We are in a war with prompts. Yes, you read that right, we can’t stand them. We hate having to follow them, and we comply only as far as is absolutely necessary. Why? Because college essay prompts have a way of bringing out the worst in the very people that they are supposed to be helping. It’s as if they were purposefully written to produce bad writing, which is the exact opposite of what we want from our students.
“So what am I supposed to do,” you ask, “especially if I’m not working with a consultant to help me along the way?”
If you’re not working with someone like us and able to confidently reject the Common App essay prompts, there are ways that they can be turned in your favor. To help you, we’re working through each Common App essay prompt, one-by-one, for the 2018-2019 college application season. In this post, we’ll be focusing on prompt number four:
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 long prompt, so we’re going to break it down sentence-by-sentence.
Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve.
Ok, stop. Pause. Read it twice and list the things that come to mind. Then throw the list out because you probably shouldn’t write about any of those things. Remember, this is a college application essay, not a Model U.N. essay or ethics paper. You’re not presenting and substantiating an argument. There shall be no bibliography! Of course, we’d all love to solve climate change, hunger, political polarization, and cancer before breakfast, but that’s not what you’re going to write about here. Why? The next sentence answers that.
It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale.
Yes, all of the things we told you you couldn’t write about just one second ago qualify as intellectual challenges, research queries, ethical dilemmas, or all three, but they don’t meet the terms set out by the second half of this sentence. Whatever you pick must be “of personal importance.” Keyword: personal. So you can’t pick something that impacts the world, but not you directly. You can’t insert yourself into a problem, because that won’t resonate as being true to you. (To be fair, you can, but we’re begging you not to.) If you choose to write this essay on something that is not personal to you, you are both copping out and setting yourself up for rejection. Colleges want to learn about you and your life, not what you think about issues with trash collection in Italy.
So what you need to do is to brainstorm some problems that are big, on a small scale — in your family, in your community, or in your region. Think local.
Are you worried that something about your town wouldn’t be impressive enough? The last four words of this sentence do misleadingly imply that you should be looking bigger, rather than smaller, but this is a trick. Whether it’s designed to or not, it leads students down the wrong path because when you see “no matter the scale,” it seems to say “bigger is better!”
This is the opposite of what it actually means, though. The true meaning of this line is “don’t be afraid to go small.” Banning plastic straws at school, fighting for fair wages, or advocating for better farming practices when it’s been done the same way for generations all touch on big issues, but they are playing out on a small scale. This is what you want to aim for.
Now on to the last sentence.
Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
In this sentence, the last sentence of the prompt, there are four “trigger” words, aka words that are notorious for inspiring bad writing. These words are: explain, significance, steps, and solution.
When you ask someone to explain something, they generally respond in an explanation-centric way. They don’t tell stories, they say facts. They state things rather than interpreting them. None of that is good in a college essay. If you read our blog posts, you know we are obsessed with stories, and you should not be surprised that anything that steers people away from telling stories is a no-no in our book.
‘Steps’ is even worse. Even just writing the word makes me think of a bulleted list and, shockingly, some people even format this essay that way. (And not in an artistic/avant-garde/doing things differently kind of way).
Together, ‘explain’ and ‘steps’ inspire writing that is formulaic, listicle-y, and that falls into the five-paragraph essay trap. When you add ‘significance’ and ‘solution’ to the mix, you also risk stepping onto a soapbox you shouldn’t have even looked at sideways.
So walk away from the global issues soapbox and tell a story about an issue that is personal to you. Through the story, build emotional links that clearly show why it matters in your life, and weave in potential and realized ways of addressing the issue that are also small-scale. Bonus points if you’ve been involved in taking them.
Always remember that you’re writing an essay, not a proposal. This is about you, not about the issue you picked. Keep yourself central, tell a story, and think small.
If you could use some guidance on how to move forward with your college essay, let us know. We’re good at this stuff.