September 7, 2019

The Common Application Essay 4

Common App

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.

Admissionado’s Analysis of The Common App, Essay #4

This question used to be: “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?” In recent years, the folks at CommonApp have gone for something a touch more straightforward. But it doesn’t need to be. In fact, our instinct is that it is anything but…

The biggest point we’d like to emphasize here is that the “solution” and “the thing itself” is of little to no importance. There is no research project, no ethical dilemma, no intellectual challenge, by itself, for a high school student, that anyone will care about, ever. (Ha!) Same old story – you’ve heard us say that a thousand times. It’s our cheeky way of saying we don’t care about what you say, we care about how you say it. Because how you say it will reveal something about what you’re made of, and will tell us something vital about you and your future potential. The achievement, by itself, will not.

So, let’s start there. There has to be something interesting about the dilemma, or the circumstances that led up to your research query. Something fiery, controversial, or unexpected. A huge personal significance or something politically charged. The stakes must somehow be extremely high for you, otherwise they will not be high for us, the readers, the gatekeepers! Before you rehash your “science fair project” (even if you placed strong), the goal has to have been much more compelling than “you were hoping to win the science fair.” Do you see why? Winning the science fair isn’t what matters. The admissions committee is much more interested in learning what it was about you that drove you to win it, such that you’ll likely do more things LIKE it in the future. That’s what they’re hoping to learn.

So, that’s our starting point. Sell us on why something you’ve done or something you’d like to do is meaningful to you. Explain why it bothers you, creates an itch that won’t go away, inspires you, fascinates you, frustrates you, any combination of those kinds of things. The key is to identify root-level elements that STIR you. Even having an awareness of specifically what it is about something that makes it meaningful to you (by itself) is impressive. Show us that level of introspection and thoughtfulness.

Explain – in visceral detail – how it affects you. Is it something you look forward to spending time doing? Is it a source of constant fights when you discuss it with people who harbor an opposing point of view? Is it something that simply brings out your most creative side? Is it something you can’t quite explain, but for whatever reason you keep returning to it, and want to explore more? Take us through any or all of that in journalistic, first-person detail. As though you were on a safari. Make us feel the way you feel. Your first draft should have words that are misspelled. Sentence fragments. Expletives, even. Because you lost yourself when writing, you were so excited. Otherwise, it’s going to seem like you’re trying to impress us. And we’re going to know it.

So what’s a good topic? Sadly, there’s no pathway to prescribe here because it’s so personal. And therein lies the beauty. One good litmus test is measuring the stakes. Think about a few sample “problems” that kept you awake, and forced you (one day) to engage in some kind of “must solve this” tactic. Just come up with a few, for fun and list them. Now look at that list. For which were the “stakes” the highest? Meaning, for which item, would failure to find out an answer have been the MOST disappointing? (Chances are, that’s your winner.)

Here’s another good litmus test. Look at that list. Which of the items would be most painful to write about? (Another great indicator, something that stirs something uncomfortable inside you.)

Here’s yet another good litmus test. Which of the items would be the most controversial to write about?

Go for friction here. Things that are down the middle that are celebrated in the classroom like “science projects” are more likely to fall flat than concepts, issues, problems that require serious deliberation, or things that don’t have a clear solution. The muddier the solution, the better. Let’s see you walk around that issue, and grapple with it in front of us. “Talk to yourself” … out loud, on paper. Let’s see your best Hydra impression: become multi-headed, and engage in a LIVE debate (on paper), representing opposing facets of an argument or issue. That’s what we’re after here. The way in which you dealt with a problem that didn’t have an immediate (or easy) solution. This is where the gold lies, folks. We can talk about how to structure the thing and retool it at a later stage. Your primary focus right now should be to tap into that internal dialogue, and allow us to spectate.


Check Out Admissionado’s Analysis of ALL SEVEN of The Common App’s essay prompts:

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