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Problem Solving: How to Answer Common App Question #4

by Danielle Phan, on Aug 17, 2016 5:00:00 AM


“Your mom makes WHAT for dinner?” I looked around the table of the dining hall to a circle of blank stares, a circle of peers who simply could not understand. What I wanted to explain was that my mom makes rice every night for dinner, and that rice is so integral to Vietnamese cuisine that the word for “rice” is also the word for “meal.” My explanations were met with doubt. “It would be like saying my mom makes potatoes every night,” one incredulous peer said. Despite my best attempts, no one could understand and empathize with how much sitting at my kitchen table, sharing rice and vegetables family-style, meant to my cultural identity. In that moment, I was powerless to control the narrative about myself and my culture. I set out to find that power again, re-tell the history, and make others understand my own culture the way that I saw it. When it came time to choose a topic for my undergraduate thesis, the answer was easy.

Common 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.

The high schools and colleges that govern the Common Application added this question to give students a chance to talk about their intellectual work and ambitions, as well as their big ideas about the world and the future. This is a great question for a student who has a clear sense of personal and professional purpose, but it also tempts students to write from their resume, rather than their heart or even their soul.

What to do:

  • Make sure you understand the landscape of ideas around your problem: What have others written? What are the core challenges and concerns?
  • Show what you have already done: This is a particularly good opportunity for someone who has started something they want to grow in college: work with mental health, recycling, or tutoring in your local community.
  • Make the future palpable: Paint a picture of what things will look like when you’ve succeeded.

What not to do:

  • If you haven’t done something already, don’t write about it. Some big thing you want to do in the future towards which you haven’t taken even baby steps is just a dream, perhaps even a delusion. Do something, however small, then write about it.
  • Be careful to not over-simplify: If the dilemma is big enough, people will disagree and many people will have already been discussing it.
  • No preaching or one-sided polemic: Though the prompt invites you to identify steps that "could be taken," you don't want to be preachy or prescriptive.

For some students, problems can be academic, such as scientific research. In fact, this prompt is a great opportunity for more bookish students to shine. For other students, problems could be social or even familial, such as those challenges that face students in rough neighborhoods or in families with tight finances. Finally, problems can be small but compelling. Maybe you messed up at a job and had to frantically correct your mistake. Maybe you got lost driving home from the movies one night and ended up discovering a new side of your city.

Want more tips for Common App essay prompts? Check out our Guide to the Common App.

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Topics:college admission