How to Write the Brown University and PLME Essays 2020-2021
Brown University is an Ivy League institution in Providence, Rhode Island. Founded in 1764, Brown is best renowned for its Open Curriculum, which has no general education requirements for undergraduates, allowing students to be the true architects of their education. It’s also known for its generous financial aid as a need-blind, no-loan school that meets 100% of demonstrated financial need.
Currently ranked #14 by US News, the selective university accepted a mere 6.9% of applicants into the Class of 2024. Notable alumni include actress Emma Watson, and current Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.
An application to Brown University requires a completed Common Application, containing the universal essay prompt as well as three supplemental essays. Want to know your chances at Brown? Calculate your chances for free right now.
Want to learn what Brown University will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering Brown University needs to know.
The Brown University Supplemental Essay Prompts
How to Write the Brown University Supplemental Essays
For any supplemental essay, you need to do your research into the institution before you sit down to write. The goal is to sift through the mountain of information available and extract specific details about the community and curriculum. You should reference these details in your essays to convince the admissions officers that you are intimately familiar with Brown University. It’s important to also tie these aspects to your own experiences and interests, and highlight why you’re a good fit for their institution.
Doing your research is important as it will help you avoid citing every generic reason for wanting to attend Brown, and help you stand out amongst a pool of equally qualified candidates. The real reasons you want to attend will be unique to your own set of circumstances, and avoiding general statements will highlight the genuine nature of your application.
When planning your responses to the supplementary prompts, the essays should be considered collectively — they should be used tactically to represent a well-rounded portfolio of your characteristics, experiences and positive qualities. On the flip side, each should be sufficiently unique to highlight the complexity of your character and contrasting interests.
For example, the first supplemental prompt asks you to discuss an academic interest, while the second asks what you will contribute to the university community. Now imagine you were aiming to study economics, and you have spent the last four years setting up and running an economics tutoring program in your local community; there would be little point in using the same accomplishment as an example to address both prompts. You’d actually miss out on the opportunity to present new information to the admissions officer.
Similarly, we advise you to minimize the overlap between your supplemental essays and the universal Common App essay. If you wrote your Common App essay focused on initiating the economics tutoring program in your community, you would appear more well-rounded by using different examples in your supplemental essays. Generally, the supplemental essays can be viewed as an opportunity to present complementary information to your main Common App essay.
While that may sound a tad overwhelming, the following essay guide should help break down each essay prompt into more palatable pieces.
For All Applicants
This is essentially a “Why This Major” essay, designed to understand your academic interests and how you might take advantage of the Open Curriculum.
The first step is to take the time to ponder what it is about your selected subject that you really gravitate towards, and try to establish exactly why you want to study that subject (or subjects). The prompt urges you to think about why you are excited by your academic interests, so push yourself to think beyond “I’m really good at it” or “I have an excellent teacher.”
The short essay is only 250 words, so aim to focus your interests on a maximum of two areas. Once you have established your key interests and taken the time to ponder why you’re drawn to them, examine your reasoning and try to find an underlying connection between the two fields. Alternatively, consider presenting an interdisciplinary field that connects the two subjects, and emphasize the opportunities presented at Brown through its particular courses/programs/majors that would allow you to pursue your interdisciplinary interests. If there isn’t a connection between the two subjects, that’s totally okay, too!
While this prompt might appear to only ask about your academic interests, it is also asking what you would like to study while at Brown (it is a Brown supplemental essay, after all). Admissions officers also want to know how you’ll use Brown’s resources (and the Open Curriculum) to achieve your academic goals.
But what about those who are undecided? There’s no need to worry if you’re not sure what you’ll study. You can simply mention your top 1-2 interests and why Brown is a good fit for you to develop those interests. It might be helpful to know that Brown is one of the few universities that allows you to construct your own major; if applicable, you can mention your desire to turn your multiple interests into a unique interdisciplinary major.
Below are several examples to illustrate meshing two seemingly contrasting interests into a potential future academic pursuit at Brown:
Example 1: Perhaps you’re interested in biology and geology. You could weave your interests together by emphasizing your insatiable curiosity for understanding both living and physical systems, and reference an example of something your desire to understand systems-thinking has led you to do in the past, or reflect on how this experience challenged your assumptions, etc. Your narrative could incorporate experiences that illustrate your interest in each subject – you can talk about a science fair project you worked on, a class you struggled in but overcame, a lab experiment you participated in, or a younger student you tutored, etc. Focus on the common reasons you are attracted to both subjects. You can mention the opportunity to pursue the joint Geo-Bio degree offered through the Department of Earth, Environment, and Planetary Sciences at Brown, without abandoning your interests in poetry and anthropology through the opportunities presented by the Open Curriculum.
