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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

Common Application “Problem” Essay Topic

The Common Application released the revised and new essay topics for 2017-2018, and the “describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve” prompt remains the same. 

Here’s the exact essay 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.”

Writing an essay about such a problem is a great option, and I want to share some tips for effective ways of approaching this topic.


In some ways, the wording of this application essay topic is really simple, but let’s break it down so that you’re completely clear about the details.

You’re being asked to focus on a problem—either a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve.

The Common App doesn’t say this, but you could write a great essay about a problem that you’re in the process of solving and focus on what you’ve figured out and done so far and what the next steps are for you.

You can write about any sort of problem, and the scale of it doesn’t matter. It can be a big or small problem.

You also have to explain why this problem is significant to you and describe your process of identifying a solution to it or the steps you could take to come up with a solution.

Remember that you have creative license in terms of how you approach all of the Common App essay topics.

CLICK HERE to get my tips on the Common App’s general essay instructions (which haven’t changed for 2016-2017).


When reading an essay on this particular Common App topic, admissions officers are really looking to see how you grapple with difficulties, questions that are not immediately answerable, things that are perplexing, challenges that cannot be quickly resolved.

Why do they care about how you grapple with these kinds of problems?

Well, in college, you’re going to be faced with lots of intellectual and academic challenges.  Professors and departments and colleges in general are looking for students who are going to engage with these challenges—with these “problems.”

They’re looking for students who are excited and intrigued by problems.

They want students who know how to assess problems, think creatively about them, explore multiple viewpoints on them, collaborate with others to work through them, and devise action plans to solve them.


You’ll notice something about the language in the Common App essay topic.

You’re told that you can write about “anything that is of personal importance,” but you’ll notice that there’s no mention of the common personal problems that a lot of high school students often focus on in their essays. There’s no reference to how you’ve handled your parents’ divorce or anything like that.

I’m not one of those college admissions consultants who insists that certain essay topics are totally off limits.  

You can write about anything.

One of the students who watched my YouTube video on what you should and shouldn’t do if you write about failure in your application essay told me that he decided to write about his experience with alcohol poisoning.

He shared how the experience caused him a great deal of pain because he embarrassed himself and his family. Most importantly, he was upset by his willingness to let his guard down and “let the actions and ideas deemed acceptable by others overcome who [he is] as a person.”

This student was worried that admissions officers would reject him because of his drinking. I didn’t see his comment until he’d already decided to go with his “gut” instinct.

Here’s what he said: “After I submitted the apps, I was terrified. But I am very glad I did it!” He got into the University of Vermont, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Connecticut, University of Rhode Island, and almost every college to which he applied.

So you can write about anything.

However, when describing possible problems to write about, the Common App emphasizes intellectual “hooks.”

You’re told you can write about an intellectual problem or difficulty, a research-related problem or question, or an ethical problem that involved making a difficult choice.

You have very limited space in your application package to help admissions officers develop a vivid, compelling image of your intellectual interests, extracurricular passions and experiences, habits of mind, and character.  How can the problem you describe in your essay shed light on these crucial things?


Is there a particular academic project you worked on (perhaps one related to your potential major) that presented you with some sort of thorny issue that took time to resolve?

Have you pursued any sort of research-related work (either independently or through school or another organization) that involved grappling with what you perceive to a significant (even if “small”) problem?

Experiment with thinking outside the box.

Expand your sense of what constitutes a problem.

For instance, focusing on a specific “research query” might seem like an obvious choice given the wording of the prompt, but you could also take a more innovative approach to the topic by writing about the challenges associated with forming your research question itself.

There’s an art to coming up with just the right angle and scope for a project.

So many of even the most gifted students struggle with this process; it’s a problem for them.  Showing admissions officers how you grappled with the challenges associated with forming or identifying problems could be really interesting. Most students wouldn’t think to write about this kind of problem in their application essay.

There are so many possibilities with this topic!

It’s also important to recognize that the actual problem you focus on in your application essay might not be as important as the way you describe your process of thinking about and handling it.

In college, you might not come across the same problem, but you’re going to come across other problems and admissions officers are curious about your process of identifying, thinking through, and solving problems. In other words, what might be most valuable to admissions officers is your insight and underlying process, not the specific problem itself.


Many of my students have written impressive essays about how they’ve come to terms with intellectual problems (in response to other essay topics).  Their decision to avoid presenting an overly simplistic resolution of their problems contributed to the strength of their essays.

When you’re writing a college application essay, there’s this urge to come up with a tidy conclusion.  You want to say something like, “Once I figured this out everything was clear and my life was totally changed.” You feel like you’re supposed to write this kind of conclusion, but. . . .

Overly simplistic conclusions aren’t necessary and don’t appeal to college admissions officers.

As you get older, life gets more complex; solutions are often provisional and don’t necessarily work in all situations.

My students who’ve written great essays about how they’ve come to terms with certain problems often end their essays by describing how they’re engaged in an ongoing process of coping, refining, and rethinking.  This type of strategy is very powerful–more powerful than the magical solution type of conclusion.


How to Write Your Common App Essay on “A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve”


Want to talk through your ideas and come up with a great angle for your Common Application essay topic?

Book a 60-minute online/phone consultation with me.

We’ll have an exciting, eye-opening discussion!