How to Write the Common App Essay Prompt #4, 2019-2020

We’re continuing our Common App prompt series where we review each prompt for the personal essay on the 2019-2020 Common Application. We’re on prompt #4—click here for our syntheses of prompts 1, 2, and 3. Read on for a breakdown of the next essay prompt on the list.

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.

While we love a good problem-solving story because we are solution-oriented, this prompt can be tricky. We like it because it asks you to be specific and it asks you to be clear about something that you care about in your explanation. It is a bit of an extension of prompt 3 because it’s asking you to take your observations “about a belief or idea” a step further and translate them into actionable movement. If you choose to answer this question, we have a few tips: 

  1. Only consider the first five words.

“Describe a problem you’ve solved.” Go from there. By writing about a problem you would “like to solve” you are risking writing an essay about a hypothetical incident or occurrence. The goal with this essay is to stay grounded and give the reader some tangible content about a complicated situation that you conquered or solved. The reader does not care as much about something that you might do. They care that you identified a problem and took the steps that you believed to be necessary to solve or further it. Tell that story. Take the reader right into the middle of your solution web, then backtrack and zoom out to give them an idea of what you’re working with, and then present your solution and its implications.

2. Keep it moving. 

In other words: do not spend your precious word-count describing the problem at hand. Spend it on your solution and the actions that you took towards resolution or advancement. While your beliefs reflect who you are and are certainly the underpinnings of this essay, your actions validate and reinforce your beliefs. This essay is about action. Take it a step further: take your response off of the page and bring the reader into this situation you were in when you completed a series of steps towards advancing your belief system. Later on in the prompt it suggest that you write about the steps you took or “could be taken.” Staying in theme, we’d like to emphasize the power of action. This is an essay about what you have done not what you might do. Nothing happens if you pontificate about what the right thing to do may or may not be, so don’t write about that. Write about what actually happened. 

3. Bigger is not better.

Scale is relative. This question can be confusing because “intellectual challenge, research query, or ethical dilemma” all feel like pretty big concepts, scale-wise. What gets lost is that the prompt actually says, “no matter the scale.” While we would advise that you think small regardless, the fact that the prompt indicates that just reinforces our belief that it’s best to keep it small. Not minor. Not unimportant. Your pursuits are inherently important. But, for example, you’re not going to solve institutionalized racism in one fail Common App essay swoop. You can, however, tackle your view on the racial breakdown present at your school and what you did to attempt to shift the power dynamics in numbers. How you do one thing is how you do everything. You don’t need to justify that the problem that you tackled is worth speaking about by invoking a convoluted web of information and consequences. You just need to tell your story and its important will be apparent. Speaking of justification…

4. Operate from the place of: “the reader already believes me.” 

This is a big one. This one means that your essay starts out, rides, and finishes strong in language and presentation. The reader believes that your problem is worth solving. No matter what it is. You do not need to convince them that it’s worth solving, because it was worth the dedication of your time to tell this story. That is reflective of worthiness. Point blank. Your story is justified, important, and worth sharing on arrival (and by the way, so are you).


Let us know if you need some help structuring this one—it can get messy. Problems are messy. Solutions aren’t always fool-proof. But action is invaluable.