2020-21 Common Application Essay Option 4—Solving a Problem

Tips and Strategies for an Essay about Solving a Problem

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Essay #4 Tips. Jay Reilly / Getty Images

The fourth essay option on the 2020-21 Common Application remains unchanged from the previous four years. The essay prompt asks applicants to explore a problem they have solved or would like to solve:

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.

Quick Tips: An Essay on Solving a Problem

  • You have lots of leeway. The "problem" you identify can be local, national, or global.
  • You don't need to have an answer to the problem. It's fine to show your interest in a challenging and unresolved issue.
  • Don't focus too much on describing the problem. Spend more time discussing and analyzing.
  • If you worked with a group or plan to work with a group to solve the problem, don't hide this fact. Colleges love collaboration.

Although this option is not nearly as popular as the topic of your choice or personal growth options, it has the potential to lead to an outstanding essay that reveals your passion, curiosity, and critical thinking skills.

We all have problems we'd like to see solved, so this question will be a viable option for a wide range of applicants. But the prompt does have its challenges, and like all of the Common Application essay options, you'll be required to do some critical thinking and self-analysis. The tips below can help you break down the essay prompt and set your response on the right track:

Choosing a "Problem"

Step one in tackling this prompt is coming up with "a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve." The wording gives you a lot of leeway in defining your problem. It can be an "intellectual challenge," a "research query" or an "ethical dilemma." It can be a huge problem or a small one ("no matter the scale"). And it can be a problem for which you've come up with a solution, or one for which you hope to come up with a solution in the future.

As you brainstorm this essay prompt, think broadly about the types of problems that might lead to a good essay. Some options include:

  • A community issue: Do local kids need a safe place to play? Is poverty or hunger an issue in your area? Are their transportation issues such as a lack of bike lanes or public transportation? 
  • A design challenge: Did you (or do you hope to) design a product to make life easier for people? 
  • A personal problem: Did you have (or do you have) a personal problem that prevented you from achieving your goals? Anxiety, insecurity, hubris, laziness... All of these are problems that could be addressed.
  • A personal ethical dilemma: Have you ever found yourself in a seemingly lose-lose situation? Have you had to choose between supporting your friends and being honest? Have you had to decide whether to do what is right or what is easy? The way in which you handle a challenging ethical dilemma can make an excellent subject for an essay.
  • A health problem: There is no shortage of health issues that you could address in this prompt whether those issues are personal, familial, local, national, or global. From promoting sunscreen or bicycle helmet use in your community to curing cancer, you could explore an issue that you've addressed or one that you hope to address in the future.
  • A problem in your high school: Does your school have a problem with drug use, cheating, underage drinking, cliques, gangs, large classes, or some other issue? Does your school have policies that you find unreasonable or antithetical to a positive learning environment? Many of the issues you face in your school could be transformed into an illuminating essay.
  • A global problem: If you're someone who likes to think big, feel free to explore your dreams in your essay. You'll want to be careful with huge issues such as religious intolerance and world hunger, for such essays can easily be reductive and trivialize huge, seemingly unsolvable problems. That said, if these are the issues that you love to think about and that you hope to devote your life to solving, don't shy away from going after the big problems in your essay.

The list above offers just a few possible ways to approach prompt #4. There are no limits to the problems in the world. And if you're interested in astronomy or astronautical engineering, your problem can extend far beyond our world.

A Few Words on a "Problem You'd Like to Solve"

If you choose to write about a problem for which you don't yet have a solution, you have a perfect opportunity to discuss some of your academic and career goals. Are you going into a biological field because you hope to become a medical researcher and solve a challenging health problem? Do you want to become a materials scientist because you want to design cell phones that bend without breaking? Do you want to go into education because you want to address a problem that you've identified with the Common Core or another curriculum? By exploring a problem that you hope to solve in the future, you can reveal your interests and passions and help the college admissions officers get a clear sense of what drives you and makes you uniquely you. This look at your future aspirations can also help illustrate why a college is a good match for you and how it fits into your future plans.

What Is an "Intellectual Challenge"?

All of the Common Application essay prompts, in one way or another, are asking you to demonstrate your critical thinking skills. How do you deal with complicated issues and situations? A student who can grapple with difficult problems effectively is a student who will succeed in college. The mention of an "intellectual challenge" in this prompt signals your need to choose a problem that isn't simple. An intellectual challenge is a problem that requires the application of your reasoning and critical thinking skills to solve. The problem of dry skin can typically be solved with the simple application of moisturizer. The problem of bird deaths caused by wind turbines requires extensive study, planning, and designing to even begin arriving at a solution, and any proposed solution is going to have pros and cons. If you want to write about an intellectual challenge, make sure it is more like the latter problem than dry skin.

