Countdown to College: Common Application’s newest prompt

While there was some minor tweaking with four of the five Common Application (Common App) prompts this year, there is one prompt, No. 4, that is entirely new.

Last year’s prompt “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there and why is it meaningful to you?” must have produced far too many cliché essays about grandma’s house or a student’s bedroom or worse yet the beach or the mountains. I for one am thankful it was chucked and substituted with this year’s prompt:

“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 new prompt gives students lots of latitude. The clause “no matter the scale” very intentionally gives permission to students to write something that is personal and not necessarily an earth-shattering “problem.”

What Common App colleges want to see in a response to this prompt is a student’s problem-solving skills. Everyone has obstacles and deals with them in different ways. I think colleges want to understand students’ coping mechanisms, their resiliency, their creativity and very importantly their writing skills and critical analysis.

Students need to understand that colleges create their essay prompts to get to know their prospective applicants; they want to know their defining characteristics, what makes them tick. This prompt opens the door to a variety of interpretations.

There are pitfalls with this prompt. A linear thinker might want to attack this problem by describing a large national problem such as race relations or an overwhelming international issue such as environmental sustainability. Both of these could work if the student injects a personal story about how these concerns have affected them. But the danger here is that the applicant will end up writing a research paper that isn’t personally reflective. These kinds of essays will not set a student apart because they could have been written by anyone. That is a lost opportunity.

Another risk associated with this prompt is that students will spend too much time “describing” the problem rather than analyzing it. Colleges are much more interested in how a student has dealt or will deal with the problem than reading about stats associated with a problem. Remember the recommended word length is 500 words.

Next week: How do you pick a problem for Prompt No. 4?

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to:;