college application essay

How to Answer Prompt 4 for the Common App

for your College Application Essay

Prompt 4: 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.

You almost can’t go wrong if you pick this prompt to write your college application essay for The Common Application.

It sets you up perfectly to tell an engaging story, which makes the best personal statement-style essays.

If you read through the lines, this prompt breaks down to a simple formula:

Find a problem you faced or are still facing, share what you have done to deal with it, and then go on to explain what you learned in the process and why it mattered. That’s it!

This might be the only time in your life that you’re happy you had problems.

The authors of this prompt try to help you by offering some type of sample problems you could write about: an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma. But these are just some suggestions.

Their main point is that your problem can be “anything” that mattered to you.

HINT: It’s not necessary, but if your problem (or the personal quality you used to deal with it) relates to one of your current and future academic interests, that could make your essay more relevant and effective to college admissions officers.


college application essay

Also, when they say, “no matter the scale,” the message is that this problem can be big or small.

In other words, it doesn’t have to have been a catastrophic life event. But if you did face a crisis in your life, this could make an excellent essay, too. You get to pick.

The beauty of this prompt is that if you write about a problem, you almost can’t help include some type of story.

Think back to English class. Remember the two things you need to make a story?

A character and a conflict. In these essays, since you write about yourself, you are the “character.”

And the “conflict” is the problem you faced or are facing.

Remember that conflicts (problems) can come from many different places–from within yourself (internal: you have a personal issue or hang-up that caused you pain or trouble) to outside yourself (external: something bad happened to you.) 

To put it simply, a conflict is just another word for a problem. Problems come in all forms. They do not need to be traumas or a crises, although those can work, too. (HINT: Basic, everyday problems work best! Check out this post about “mundane” topics.)

Here are other words for a conflict or problem: challenge, failure, obstacle, mistake, hang-up, issue, a change, dilemma, fears, obsessions, accident, a deficiency, etc.


college application essay


Some variations of problems: you are shy, competitive, stubborn, were bullied, are obsessed with Twilight, didn’t make the team, got injured, have big feet, frizzy red hair, smile too much, someone quit at your work, don’t have own car, can’t spell, adhd, ocd, don’t eat meat, perfectionist, slob, lazy, drunk driving, have a mean grandparent, no money, etc…

Man, there are a lot of problems out there! But for the purposes of writing these dreaded essays, that’s a good thing for once!

(If you want help making sure your problem was or is “significant” to you, start by Finding Your Defining Qualities.)

Once you remember a juicy problem, follow these steps to share it in a narrative (storytelling) essay format:

1. Describe the time you had a problem or describe a specific example of your problem. Include what happened and how it made you feel. Try to start at the moment it hit, or happened for the best impact.  Include the 5Ws–who, what, when, where and why!

Stick to one or two paragraphs. Include a snippet of dialogue. These mini-stories from real life are also called anecdotes, and you can learn more by reading my post on how to write an anecdote.

2. Background the history of this problem (when did it start, why/how did it happen or get this way.) Give it some context. “It all started back when…”

3. Talk about how you dealt with that problem. What you did about it. Describe the steps you took to handle it.

4. VERY IMPORTANT: Analyze and reflect on that problem, and your response. How did you think about it? How did you feel? Did handling it change you in any way or how you think about things? Share your thoughts on the good and the bad.

This is how and where you can “explain its (the problem’s) significance to you.”

5. What did you learn from dealing with that problem–about yourself, others or life in general? Anything good come out of it? Did you develop or demonstrate a core quality–determination, problem-solving, creativity, passion, patience, respect…–in the process?

Talk about that. This is your chance to develop more “its significance to you” in your essay.

6. To wrap it up, update the reader on the current status of that initial problem you shared in the introduction. You don’t necessarily have had to solve it. Just explain briefly how things are going for you now, today.

You could also give examples of how you have applied the life lesson(s) you learned in other parts of your life.

7. End by projecting into your future. Go ahead and share your goals and dreams as they relate to what you have learned about yourself.

If you can think of one, end with a “kicker,” which is a memorable last line that can show that you are witty, funny, passionate or don’t take yourself too seriously.

This is just a sample outline for a classic narrative-style essay to help you get started. You don’t need to stick to every step, and feel free to take your essay in whatever direction you want. Just remember that the point is to reveal how you think, what you care about and how your learn.

It’s called your “intellectual vitality,” and colleges love to see it in all shapes and sizes.