What Is a "Research Query"?

When the folks at the Common Application decided to include the phrase "research query" in this prompt, they opened the door to any issue that can be studied in a methodical and academic way. A research query is nothing more than the type of question you might ask as you set out to write a research paper. It is a question that doesn't have a ready answer, one that requires investigation to solve. A research query can be in any academic field, and it can require archival study, field work, or laboratory experimentation to solve. Your query could focus on the frequent algae blooms at your local lake, the reasons why your family first immigrated to the United States, or the sources of high unemployment in your community. Most important here is to make sure your query addresses an issue for which you have passion--it needs to be "of personal importance."

What is a "Moral Dilemma"?

Unlike a "research query," the solution to a moral dilemma is not likely to be found in a library or laboratory. By definition, a moral dilemma is a problem that is difficult to solve because it has no clear, ideal solution. The situation is a dilemma precisely because the different solutions to the problem have pros and cons. Our sense of right and wrong is challenged by a moral dilemma. Do you stand up for your friends or your parents? Do you obey the law when the law seems unjust? Do you report illegal actions when doing so will create difficulties for you? When faced with behavior that offends you, is silence or confrontation the better option? We all face moral dilemmas in our day-to-day lives. If you choose to focus on one for your essay, make sure the dilemma and your resolution of the dilemma highlight both your problem-solving skills and an important dimension of your character and personality.

Hold Back on that Word "Describe"

Prompt #4 begins with the word "describe": "Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve." Be careful here. An essay that spends too much time "describing" is going to be weak. The primary purpose of the application essay is to tell the admissions folks more about yourself and to show that you are self-aware and good at critical thinking. When you are merely describing something, you're demonstrating none of these key elements of a winning essay. Work to keep your essay balanced. Describe your problem quickly, and spend the bulk of the essay explaining why you care about the problem and how you solved it (or plan to solve it). 

"Personal Importance" and "Significance to You"

These two phrases should be the heart of your essay. Why do you care about this problem? What does the problem mean to you? Your discussion of your chosen problem needs to be teaching the admissions folks something about you: What do you care about? How do you solve problems? What motivates you? What are your passions? If your reader finishes your essay without gaining a strong sense of what it is that makes you the interesting person that you are, you have not succeeded in responding to the prompt effectively.

What if You Didn't Solve the Problem Alone?

It's rare that anyone solves a significant problem alone. Perhaps you solved a problem as part of a robotics team or as a member of your student government. Don't try to hide help you received from others in your essay. Many challenges, in both college and the professional world, are solved by teams of people, not individuals. If your essay demonstrates that you have the generosity to acknowledge the contributions of others and that you are good at collaboration, you'll be highlighting positive personal characteristics.

A Warning: Don't Address This Problem

One of the problems you are currently facing, and one that you'd clearly like to solve, is how to get into your top choice colleges. It may seem like a clever choice to spin the question back on itself and write an essay about the application process that currently dominates your life. Such an essay might work in the hands of a truly expert writer, but in general, it's a topic to avoid (along with these other bad essay topics). It's an approach others have taken, and the essay is likely to come across as glib rather than thoughtful.

A final note: If you successfully show why your chosen problem is important to you, you're on the right path for a successful essay. If you really explore the "why" of this question and go easy on the describing, your essay will be on track to succeed. It might help to rethink prompt #4 in these terms: "Explain how you grappled with a meaningful problem so that we can get to know you better." The college looking at your essay has holistic admissions and really does want to get to know you as an individual. Aside from an interview, the essay is really the only place in your essay where you can reveal the three-dimensional person behind those grades and test scores. Use it to display your personality, interests and passions. To test out your essay (whether for this prompt or one of the other options), give it to an acquaintance or teacher who doesn't know you particularly well, and ask what that person learned about you from reading the essay. Ideally, the response will be exactly what you want the college to learn about you.

Finally, good writing is also important here. Be sure to pay attention to style, tone, and mechanics. The essay is first and foremost about you, but it also needs to demonstrate a strong writing ability.

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Grove, Allen. "2020-21 Common Application Essay Option 4—Solving a Problem." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/common-application-essay-solving-a-problem-788393. Grove, Allen. (2023, April 5). 2020-21 Common Application Essay Option 4—Solving a Problem. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/common-application-essay-solving-a-problem-788393 Grove, Allen. "2020-21 Common Application Essay Option 4—Solving a Problem." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/common-application-essay-solving-a-problem-788393 (accessed June 9, 2023).