Alexander wrote the essay below in response to the 2018-19 Common Application essay option #4. The prompt reads, 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.
Alexander's Common Application Essay:
Grandpa's Rubik's Cube
My grandfather was a puzzle junkie. All kinds of puzzles-jigsaw, Sudoku, crossword, riddles, logic puzzles, word jumbles, those small twisted pieces of metal that you try and separate. He'd always say he was “trying to stay sharp,” and these puzzles occupied a lot of his time, especially after he retired. And for him, it often turned into a group activity; my brothers and I would help him sort out the edge pieces for his jigsaws, or flip through the heavy dictionary he kept in his office, looking for synonyms for “bastion.” After he passed away, we were sorting through his possessions-pile to keep, pile to donate, pile to sell-and found a box in an upstairs closet with nothing in it save an assortment of Rubik's Cubes.
Some of the cubes were solved (or had never been started), while some of them were mid-solve. Large ones, small ones, 3x3s, 4x4s, and even a 6x6. I never saw my grandfather working on one of them, but I wasn't surprised to find them; puzzles were his life. Before we donated the cubes to the thrift store, I took one; grandpa had managed to get one side-yellow-completed, and I wanted to finish it for him.
I've never had the knack he had for solving puzzles. It wasn't just games he could solve; he worked as a plumber for forty years, and was good at getting to the bottom of all sorts of problems at work. His workshop was full of projects he had started fixing, from broken radios and clocks to cracked picture frames and lamps with faulty wiring. He liked investigating these things, discovering how they worked, so he could fix them in his own way. That's not something I inherited. I keep every owner's manual, every installation and user guide; I can't look at something and know how it works, how to fix it, how to rig up a solution.
But I'm determined to solve this Rubik's cube. I have no idea how long that will take, or how I'll do it. I know there are books and websites dedicated to the math behind it, to coming up with a logical solution. But I'm not going to read any of their advice. I'll give it a shot, working slowly, with plenty of mistakes (and probably some frustration). And, as I'm trying to solve it, I'll be sharing a connection with my grandfather. It's a small and simple way of remembering him, and honoring one of his favorite pastimes.
I don't think I'm going to take up puzzling as seriously as he did-although, down the road, who knows? Maybe it's in my genes after all. But this one puzzle, this one problem to solve, is my way of keeping him with me. It's something I can take to college, to my first apartment, to pretty much any place I could go. And, with time, I hope it will help me understand more about my grandfather as a person. By taking up this puzzle, maybe I'll learn to see the world the way he did-how anything can be worked through, can be improved. He was the most stubborn, tenacious, dedicated person I've ever known; if being able to eventually solve this Rubik's cube gives me a quarter of his resolve and patience, I'll be happy. I may not be able to solve it. I may continue to twist those plastic squares for years without getting any closer to a solution. Even if I can't solve it, if I just don't have it in me, I will have tried. And for that, I think my grandfather would be very proud.
Critique of "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"
Below you'll find a discussion of the strengths of Alexander's essay as well as a few notes about possible shortcomings. Keep in mind that essay option #4 allows so much latitude that your essay may have almost nothing in common with Alexander's essay and still be an excellent response to the prompt.
If you read the tips and strategies for option #4, you'll see that this essay option gives you a lot of flexibility as you identify the problem you choose to address. Your problem could be anything from a global issue to a personal challenge. Alexander chooses a small and personal scale for the problem he hopes to solve. This decision is perfectly fine, and in many ways it has advantages. When college applicants try to tackle too much, the resulting essay can be overly general, vague, or even absurd. Imagine trying to describe steps for solving a huge issue such as global warming or religious intolerance in 650 words. The application essay is an awfully small space for addressing such huge issues.