Example 2: Let’s imagine that you are interested in politics, activism. or community work, but you also are passionate about music and have been playing piano for many years. You could discuss your experiences on a political internship or your role in your school’s model UN, and discuss the opportunities available at Brown, through the Brown in Washington program or the Swearer Center for Public Service. However, you could also discuss the piano concert you organised and performed in to fundraise for your community’s homeless shelter. Whenever possible, selecting an example that bridges your seemingly contrasting interests can create a very compelling essay. You could conclude by explaining that you are aiming to use the Open Curriculum to explore the impact of music on the influence of political campaigns and a candidate’s perception, or on exploring the connection between music, Alzheimer’s, and memory, etc.
This prompt provides an opportunity to illustrate one of your unique characteristics and how it has driven you to pursue a particularly impactful extracurricular activity, volunteer or work experience. While many essays aim to illustrate personal growth, this prompt aims to unpack the impact of your actions on others; this can be as simple as altering someone’s perception by presenting a different point of view, derived from your unique background.
One way to start the essay is by focusing on one particular experience, beginning with your unique characteristic that led to your involvement, and following the impact your actions/choices/activity had on those around you. You can then emphasize how you will bring these traits to Brown, and contribute to the community through similar opportunities available on campus (cite them if they currently exist, otherwise suggest expanding these opportunities once you reach campus).
You have the opportunity to delve deeply into one particular experience of activity, although your essay still needs to remain focused given the 250 word limit. However, the activity and impact do not necessarily have to be large-scale. You could, for example, emphasize a specific moment that led to a particularly impactful interaction, rather than focusing on a general activity or extracurricular. Focusing on a meaningful impact, rather than a wide-reaching one, may better illustrate the traits that you would bring with you to Brown to enrich the university community.
Example 1: Let’s imagine you are interested in politics and you are a first generation immigrant to the US from Denmark. You could discuss how your participation in your debate club or model UN – or you could share a discussion that you had with the model UN planning committee during lunch, and the consequences of sharing your perspective on a particular topic (e.g. if you were Danish, perhaps the notion of being paid to study at University by the government rather than needing to incur huge student loans in the US). Focus on presenting concrete consequences of your actions, and you could finish your essay by explaining how you will contribute to the intellectual diversity at Brown through your unique perspective.
Alternatively, you could approach this essay by focusing on skills you have cultivated, rather than personality traits, which enable you to contribute to the Brown University community by applying them on campus.
Example 2: Maybe you’re a nationally ranked theremin player (an unusual electromagnetic instrument). You could discuss your struggles and triumphs in learning the instrument, and dive into the experience of playing at a concert, or your drive behind pursuing the painstaking practice for years on end to hone your skills (emphasizing your admirable work ethic). You could then emphasize your desire to join the Brown University Orchestra, and the benefit your instrument would bring by expanding the potential musical repertoire, thereby enriching Brown’s community.
This prompt appears incredibly straightforward at a glance, yet it presents an incredible opportunity to share the roots of your identity with the admissions officer.
There are two main approaches you could take to address this prompt, hinging on whether you choose to pin your notion of “home” on a “place,” or a “community.” Regardless of which approach you select, your essay should aim to convey to the admissions officer how your “home” environment has influenced your core values or character traits.
Your response to this essay prompt will vary dramatically depending on your history – whether you have moved around or grown up in one place, a small town or a big city, in the US or abroad. However, if you select a particular “place” it is worth keeping in mind that there are no rules regarding how large the place should be – it would be just as valid to choose the couch in your grandmother’s living room as it would be to choose the state of Arizona.
Alternatively, you could approach this essay by pinning your sense of “home” on a “community.” Commonly this community could be your family, your culture, or a particular group or organization.
The examples below aim to illustrate several possible approaches to addressing the prompt:
Example 1: Perhaps your parents were in the military and you moved constantly throughout your childhood, both within the US and abroad. After struggling to integrate into each new place, you eventually found solace in a community of expats while you were abroad. Maybe the group was especially diverse and its members had greatly differing cultural customs from yours. You could describe your greater appreciation for cultural relativism, and how you try to understand the history behind a custom first, rather than judging it as “strange.”
