The 2018-2019 Common Application essay prompt #4 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 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.
This is a great prompt to tackle if you are very practical and goal-oriented. This prompt wants you to showcase your ability to spot problems around you and generate creative and effective solutions. If you are interested in advocacy and policymaking or even philosophy and economics, then this prompt might provide you a great opportunity to reveal your strengths in leadership, communication, and creative thinking. Here are some tips and advice to optimize your essay if you choose prompt #4:
1. Identify a community problem, not an individual problem.
The prompt suggests that you can write about any problem of personal importance, no matter the scale. The reality is that the problem you discuss should have more than just personal significance. It should not be a problem that only affects you. This is not the essay where you spill the beans on your deepest and darkest personal problems and offer insight into how you tried or would try to solve those problems. The problem you address should be a problem that affects you as well as others in your local community, in broader society, or around the world. In other words, the problem should be of not only personal importance but also community importance. As is often stated, think globally, act locally. When you are attempting to identify the problem that you want to use for your essay, make sure that you look externally and not internally. Look around you and around your community to see what problems are affecting other people's lives--lives that you genuinely care about. How can you make your community, your society, and your world a better place? There should be a level of selflessness in your essay even if solving the problem might ultimately advance your self-interest in some ways.
Colleges encourage and welcome a community mindset because you will be living in close quarters with diverse people, interacting daily in lecture halls, laboratories, gyms, fields, and dining halls. No college wants to accept a selfish person who will just look to advance his own interests, solve his own problems, and use and exploit others to get to his next goal. Alumni communities are great and strong because alumni want to help each other out. Especially these days, colleges are focusing on emotional intelligence and soft people skills, building communities of smart students who are also compassionate, empathetic, and generous. Thus, if you can show that you are a person who has helped make her community a better place by addressing a specific problem or genuinely hopes to make her community a better place by offering constructive and practical solutions, then you will make a much stronger impression on your reader.
Even though the prompt technically says that you can discuss any problem, no matter the scale, the size of your problem really matters. In 250-650 words, you will not be solving world problems like poverty or hunger or ethnic conflict. That's why I suggest that you identify a particular community that you are knowledgeable about and address a particular problem that you can speak credibly about. Show that you are an active and engaged member of a particular community and that you take initiative to solve problems within that community that significantly affect its members. Maybe problems that are not necessarily conspicuous and obvious. Latent problems that are more insidious. Ultimately, when you attend college, you are joining a new community, and colleges want to see that you will be active and engaged on campus, advocating for positive changes that will benefit not only you but also students, faculty, staff, and community members around you.
2. Focus on one significant facet of a multidimensional problem.
In my opinion, identifying your problem is actually more important and more difficult than articulating your solution. Colleges will see your values and your character in the selection that you make--ultimately, they will see what you care about. This is a case of issue-spotting, and you want to demonstrate that you pay attention to things and people around you, that you understand complexities and nuances, and that your heart is in the right places. Why is the thing you selected even a problem? What makes it a problem? Is it completely problematic or is it more complicated and nuanced? In what ways is it a problem? In what ways is it not? What is the history of this problem? How have people attempted to solve this problem in the past? Why does this problem linger? These are just some questions to help you start brainstorming about a good problem to write about.
Ultimately, whatever problem you choose, it really should be a multidimensional problem--something with layers of color and complexity. If you are addressing a very simplistic or general problem, then your essay will likely not be very interesting. There should be some controversy over the problem--good arguments and proposals on both sides or even multiple sides. For example, almost everybody agrees that violence is bad and that violent criminals should be punished harshly. That would not be a very interesting essay to write about. If you present the problem very one dimensionally, like I just did, then the presentation of the problem and your proposed solution will draw many yawns from your reader. However, if you articulate a more layered problem, something more complex, then you will be able to have much more fruitful and interesting discussions. For example, maybe instead of focusing your essay on violent criminals, maybe you can focus on violent criminals with mental health problems. Now, this is a more interesting topic that will likely draw more diverse opinions from different people. Basically, by drilling down into a subject area, you can find these gems that are more multidimensional and interesting to discuss.
Once you have found a multidimensional problem that is interesting and significant to you, then you should focus your attention on one facet of the problem. Don't try to address all of the layers and complexities of the problem. You just don't have the time or space for that. Stay focused and narrow and demonstrate a level of expertise about a particular aspect of the problem. Show your reader that you have not only personally experienced or observed this problem in your community but also studied and researched this problem. This is a great opportunity to showcase your academic and scholarly qualities. After all, colleges are looking for scholars with vision, passion, and heart. Academics, your future professors, like to specialize in particular fields and become leading experts in those fields. Be an expert on your problem: show that it's multidimensional, and show that there is a particular aspect of the problem that you are very passionate and knowledgeable about. By focusing your attention on just one facet of a multidimensional problem, you can now work to develop a solution that may realistically work.
3. Develop a solution that is actionable and manageable.
At the end of the day, colleges care more about the thought and consideration that you put into your solution than in its actual success. Colleges know that the vast majority of high school students are not going to change the world overnight. Change, even when extraordinary, is often slow and incremental, and colleges know that. Of course, if you are one of the rare people at your age who have accomplished amazing things already and transformed your schools and communities in revolutionary ways, go ahead and discuss the extraordinary work that you have done already. You were already probably a shoo-in to most colleges. But for the vast majority of you, you are not going to write about developing some new cure to cancer or saving a village from starvation. Manage your own expectations as well as the expectations of your audience.
Developing a solution that is actionable and manageable will demonstrate to your reader that you have thought about your problem both theoretically and practically. Show some originality and creativity in your solution. If you just repeat the same types of solutions that others have been advocating for your problem, then what's the point? You should have given your problem and potential solutions some serious personal thought, and hopefully being an expert on your narrow and particular problem affecting your community and others, you have some real practical insight that someone--an outsider--could not just pull out of thin air. A multidimensional problem probably will not have a simple clear-cut solution. Just as your discussion of the problem should be nuanced and sophisticated, so too should your discussion of your proposed solution. Complex problems require complex thought and complex solutions. But tackle one complexity at a time, step by step, brick by brick.
Show that your solution is actionable and manageable by being very specific and concrete about it. How would you implement your solution? What is necessary to implement it? What are the costs and benefits of your solution? How much money is necessary, and where will you get it? Why would your solution be effective? Who would implement the solution? Is your solution short-term or long-term? How do you make your solution last? What are potential problems and weaknesses that you see with your solution? How could we continue thinking about this problem and continue developing creative solutions to this problem? What is the ultimate purpose of your solution? How will you measure your solution's success? Be someone who raises the right questions and provokes your reader to think deeply and curiously about an interesting and layered problem. It's not always the answers that you provide that demonstrate your intellectual rigor and curiosity. Sometimes, it's the creative questions that you ask that will reveal the most about who you are and how you think and will lead to the strongest and most compelling college admissions essays.