Alexander's essay clearly does not face this challenge. The problem he hopes to solve is indeed small. In fact, it fits in his hand: a Rubik's Cube. One could argue that a Rubik's Cube a rather trivial and silly choice for Common Application option #4. Whether or not you can solve the puzzle really doesn't matter much in the big scheme of things. And by itself, an applicant's ability to solve a Rubik's Cube isn't really going to impress the college's admissions officers that much, although mastery of the puzzle can be used productively on a college application…
Context, however, is everything. A Rubik's Cube may seem like the focus of Alexander's essay, but the essay is about much more than solving a puzzle. What's really important in Alexander's essay is the reason he wants to attempt the puzzle: whether he succeeds or fails, the Rubik's Cube connects Alexander to his grandfather. "My Grandpa's Rubik's Cube" is not a trivial essay about playing with a plastic toy; rather, it is a charming essay about family relationships, nostalgia, and personal determination.
The Essay's Tone
Alexander's essay is pleasingly modest. Too many option #4 essays essentially say, "Look how amazing I am for solving this difficult problem!" Of course there is nothing wrong with tooting your own horn a little in your application, but you don't want to come across as an egotist or braggart. Alexander's essay certainly doesn't have this problem. In fact, he presents himself as someone who isn't particularly good at solving puzzles or figuring out how household items work. That kind of humility and honestly reveals a level of maturity that can work extremely well in an application essay.
That said, the essay does reveal a quiet determination as Alexander vows to keep working on Rubik's Cube without ever consulting any online cheats or strategy guides. He may not succeed in his efforts, but we admire his attempt. Even more important, the essay reveals a kind soul who wants to keep his relationship with his grandfather alive.
Alexander's Title, "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"
As the tips for writing essay titles suggest, a good title can take a variety of forms. Alexander's title is certainly not clever or funny or ironic, but it is effective because of its concrete detail. Even at a school that receives 20,000 applications, there won't be a single other application with the title "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube." The title, like the focus of the essay, is unique to Alexander. Had the title been something more general, it would be less memorable and less successful in capturing the focus of the essay. Titles like "A Big Challenge" or "Determination" would be appropriate for this essay, but they could apply to hundreds of different essays and, as a result, fall a bit flat.
The guidelines for the current Common Application state that essays should fall between 250 and 650 words. While there is plenty surrounding the ideal essay length, a compelling 600 word essay can help your application more than a similarly well-written 300 word essay. Colleges that ask for essays have holistic admissions. In other words, they want to get you as a person, not as a simple empirical matrix of grade and test score data. You'll be able to paint a much more detailed portrait of yourself if you opt for the longer end of the length range. Alexander's essay comes in at 612 words, and the essay isn't wordy, fluffy, or repetitive.
A Final Word
Alexander's essay doesn't impress us by touting his accomplishments. If anything, it highlights things that he isn't particularly good at doing. This approach carries a little risk, but overall "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube" is a successful essay. It paints a loving portrait of Alexander's grandfather, and it presents Alexander as someone who valued that relationship and wants to honor his grandfather's memory. We see a side of Alexander that we certainly won't see anywhere else in his application. He comes across not just as a student with good writing skills, but someone who is observant, thoughtful, and kind-hearted.
Put yourself in the shoes of the admissions staff, and ask yourself an important question: Does the author sound like someone who would contribute to the campus community in a positive way? With this essay, the answer is "yes." Alexander seems caring, honest, eager to challenge himself, and willing to fail. These are all characteristics of a good college student and valuable community member.
It's also important to note that Alexander's essay is well written. At highly selective schools, glaring writing errors can be disastrous for an applicant's chances of being admitted. For help with your own essay, check out these 9 tips for improving your essay style as well as these 5 tips for a winning essay.
Finally, note that Alexander didn't need to use Common Application essay option #4 for "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube." The essay could also fit under option #2 on facing a challenge. Is one option better than the other? Probably not-most important is that the essay responds to the prompt, and that the essay is well written. Be sure to look through the tips and strategies for each of the seven essay options to find where your own essay is likely to best fit best, but also keep in mind that the essay itself, not the prompt it's responding to, is most important.