Example 2: Let’s imagine that you are a sculptor, and have been working with clay for years. You can expand on how your sense of “home” is sitting at your potter’s wheel, with wet clay between your fingers. Describe the workshop, and the memories you attach to each part of it, to each pot you can see lined on the shelf – proof of your own evolution and the time that’s passed. You could expand on the precision and patience pottery has taught you, or how it’s caused you to see imperfections differently.
PLME Applicants Only
Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME) is a prestigious 8 year BS/MD program in which accepted students are automatically accepted into Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School. The acceptance rate for Brown’s PLME program is just 3.6%. For more about PLME, check out our comprehensive guide.
The Program in Liberal Medical Education (as well as other accelerated medical programs) is a huge commitment for 17 and 18 year olds, who are essentially saying that they know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. As a result, Brown admissions officers want to accept candidates whom they believe have tangible reasons as to why they want to become doctors. These reasons may include clinical and laboratory experience, as well as a general passion to improve the well being of others.
In this prompt, reflecting on past experiences is critical. Whether that is shadowing a pediatrician at your local hospital for a summer, volunteering with an organization like the Red Cross, or doing lab research on pancreatic cancer, let the admissions team know that you have past experiences engaging in clinical or laboratory work, and that these experiences have increased your desire to enter the medical profession.
Moreover, bring in your past experiences with the healthcare field, such as seeing a loved relation hospitalized, if they instilled within you a desire to eventually enter and better the industry. As a warning, however, it is easy to fall into the cliche of witnessing an older relative, usually a grandparent, pass away due to illness, and afterwards deciding to pursue medicine as a career. In cases such as these, make sure to make the experience as unique to you as possible, and use this experience as a jumping off point to other activities you have done pertaining to the health field.
Afterwards, brainstorm the key values you hold for your life. If you are not sure of your values, think back to how you have spent your time: if you’ve spent significant amounts of time volunteering out of goodwill, or caring for family members, or tutoring your peers, chances are, your values may center around caring for others in need, and looking beyond yourself, both of which are critical components of good doctors. A love for interacting with other people and learning about them is a key component in being a doctor, so make sure to illustrate this point through your experiences. Using concrete things you’ve done in the past to color your values is much more powerful than just stating “my values are helping those in need.”
You could even talk about other extracurriculars you’ve tried, but simply did not enjoy as much as health-related activities, to further cement how being a doctor is the only foreseeable career route you see yourself being fulfilled and satisfied in. Overall, just go off your past experiences in health related fields, your current ideas and beliefs, and your future dreams and goals.
Essentially, this prompt is asking how important becoming a doctor is for you, and if it is your “calling.” Working as a lifelong doctor is often societally elevated above other jobs, as you are literally saving lives, and doctors are also held to the lofty Hippocratic Oath. Make sure to talk about how for you, becoming a doctor isn’t an arbitrary choice, but something you’ve thought about extensively for a long duration of time. Because the PLME’s goal is to provide much more than a traditional pre-med education, don’t feel limited to talking simply about “the profession of a physician/doctor” in the narrow sense of the word. Feel free to go above and beyond, talking about your passion for improving the health of others and how you want to see that manifest in the world.
Another possible avenue could be talking about your personal experience with the health field, and how that shaped you seeing doctors in a much more reverential light. Rather than talking about a close relation who was hospitalized, which can easily become cliche, talk about how your experience volunteering in patient care or shadowing shaped how you view the profession. If there is a standout patient whose story mesmerized you, and whose life was transformed by a doctor you assisted, talk about that. Or if through shadowing and becoming close to suffering, you grew to believe in the primacy of healthcare as the basic foundation to living a decent life, talk about that.
You eventually want to wrap up your essay cementing the notion of being a doctor as your “calling” in life, and using a serious tone to show that you couldn’t see yourself doing anything else.
The Program in Liberal Medical Education is designed to foster intellectual exploration among its cohort of undergraduates, so you definitely want to talk about how your academic interests don’t simply reside in the biological sciences. Talk about how although you want to become a doctor, there are numerous other facets of your identity that don’t fit in the narrow pre-med curricular path. Explain how these interests can be cultivated at Brown, and how they will ultimately allow you to become a better doctor.
Many of the students in the PLME program don’t major in traditional pre-med fields during their undergraduate years, as they are freed from doing so (outside from a few pre-med requirements). Students can thus craft an interdisciplinary education that allows them to pursue interests outside of the narrow pre-med curriculum. Overall, there are so many different academic fields that tie back to the core of being a doctor, and so make sure to express that fully. Here a few examples:
(1) If you have a strong passion for the humanities, mention that, and then talk about how topics like literature and anthropology allow you to grow in empathy and understanding for the world around you. For example, you could talk about your passion for Hispanic cultures, and how you want to continue learning Spanish to form better patient-doctor relations with underserved Hispanic communities in your hometown.