Check out this sample narrative essay. Can you tell what his “problem” was, and the steps he took to deal with it, and what he learned?

Good luck with your own problems. This may be the only time in your life that you are glad to have them! ; )

In case you don’t have them all, here are all five prompts for The Common Application for 2015-16:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. 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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

NOTE: Please ignore the comments at the bottom before April 1, 2015, since they were in response to an old prompt 4 which has been replaced with the current one. Comments posted after this date will be relevant. Thanks!

52 Responses to Common App Prompt 4: When Your Problem is a Good Thing!

  1. Hi Janine,

    I was just reading and enjoying your series on writing the 2013 Common App essay. I agree with you – bliss can be boring! But I’m also wondering if you’re having the same experience that I am – that this topic is proving to be popular, and in a good way. For instance, one student is writing about a family retreat in the wilds of Maine, so the essay is really about the meaning of family. Another is writing about her room, which is so familiar to her that it actually provides no distraction at all – and that’s where she’s able to concentrate on her artwork. Of course, it’s all about finding the meaning, but this is turning out to be a category with interesting responses! Take care, and enjoy your students! Sharon

  2. Max says:

    Do you think it is ok if I mention how I sometimes use the place of contentment as a means of temporarily escaping from a hectic life? The world outside my place will probably take up space in my essay. Do you think the readers might take the fact that I sort of use this place to temporarily get away from things badly? Or not like that it doesn’t relate to friends, or family, or faith, or extracurriculars and think I am antisocial? Or will it be fine?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Max, I think it’s totally normal and expected that we all sometimes need a place to get away from it all. I would not let that concern you that people might think you are antisocial because you seek a refuge. However, make sure to read this post since I warn about how a place where you find peace and bliss could be boring to read about. Look for something unexpected about your place of contentment in order to write an engaging essay. Good luck! JR

  3. Isis says:

    Hi Janine–I have been planning out an essay on this topic about my sister and how whenever I’m with her, I feel “perfectly content.” Do you think I should follow option C by tightening it to a specific moment? Is writing about my sister too predictable?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Isis,

      I think it could work, but yes, I think you should give your essay some vitality and interest by starting with an example/moment of why you are content with her. It can’t just be about how well you get along, have the same interests, etc. That is all really a nice thing, but it could just be too dull to read about. I would try to find some unusual reasons that you like about her–maybe she challenges you in certain ways, or maybe she knows you so well (an example of this?) that she helps you learn some of the more difficult things in life. Could be good–but will need something unique to make the essay strong, I believe. Good luck! JR

  4. Lynden says:


    For me, I’m writing about an entire city that I once lived in when I was younger and how the childhood memories have really influenced who I am. I didn’t want to really tie it into something really specific because I wanted to emphasize how being immersed in the culture is what makes me “perfectly content” in it. Do you have any advice for this? Thank you!

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Lynden, If you are talking about something as large as a city, the best way to describe it and help us understand the culture there is to provide sensory details–what it looked like, what you heard, smelled, etc. Also, you can include how it made you feel. I would also consider giving this essay focus and life by sharing something that happened in that city that relates to its unique culture. Good luck! JR

  5. Caitlin says:

    I have been planning to answer this prompt with an essay about how chemistry labs changed from the most stressful part of my week to my only refuge from stress by the end of junior year. Is this too impersonal/predictable?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Caitlin,
      No, I think it could be a great essay. My advice would be to start by showing us (set the scene, use details, tell us how you felt…) why it was stressful at first (this will be “the problem”), and then go onto to show how it changed (into a refuge for you), why it changed (your attitude, your point of view, other factors?), and what you learned from that. One other piece of advice for you and anyone working on these new Common App prompts. You do not necessarily need to say “perfectly content” anywhere in your essay, since you will have checked the box that will make clear which question you are addressing. I actually think “perfectly content” is a very awkward expression and not one most people would ever use in everyday conversation. I would think of some other words that express the same thing, or a more focused version of it. You used refuge, which is great. Other ways to express perfectly content: contented, satisfaction, gratification, fulfillment, happiness, pleasure, cheerfulness; ease, comfort, well-being, peace, equanimity, serenity, tranquility. Hope this helps. JR

  6. Hope says:

    I found your article very helpful! I am writing my essay on how I am perfectly content when I am at concerts/music festivals. I am using the 2013 Beale St. Music festival as my anecdote. I’m thinking of also bringing in with that anecdote how Beale St was where I realized that that’s where I am content. I am going to take it deeper than just me liking concerts for the great live music. Do you think this idea as a whole would grab the attention of those who will read my essay?

