the like. The impact of his abridged soda-machine-time lectures is staggering. Instead of unproductively staring at walls on my subway ride home, I reread the notes of the day, redrawing some diagrams, reliving the class. In doing so, not only do I see the facts but I also comprehend their truth. Thinking is a gerund often spoken of but rarely done. Thought is the effect of my Saturday morning venture. Thought—the actual stimulation of new ideas and questions based on logic. Startling myself with what I know what I can know, and what I want to know.
I crave this in college and in life.
About a right of passage …
“If I cooked you, I’d be able to survive on your meat for over a month.” This was not the welcome I had expected on my first day at the British School in Phuket, Thailand. I wondered if my fellow students here would be as kind as they were in America or would they be rude and brash, as this insult implied? Would the curriculum be an academic challenge or an intellectual breeze? I had no idea what to expect.
At ten years old, I was 4’11” and weighed 185 pounds. As Dreem (this was his name) spoke his offensive words, he smirked. Almost instinctively, something snapped inside me and, although aggressiveness is not one of my traits, I rushed him and knocked him to the floor. I think he got my point.
Dreem did not look like other Thai kids. While he appeared to be Caucasian, his insult implied that English was not his first language. However, with his lightly colored skin and golden blonde curls, he certainly didn’t look Thai. As October arrived, Dreem’s various traits began to intrigue me and I wanted to know more about him. Whether he was eating by himself in the boisterous refectory or sitting in the corner of the library silently doing work, he was always alone. I assumed he didn’t have many friends because of his personality, but I decided to give him a second chance.
One particularly humid day, I approached him, choosing to ignore the possibility of harassment. He was sitting under a sala (a type of Thai hut), fiddling with a cell phone, when I interrupted him. That first chat was brief, but it planted the seeds for our budding friendship. We then sat next to each other in classes, ate lunch together in the refectory, and did homework together. We had become good friends. From bowling to jet skiing, we did it all together and were inseparable, quite a turnaround from that first assault on my weight.
After a year in Thailand, my family moved back to the U.S. I kept in touch with Dreem by weekly emails and occasionally caught him online with MSN Messenger. Dreem lived on Patong Beach, one of the hardest hit areas of the tragic 2004 tsunami. He didn’t survive. His house was flattened. I was crushed. I had never lost somebody that close to me.
Dreem’s death dramatically changed my life. I began thinking that life was too short and it would be a waste to do things I didn’t really want to do. Before Dreem, I never really devoted myself to working hard, but since his passing I now focus on what’s important and I hate leaving work unfinished. I want to be successful, not only for myself but also for Dreem. After I reflected on what happened to him, I realized that he never had the chance to do what he wanted in his life—to live and just “be.”
His memory burns within me and fuels my passion for life. My once short, stout frame has now grown to six feet tall and my then 185 pounds are now 170. I often wonder what Dreem would be like today. Where would he be? What would he look like? What would he be doing? I’ll never know these answers, but I’ll also never forget my friend whose name defines my approach to life.
An unusual place of contentment …
Believe it or not, the old phrase, “A woman’s place is in the home” is still alive and well in the scientific community, as the dramatic gender-bias study published last September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences shows. Today, it’s “A woman’s place is not in the lab.” The path I have taken over the past four years has proven to me that women can be just as comfortable in STEM careers as they were 75 years ago as housewives. My place – where I feel most content – is definitely in the lab.
I work as a research assistant in the Department of Neurosurgery’s lab at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center. I obtained this coveted position as a high school student, only through dogged persistence. Neurosurgery is one of the most competitive fields of medicine and proving to a team of world-class researchers that I could contribute to their complex, meaningful studies was no minor feat. I spent my first summer absorbing information and directly applying it to my diverse list of assigned tasks, aiming for mastery and efficiency. Since then, I have devoted the bulk of my life to research. Over the past two summers, I have spent roughly 50 hours a week in the lab. During the school year, I try to squeeze in as much lab time as I can. Ten hours a week is about all I can manage, but I appreciate the quality of the time I can spend working with my colleagues. Scarfing down snacks during the 30-minute commute has become a ritual I fondly associate with my anticipation of learning and productivity there.
My work focuses on animal research, immunohistochemistry, and biochemical studies involving amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS is a disease for which there is no current effective treatment or cure. Research is critical in offering alternatives for patients who have few options for a high quality of life. My mentor, Dr. Amanda Snyder, has taught me far more than lab technique and critical analysis skills. She has instilled in me the importance of being tenacious, inventive, and passionate about researching such a debilitating disease. Dr. Snyder also demonstrates the importance of comparative studies. As a scientist, she is committed to meaningful, humane animal research. Through her example, I have become an active proponent of responsible animal studies, a topic I advocated in a TEDx Youth talk I presented during my junior year. In addition to providing a platform for activism, my lab position has also enabled me to shadow leading ALS specialists, who have further inspired me to follow in their path. Most importantly, though, my lab work allows me to meet ALS patients who might someday benefit from our clinical trials. These patients are the reason I dedicate my summers and free time to seemingly tedious duties and constant commuting.
Receiving my monogrammed white lab coat was a rite of passage for me. It represented the confirmation that I’ve entered a world where I can scrupulously investigate the delicate intricacies of the brain and nervous system. It’s a world where I witness firsthand the transformation of raw ideas, that were once a mere hybrid of curiosity and prior knowledge, into pending solutions for the tribulations that plague humanity. Eight researchers in my lab are female. These intelligent, passionate women are beacons of achievement in their respective fields. Their example both challenges and humbles me. They invest in my scientific future through every moment they spend with me. I hope that someday I’m able to repay that investment by further proving the point that women belong in laboratories and scientific institutions, where they can excel. I would like to banish, once and for all, the misguided mindsets about where a woman’s “place” should be. In the meantime, I’ll be in the lab.
I hope that these four examples will help you see some ways to express yourself in your Common Application essay. I’ll leave you with a piece of advice that has been especially valuable to me over the years. It’s about how to come up with great ideas about which to write. “To understand the invisible, look close at the visible.”
There are myriad topics in your world … right under your nose. Use them!
Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.