(2) If you’re interested in computer science, talk about your experiences coding, and how you want to be better equipped as the medicine field ultimately will become more technology oriented. You could talk about how you want to be at the forefront of the burgeoning connection between artificial intelligence and health outcomes, and how being in the program will allow you to do so.
(3) There are plenty of classes you can point to that merge the biological sciences with the humanities. Using Brown’s online course catalog, you can pull up titles such as “Medicine and Public Health in Africa,” “Pain and the Human Condition,” and “Health, Hunger, and the Household in Developing Countries” to find courses that interest you and illustrate how you need these intersectional courses to become the doctor you want to be.
(4) You could even mention interdisciplinary programs at Brown’s Warren Alpert medical school, such as its Scholarly Concentration program, which allows students to pursue areas such as Medical Humanities, Medical Technology and Innovation, and Advocacy and Activism. You could also mention the medical school’s Narrative Medicine classes, or its unique MD-ScM program, which combines primary care and population health.
Personal goals and professional goals are often one and the same, but make sure you have personal goals that extend beyond the confines of a career (as mentioned in the previous prompt). Yes, you’d like to become a doctor, but the PLME environment is exactly the one that you need to thrive as a curious human. Talk about your need for Brown’s Open Curriculum to thrive not just as a future doctor, but as an intellectual being who cares about the world. Talk about how being a part of the PLME would allow you to best prepare for the two halves of your career in medicine, science and human interaction, and why you would thrive in this profession that simultaneously juggles both.
Regarding professional goals, you could talk about how being a part of the PLME would mean the rare once in a lifetime chance of satisfying all your intellectual curiosities in undergrad while being able to go to medical school and become a doctor.
RISD Applicants Only
The Brown-RISD Dual Degree program is an intense, highly selective (2-3% acceptance) program in which students must get accepted to both Brown and RISD based on their respective criterion, and then be approved by a joint committee. Students in the program exhibit an intense degree of intellectual rigor, as well as a broad ranging curiosity for both an arts and liberal arts education. The key here is to convince the readers that you are a good fit in this specific program, rather than as a Brown student who takes a few RISD classes or a RISD student who takes a few Brown classes.
In this essay, you must be specific about why you would be a better fit spending five years getting degrees from both Brown and RISD rather than getting one degree from either of the schools. You must show that it is necessary for you to get both degrees, and how you would like to use the knowledge you gain from both schools in your future. It’s incredibly important to highlight the interdisciplinary nature of your goals, as this is specifically called out in the prompt.
With 650 available words, this essay should feature the same depth as your Common App essay, and should complement it. Although the two should not overlap in content, you can definitely expand on topics you briefly touched on in one essay in the other. Here are a few possible avenues you could explore in this essay:
(1) Students in the program stretch the gamut of possible Brown + RISD major combinations: furniture and applied mathematics, computer science and industrial design, and comparative literature and painting. The program prides itself on this diversity, so explain how your passions and interests are disparate, but also connected to your overall identity. Talk about how being surrounded with other Brown-RISD students will foster your wide-ranging intellectual and artistic curiosities even further.
(2) If you ultimately want to become an artist, you could talk about how important the liberal arts have been and will be for you. Maybe you find literature critical for escaping into the worlds you want to create visually, and you want to dive deeper during your undergraduate years.
(3) Maybe you want to study both biology and industrial design, because you want to base your design work on biomimicry. You could talk about how you would draw equally from both fields, and how you want to design better transportation devices that take from the best methods of nature.
(4) Say you’ve always been interested in your Korean heritage and finding ways to express that through art. As a result, you want to study East Asian history at Brown, where you will understand the context that your parents immigrated out of, and textiles at RISD, where you can craft bojagi (Korean wrapping cloth) with a sensitivity to its historical context.
(5) Maybe you’ve always been passionate about both art and liberal arts, but have no concrete connection between the two, and that’s also perfectly fine. You could talk about how you want to further explore and hone in these passions, so that by your second year of undergrad, you’ll have a stronger idea of what specifically you want to study.
Your art portfolio, Common App essay, and other supplemental essays will also speak volumes about who you are, so make sure to use this essay to highlight parts of yourself previously unmentioned. You’ve also probably spent the previous essays explaining “why Brown,” so use this essay to delve deep into why you would thrive in an arts and design centered environment in conjunction with Brown’s liberal arts curriculum.
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