  7. Sherry Zhang says:


    I’m writing my essay on this topic, and my idea is about a journal my best friend and I write to each other in. It’s more of an abstract idea. My best friend and I met freshman year and became best friends after she wrote me a note about a problem she was having. We started a journal/book that we would pass back and forth, and write things to each other. Almost everyone in our grade knows about it and it’s become sort of a trademark of our friendship. Its a place that makes me feel perfectly content because I can write whatever I want and I know I’ll get a reply from my friend. Would writing about ‘The Book’ be a good topic?

    • j9robinson says:

      Terrific topic! Share your story about “The Book”–maybe how it helped you handle certain problems, and how it started, and what you learned in the process–you should have an excellent essay! I LOVE this idea! Maybe start with the first time you received note in the journal, or first time it was passed between you (assumedly sparked by some type of problem), and then give back story of “the book,” and then go from there. Would love to read this when you are done! JR

  8. Nicole says:

    Out of the fours prompts, my first impulse was to go with this one. The place of content that I will be describing is not a physical place. In fact, it is a zone that I get into when I am writing. However, I am worried about how to approach this essay from the standpoint of “my writing zone” where I block the world out and I get to focus on characters and alternate universes that I have created. How would you suggest that I approach this essay and is this topic substantial and interesting enough to make a strong essay?
    Your advice would be appreciated tremendously!

    PS. I am debating on talking about how I discovered my passion to write when I was in elementary school by winning a writing contest. Hopes this helps!

    • j9robinson says:

      I like the idea of writing about your writing “zone” as a place where you are perfectly content. The challenge is to make it interesting to read. I would explore what sends you into the zone, why do you want/need to go there (some type of problem?)–describe that, then go on to talk about how you discovered how writing helps you handle it, what you learned, etc. The “problem” will give your essay more energy and interest. JR

  9. Natalie says:

    Hi! I was hoping to write my personal statement on this prompt with two different places (basically centered around my upbringing with divorced parents) and using compare/contrast strategies to lead into personal qualities. Do you think using a very dark, personal anecdote would be effective as a hook or do I run too much of a risk of it looking like I’m simply using it as a means to an end? Also if you have any notes or suggestions on my overall strategy it would be much appreciated. :)

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Natalie,
      I think that as long as you stick with the truth, and convey your story in a direct, thoughtful manner, you should be fine. Dark is okay, as long as the reason you share it is to then show how you wrestled with it, tried to handle or resolve related issue, and how this process affected you, changed you or taught you things about yourself and the world. After you write the dark anecdote, you might want to share it with someone whose opinion you trust to make sense the tone is right. Good luck! JR

  10. Mikayla says:

    Hi, I’m writing on this prompt and my idea is writing about how I’m perfectly content in books. I’ve always been a reader since I was little but I never got this feeling of bliss till my younger sister died and things in my life started falling apart. So I was thinking about writing about how I came to feel like this when I read books (like when my sister died and how I turned to reading) and why I feel content when I read books. (any kind of books really)

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Mikayla,

      I think you have a very powerful topic and I think you should write about it. Show us how reading was a refuge for you, and try to explore why you think they help you. So sorry about your sister. That must be so hard for you. If you find it too hard to write about, pick a different topic. But if you can write about it, it might help you work through your feelings and grief. Best of luck! JR

  11. Mika says:

    Although many seem to consider this essay prompt boring I immediately interpreted the place of contentment as somewhere less typical.As a superhero comic fan I find myself being transported into the pages and into a world where I am free to be myself. My idea is to use the Marvel Universe and more specifically Professor Xaviers Mansion as my place of contentment. What do you think? Thanks!!

  12. Anna says:

    Hi! So I was planning on writing my essay about two places where I play/share music for an audience. The first one is at my school on the morning announcements, where I play popular mainstream music for the school, and the second one is at the nearby college where I DJ and I play two hours of pretty reclusive music live for two hours a week.

