The Common App Essay Question That's Often Overlooked

With June approaching fast, it goes without saying that any high school Junior will soon start to think about — and worry about — the Common Application “college essay.” Last year I wrote a blog post with tips on how to get started. This year, I’d like to talk a little about endings, and while it’s a bit early to be finishing a draft, I hope this ends up taking some guesswork out of the first steps.


The prompt I appreciate most is one that often goes overlooked by my students. This is the fourth prompt, which asks you to 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 prompt states. “Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.”

To be clear, it’s not the whole prompt I like, but the “or” part — to focus your essay on a problem you haven’t solved yet, but you’d like to. I suspect students often dismiss this option because it feels like an afterthought, something put there for kids who haven’t done anything but still, by some means or other, need to end up somewhere. Also, I suspect many imagine this prompt would create a dissatisfying end-product: hopes and dreams are fine, but colleges won’t admit you on your fantasies alone.

When I’m not working on college applications, I often help college freshmen on their first or second ever “real” research papers. This inevitably involves some soft anger on the student’s part at the irrationality of learning to write essays one way in high school, only to get to college and learn a structure of essay-writing incompatible with the high school model, but anger turns to confusion when we get to the conclusion, which — welcome to higher education — does anything but close a discussion. “Think of the conclusion as passing a baton from one scholar to the next,” I say, likely echoing their writing seminar professors. “It’s a time to mention the questions your work brings up that are worth exploring but you won’t get to, either because you don’t have the resources or because they’re too vast for one person alone” (or because it’s just an assignment).

The point of this kind of conclusion is that someone else can pick up the threads of your work and run with them — and like that, you build intellectual relationships, weave yourself into an academic community.

When I see the option to write about a problem you’d like to solve, I see the potential for a college-level conclusion, an essay that wraps itself up with open-ended sophistication. As the prompt states, these problems can be of any nature, but they often start with some personal trait or observed truth about the world that’s hard to understand. Some of the most successful essays I’ve worked on revolved around questions like, “I love sports statistics: what does that mean about who I am as a thinker?” Or, “So many people genuinely care about the state of the environment--so why is it so hard to change our habits, and how can we combat that?” Or, paraphrase the central question of my own college essay, “Why do I care so much about making people laugh, and what do I do with that?” Of course, to demonstrate real curiosity in a question of this kind, you’ll almost certainly have to to touch upon things you’ve actually done. But the open-endedness leaves space for your readers — college admissions officers — to pick up the intellectual work where you’ve left off. They know very well the resources their school offers, and they can start to imagine the ways you’ll be able to spend the next four years exploring your unsolved question from many sides.

In short, what I mean to say is that open-endedness is good. Having lingering curiosities can be more valuable than pretending to have all the answers to yourself. So, as you soon begin writing, don’t worry about writing the essay with the grand conclusion. A question, can, and should, lead to more questions. 650 words is hardly more than an intro, anyway, and an acceptance — at the end of it — is an invitation to a beginning.