The 2015-2016 Common Application Essays: #4

By Ryan Hickey + updated on September 14th, 2015

For the fourth installation of our series on the Common App prompts, we’ll evaluate one of the most intellectually challenging – yet exciting – prompts. In this prompt, you’ll have the opportunity to write about an issue of personal significance and your vision for solving the problem.

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 brand new prompt for the 2015-2016 season. However, this is no indication of whether you should or should not write about it. Yes, some applicants will be attracted to it because it is fresh. That’s fine, but the newness of the prompt can be a double-edged sword. The quality of the essay, whichever prompt you choose, is what matters.

Analysis:

Like many of the prompts, this one calls for three specific areas to be addressed within the essay.

1. 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.

The Common App is giving you quite a bit of freedom here. However, the key phrase here is ‘of personal importance’. Throughout the essay, you’ll need to show the admissions officers why this is meaningful to you as an individual. If you are writing about something that will affect a group or community, that’s fine. Even so, the essay will still need to demonstrate how this is significant to you and why.

2. Explain its significance to you…

Again, the admissions officers want to read about why this issue is meaningful to you. In this section, tell the reader why you want to solve the problem. What would it mean for your life? It’s perfectly fine to work to make the world a better place. However, the admissions officers also want to see reflection and personal passion.

3. Explain…what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

In this section, the admissions officers want to read a feasible action plan to solve the problem. Did you encounter or do you foresee any obstacles? How will you overcome those obstacles? If you need the buy-in of others, how did or how will you secure that?

Pitfalls:

The main pitfall that applicants need to avoid is attempting to tackle an issue so complex that it’s impossible to fully address every aspect of the prompt in the space available for the essay. Applicants tend to use up most of the space describing the problem and not fully exploring the significance or potential solutions. When brainstorming for this prompt, always keep in mind that you’ll need to sufficiently explore all three aspects. Although it’s perfectly acceptable to have minor differences in length between the three sections, they need to be basically even in order for the admissions officers to feel that the essay is well-developed.

Solving problems, both big and small, is gratifying. It instills confidence and challenges us to grow in multiple ways. When writing about this essay, combining a tone of intellectual curiosity and empathy will keep the reader engaged from start to finish.

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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