    Would it be ok to talk about the setting and how happy I am at these two places sharing my music even though mainstream and underground music contradict each other?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Anna,

      Yes, I like the idea of contrasting the two places you feel content, and explore one makes you content and the other not so much–and it would be really handy if the one that makes you feel content is the one we would least expect…Good luck! JR

  13. Karla says:

    so honestly, the first thing I thought of when I read this prompt was being on the beach with my family in the summer. I just fear that it is way too cliche…how do i make it stand out?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Karla,

      Would you want to read an essay about how someone loves being on the beach with their family in summer? Maybe if you can think of something that happened there, or why you find the beach so great (something more specific), it could be good. HINT: Think of a time something went wrong at the beach. But otherwise, sounds pretty dullsville to me. Keep thinking! JR

  14. Angie says:

    Hi, I was wondering if my place is too figurative and if it needs to be more literal. I was thinking of using this prompt to write about how I am most content when I am helping other people by giving them advice. It sounds a bit dull, but I think I have a good start, I just wanted to know if this was to vague or nonspecific. What do you think?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Angie,

      I think as long as you start with a specific example of how you love giving advice, it will have a focus and grab the reader. Then you can expand upon that idea later. I like your idea! JR

  15. jessy says:

    I went to a boarding school in China from third grade to 8th grade before I came to the U.S. for high school. It was a comforting environment for me because of the friendships I had and all the strict rules that protect me from bad influences outside of the school. Also, I want to mention about my volunteering experience. This summer, I went back to the school and joined the American volunteers group to teach grammar school students English and American culture. Since there’s a long time span and a lot of information, do you have any suggestions on what information I should mention and how I should approach it?
    Writing an interesting ps could be hard for me due to my limited English proficiency. What other tips can you give me to write a good hook? Thank you so much! Your suggestions will be highly appreciated!

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Jessy,

      Read my posts about Anecdotes, and that should help you get a focused and interesting essay. I believe anecdotes make the best “hooks” in these essays. JR

  16. Emily says:

    Hi! I’m planning an essay about how I am content when I am at the end of a cross country race, sprinting to the finish line. Is this a good essay idea or should I talk about a specific place or time?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Emily,

      You have the right idea, and you could write about this, but my advice would be to find something else since I’ve seen it done before (several times) and it just not interesting from a reader’s point of view. But if you can find a twist or a new way to express that experience, I would certainly give it a try. It’s not so much what you write about as what you have to say about it. That said, some topics are definitely more inspiring than others. JR

  17. Alex says:

    Could this prompt lend itself to talking about how contentment is more of a process than a location? I wanted to speak about the value of experience in enjoying what I love rather than enjoying things in a passive way. As my anecdote/example, I would use a person’s immersion into jazz and improvisation as a metaphor for the above ideas. (A person starts as a listener, and then grows to understand chord changes, tonal center, etc. until they pick up an instrument and make music that is their own)

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Alex,

      I like it! I like that you interpret “contentment,” and broaden your definition strictly away from a place, and instead a process. Cool! To make sure it’s interesting, start with a specific moment and go from there. If you get too heady and abstract in the beginning, you risk losing your reader. Good luck! JR

  18. Mallika says:

    Hi, I am thinking of writing about being perfectly content when I am driving because every time I drive I see something different and also how driving gives me freedom and power. And then linking that to the career path I want to embark on. Do you think this is a unique idea or should I think of something else?


  19. Kate says:

    I know someone already asked this question, but do you think if I wrote about being at the beach with my family in a way that described the friendships I built there, the passions I formed, and the memories built around the beach, would that be okay? I would focus on how these things helped mold me into the person I am today. I know its cliché but I really can’t think of much else. Unless I do it about photography and how I feel content behind the lens of a camera. What one do you think would work better?

  20. Amy says:

    Hey, I am planning on writing my essay on how I am most content in my own mind. It’s kind of a different stance on the prompt, but I think I can make it work. I’m going to talk about introversion I think and how recharging at the end of the day is a necessity. Do you think this could work?

  21. Abby says:

    Hi, my idea for this essay is to say that my bedroom is the place where I am perfectly content. I’m going to first describe it and then explain that its meaningful to me because I don’t always feel at home with my family, but when I enter my room I always feel at home. I don’t want it to sound boring so any advice on how to make it original and really good?

  22. Ryan says:

    I am trying to address this topic from when I am snowboarding but I’m not specifically sure where to go with it. I see it as an escape from stress and have many good memories with friends. Where should I go with this?

  23. Amila says:

    Hello! :) I am stuck with my essay topics. I am debating whether to write about the art room at my school, because i have a passion for anything art-related, or the library, because i am an avid reader, and reading is one of my biggest hobbies.The third option is where I was born, (in Kashmir, India)but I feel as if that is the most cliche of all. But I can provide anecdotes from my trip to Kashmir last summer, and maybe it will show diversity? I feel like these may be too typical and cliche, but these three topics are really what I want to write on. Please help, I have been stuck for a while now. Any additional advice/comment would be greatly appreciated!
    Thank you so much!

