The Common Application’s essay prompt 4 states:
“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 prompt gives applicants a lot of flexibility to write about something meaningful. Here are some practical examples of how to brainstorm and develop a compelling essay.
Choosing a Significant Problem
When deciding what problem to focus on, pick one that reveals core parts of who you are or speaks to key moments in your development. Avoid trivial problems.
Here are some brainstorming questions:
- What persistent obstacle have you faced in an activity you care about? How did you eventually overcome it?
- When has a failure or setback led you to re-evaluate your priorities or values?
- What ethical issue have you grappled with that shaped your perspective?
- What knowledge gap motivates your academic interests?
Structuring Your Essay
Use the following outline structure to organize the key parts of your essay:
- Hook readers with a brief anecdote or vivid description related to the problem.
- Explain the significance of this problem in 1-2 sentences.
- Flesh out the origins and context of the problem.
- Describe your thought process in identifying a solution.
- Explain setbacks faced and lessons learned through attempting the solution.
- Recap the impact of grappling with this problem.
- End by looking ahead to how addressing this problem prepares you for college and beyond.
Example Essay 1: Chess Struggles
Here is an example essay responding to prompt 4 about overcoming failures in chess, using the outline:
Playing chess competitively has taught me mental fortitude. As an impatient child, I struggled badly with losing. After storming off from tournaments crying in second grade, I realized raw talent wasn’t enough. I had to fundamentally change my mindset.
By fourth grade I still tilted easily, blaming early losses on bad luck. Before giving up, my coach emphasized effort over results. I began analyzing more games, noticing patterns in my mistakes. Despite losing most tournaments freshman year, my rating climbed slowly as I focused on decisions under pressure versus the outcome.
The real test came at the State Championships months later. Down material against the top seed, fatigue and old habits kicked in. I almost resigned. Then I remembered my progress. Buckling down for a tough fight, I managed to draw the game. The result didn’t matter, only my perseverance through hardship. I still have much work controlling emotions, but now embrace failures as opportunities to grow. Chess taught me patience and resilience that I will carry into challenging college coursework. Past me would be shocked I now enjoy games that stretch for hours!
This essay uses a chess story to demonstrate overcoming the urge to give up when challenged. This reveals resilience, maturity and a long-term perspective valuable for college.
Example Essay 2: Pursuing Cross-Disciplinary Research
Here is another sample essay responding to prompt 4, this time related to tackling a research interest:
As an aspiring scientist, I want to pioneer innovations that shape the future. Researching ways to engineer drought-resistant crops, I discovered major gaps in connecting plant genetics, modeling, and engineering concepts. Limited collaboration across STEM fields often hinders synthesizing cross-disciplinary knowledge needed to drive discovery. Frustrated after hitting walls in my independent study, I designed a project to foster connections between biology and engineering students.
I created a journal club for peers to collaboratively analyze interdisciplinary papers weekly. After struggling to decipher initial research, we realized we first needed to educate each other on key theories in our respective disciplines. I organized mini-lectures from biology students on genetics fundamentals and engineering students on computational modeling methods. Though time-consuming to coordinate, this cross-training equipped us to productively discuss complex plant genetic engineering studies. Our rich interdisciplinary dialog now generates novel hypotheses and technology proposals for sustainable agriculture solutions.
Tackling barriers to cross-disciplinary thinking showed me the value of mutual understanding. I seek colleges providing research opportunities and courses bridging STEM fields to prepare me to drive agricultural innovation. My project revealed small actions dissolving divides can unleash creativity through new connections.
This essay uses a research obstacle as illustration of the applicant’s problem-solving skills, initiative and scientific curiosity. This provides compelling evidence of fit for cross-disciplinary college programs.
- Pick a specific problem that reveals something deeper about your values, thought processes or resilience.
- Use vivid details and anecdotes to illustrate the significance of the problem.
- Showcase analytical skills, creativity and personal growth in the steps taken towards a solution.
- Conclude by connecting the problem and solution approach back to your college readiness.
Following this practical guidance and structure for prompt 4 essays can help you craft an authentic story admissions officers will remember.
- College Essay Guy – Essay writing tips
- CollegeVine – Example essays
- College Recon – Brainstorming ideas