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Writing Your Common Application Essay: How to Answer Prompt #4

College application essays give the admissions committee a chance to get to know you beyond your GPA, test scores and activities list. While the college application journey can seem like a mind-boggling task, the essay portion of your application might prove the most rewarding of all.

In this installment of our series on Writing the New Common Application Essay, we’ll look at prompt #4 (if you’re not a fan of this prompt, check out our thoughts on prompt #1, prompt #2, prompt #3, prompt #5, prompt #6, and prompt #7):


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.

Prompt #4 appeals to both the idealistic and pragmatic applicant. And, the type of problem you share is nearly irrelevant. The review committee wants to learn more about your approach to tackling questions and their potential solutions. Whether the dilemma you choose is personal, academic or communal, this essay topic is all about discovery. Applicants come from many different backgrounds and walks of life, and this prompt seeks to better understand the different ways applicants discover the world around them.

Who is better at investigating problems than detectives? Whether you chose to pursue the sciences, music or the humanities, applicants who master the art of becoming passionate detectives outshine their peers.

The best detectives are meticulously detailed and observant. This prompt asks you to “describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve.” From the very beginning, your essay should grab the committee’s attention. In colorful language, explain how the problem you present was worth the journey to solve. For example, an accepted applicant wrote about how his aunt’s small-family business fell victim to cybercrime. He vividly wrote about the impact of the security breach on a personal level. And, he was able to validate the importance of the issue by relating his personal situation to a world-wide problem. Admissions committees love students who can take what they’ve seen or experienced and make connections with their larger communities.

How can you solve a puzzle without taking a closer look at all the pieces? Prompt #4 isn’t only about describing a thought-provoking inquiry. The committee wants you to take them on the road to discovery. How did you work to find a solution (or potential solution) to the issue? The student who wrote about cybercrimes not only captured the detrimental effects of identity theft, but exemplified his research skills. The incident caused him to seek out computer science internships and learn how to create more secure software that could prevent future cyberattacks. The admissions committee wants you to share the actions you took (or your ongoing pursuits) to make the world around you better. The best way to do this is to be candid about your progress and your passion for knowledge and exploration—these are traits all review committees seek in their next class of scholars.

The best detectives are honest communicators, and your essay should be nothing less than genuine. Often applicants make the mistake of thinking that they need to exaggerate their efforts or find a “cure” to the problems of the world. Admissions offices are most impressed with a candidate’s willingness to learn, seek out new opportunities and strong moral compass. The cybercrime-fighting applicant noted in his conclusion that he acquired knowledge of the IT field and ultimately stressed that he would use his programming skills for the betterment of others in the future. Don’t miss the chance to show the admissions committee how your experiences speak to your character as a global citizen. Whileattending a top college is an investment in your future, the institution will in turn trust you to help build its community for the greater good.

As you continue writing, remember that revisions and rewrites are all part of the process. Rather than thinking of the editing phase as a laborious chore, keep in mind the story you want to tell. And, like a good detective, focus on cracking the code to a winning application essay!

If you’re considering hiring an expert to guide you through the process, Veritas Prep offers hourly and school packages convenient for high school students on the go. Take a look at our FAQ page to find out more information about our college-admission consulting services, or give us a call or email to let us know how we can help you conquer the college application essay!