  24. Duong says:

    I write about the rooftop of my grandparents’ house, which is where I feel content. But I focus on what I do there: watching clouds like I did when I was a child. In my essay I point out that although I’m no longer a child and the adult life is exhausting (in which we often forget the child inside us), only to reach a conclusion that lying on that rooftop looking at the sky reminds me that at times we should forget the grownup we are and try to embrace the inner child, or childhood memories, try to feel and see things like a child: carefree, playful, etc. because it makes life a bit more balanced and enjoyable.

    Does that sound like boring and predictable? Should I change my idea?

  25. Angela says:

    I’m thinking about writing about being content in an airport since I sincerely enjoy the atmosphere and the excitement of going on a journey. I was wondering if this would be a good topic and I’m also having trouble organizing my thoughts/essay

  26. Elsa says:

    Even Holden Caulfield said in The Catcher in the Rye: “I like it when somebody gets excited about something. It’s nice.”
    This quote is one of the most popular quotes among social media today! I love reading about places and activities and people that make others happy. It’s comforting. But anyways, thank you for the advice. It was definitely helpful. But I still do not agree with you on the warning that you begin with.

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi Elsa,

      My main warning is not that bliss is boring in itself, but that it can be boring to read about–especially if nothing happens. Of course, it depends on the writer’s ability to make it interesting. I want to flag those long, overly descriptive pieces on why someone feels “perfectly content” reading in their bedroom or walking through the forest. Again, it’s possible to find an angle to make these topics interesting, but generally they risk being dull to read. If you wrote about being “perfectly content” for your essay, I would LOVE to read it! JR

  27. Aditi mohan says:

    cool essay writing tips

  28. Anushka says:

    Hey Janine!
    I have two places in mind related to this topic where i feel perfectly content and I am a bit confused about which one to choose. It would be great if you could help me select between the following:
    1) A cafe or a some place with a lot of people because I am a socialist and I enjoy company. Not only this, I also enjoy observing various cultures, things etc
    2) I love to be a pat of the gaming world because I believe I am a lot more powerful and have an adventurous task to deal with.
    Is the first topic to obvious? Please advise!

  29. Jaime says:

    I am writing about how i am content when i am around music, such as at a concert or making music. I give specific examples such as my experiences when i was in a jazz band. Do you think this would be a good topic to talk about?
    Thank you very much!

  30. John says:

    Hi. I was thinking about writing about the meditative state as being the place I’m the most content in. Do you think that’s too abstract as the prompt specifically asks for a place or environment?

    • j9robinson says:

      Hi John,
      I think the problem with this prompt is that most places where people are truly “perfectly content” would be meditative on some level, right? As much as it might feel blissful to be in that type of state, in general, it’s boring to read about. Check out my post on “Where are you perfectly content” for some idea on how to tackle it. I wish you luck! JR

  31. Sean says:


    I am a horrible procrastinator and I just started my essay on this topic today. I have chosen the space beneath my bed as the place I feel content. Does that sound interesting enough?

    Thank You!

  32. Kaye says:


    I was planning on doing this prompt where my environment of bliss is based on my childhood experiences with my friend in Jamaica. This is the place I feel most content where our yards were our playground and our imaginations came alive to we create our world packed with pretend adventures and experiences that have influenced the person I am now. Is this a good idea or should I just pick another prompt??

  33. Siri says:

    Thanks! This was really helpful. Throughout my supplements I have been talking about problems I solved, so for the common app I was thinking about writing a business problem that I planned on solving or at least improving in my career. Is that okay or too far out?

  34. Rosemary Aviste says:

    What about the second option to the question, “…Or a problem you would like to solve,”? I feel that discussing what I would like to do (improve secondary education in the sciences within third world countries) is more reflective of me than a personal story. How would I incorporate a personal story when talking about the future or is it OK if I don’t include one? As of now I’ve identified a problem and how I’m going to solve it by earning a college education. My solution is pretty unique so I don’t think they will get bored but are they looking specifically for personal narratives?

  35. Karen says:

    Hi. For the #4 question essay, do we NEED to incorporate what we would like to do in the future or give subtle details of how we have certain qualities for this dream job? Because I’m not sure what I want to major in. Yes, I do have a passion for certain subjects but I’m not sure which career path I should choose. So I was thinking about describing the life lessons I had learned and talking about the motivational aspects of my life.

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