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How to Write the Brown University and PLME Essays 2017-2018
As an Ivy League institution and the seventh-oldest university in the United States, Brown University is recognized as one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. Located in Providence, Rhode Island, Brown is known for its highly competitive admissions process, with 8.3% of applicants admitted to the class of 2021.
Getting into Brown is no easy task, but by the end of this article, you will have some solid pointers on how to start writing creative and meaningful responses to Brown’s questions, as well as some general advice that will be applicable no matter where you are applying.
Since its founding in 1764, Brown has distinguished itself from other institutions by granting its student body an unparalleled degree of academic freedom. Its “open curriculum” lets students forgo the normal assortment of General Education classes and allows students to study “what they choose, all that they choose, and nothing but what they choose.” As we will discuss in detail below, part of what Brown wants its applicants to do in their admissions essays is explain how they will use this freedom.
In addition to addressing the assortment of short supplemental essays that Brown asks all its applicants to write, we will also offer some suggestions about how to approach the essay prompts for two of Brown’s alternative undergraduate programs: the dual degree with the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME).
Brown University Application Essay Prompts
All applications to Brown University use the Common Application, which asks students to write one personal essay. As you write your personal essay for the Common Application with an eye towards your application to Brown, one thing you should keep in mind is that most of Brown’s supplementary questions all come with strict word limits of 100 or 150 words.
This means that your Common Application essay will have to do a lot of the heavy-lifting in terms of presenting a multi-dimensional and thoughtful picture of yourself. There is, however, always room for some creativity, even in a 100-word response that seems to just be asking for basic information.
The purpose of this short essay is to flesh out the bare-bones activity list that you submitted to Brown. Maybe you were on student council for four years, and maybe you even received the Orange County Youth Leadership award, but in the context of a list it is hard for the admissions committee to know what those titles and numbers mean or what you actually got out of those activities. This essay gives you a chance to “elaborate.”
The first thing to keep in mind is that if you have already written in detail about your experience playing trombone in the high school marching band for your Common Application Essay, then you should talk about a different activity or job here. Your supplement should show admissions officers something different from what was represented on your Common App.
But 150 words is not a lot of space. Even in this compact area, you don’t want to speak in vague or general terms about how “marching band taught me that to be a good leader, you need to listen.”
One approach is to talk in a straightforward manner about some of the specific things you accomplished during your time in that activity that speak to your deep commitment. This can take the form of offering up specific numbers or quantities.
Maybe as treasurer for your marching band, you coordinated four different fundraisers, bringing in a total of $10,000? Maybe you programmed an app that scolds people for failing to floss their teeth everyday and you have over 5,000 downloads? Maybe when you won the South Bay Regional science fair for your study of how seasonal changes affect frog populations, you were selected as one out of 400 projects?
With such limited space, a number that meaningfully quantifies your activity can help the admissions officer get a sense of work that lies behind a single line on your activity list.
An alternative way to tackle this prompt is to take a more literary approach. Even in the space of 150 words, you can still tell a micro-story about a meaningful moment when you were, for example, serving as an after-school math tutor for seventh-graders. Part of such a response might look something like this:
When tutoring math for the Robertson Middle School after-school program, I tried to relate the abstract problems of mathematics to the video games, television shows, and comics that were pulling them away from their homework. In particular, one of my mentees was struggling with a lesson on probability.
To help him focus, I decided to try talking to him about Pokémon instead: the variable damage outputs, the chances of a rival randomly switching between characters, the difference between a rare and common creature appearance. He still struggled after he understood that the math book’s talk about dice and playing cards — games he’d never played — was also part of a game he played every day. But we could at least agree that there was something interesting in his math lesson that was worth struggling over.
While the above example lacks a sufficient intro/conclusion, it is illustrative in that it does not go into detail about the number of hours this student spent tutoring or the specific awards that he won as the result of his participation. Instead, it tells one specific story that demonstrates both a knowledge of mathematics and a keen sensitivity to good pedagogy.
Ideally, when you tell the admissions committee about your activity, you will also be revealing something about yourself — how you think and solve problems, how you relate to others, and what makes you a passionate and interesting person to have around. The idea here is to tell the admissions committee just enough so that they want to invite you to their campus and learn more.
Depending on your own particular history, there are two (and maybe even three!) different ways of thinking about this prompt.
First, maybe you have lived in many different places growing up. If your family moves often, you can take this prompt as an opportunity to explain your adaptive personality and how you deal with unfamiliar situations. One potential answer might look like this:
Because my father worked for the United States Air Force, I have lived in four different cities. I was born in San Diego and lived there for 5 years. Then I lived in Tokyo (3 years), Hawaii (5 years), and have been living in Berlin for the last 5 years. One of the things that I learned moving from place to place was the importance of finding structured activities that would allow me to make new friends.
But maybe this example could be improved. This author has been a lot of different places and has interpreted “where have you lived” and “for how long” very literally. A better response might forgo talking about the exact number of years lived in each place in order to talk a little bit more about what it was like to play soccer in four different locations.
Second, maybe you have lived in the same place your whole life. That does not mean you should just write this question off; you can discuss the impact on your life by the location that you currently reside in. Here, instead of emphasizing the diversity of places you have lived, you can talk about your longstanding connection to your community.
Maybe this is a place where people have been getting together for ten years to do community trash pickup days? Also, even if you’ve lived in one place, maybe it has changed and evolved a lot recent years. Maybe you’ve watched as new immigrant populations found a home in your area, or maybe gentrification or deindustrialization has changed the political and economic landscape of your home town.
However you answer this prompt, just be careful not to repeat yourself in the next essay, which asks you to talk about your “community.” Ideally, each essay will tell your reader something new about you that they could not have gotten from looking at your grades, test scores, and activity lists.
Finally, if you want to try something a little bit riskier, there is a third option for how to answer this question. Most students will assume that Brown is asking about the times that your family has moved to a new location, with moving trucks and a new apartment. But you can interpret a “variety of places” in a slightly more poetic sense.
Maybe you haven’t lived or ever been to Vienna or New Orleans, but as you alternate between playing classical violin and fiddle, you feel like you have a little bit of both places in you? If you have a very strong extracurricular passion, you might want to talk about how you “live” in the local community center, the museum, or the art studio.
Again, if you find yourself unable to write answers that don’t overlap with the next prompt, then thinking outside of the box might help.
This prompt is very similar to the previous question, as well as the question on the Common Application that asks you to share a story about a meaningful “ background, identity, interest, or talent.” The first thing to remember is that when you decide how to write you essays, you will want to make sure that each question covers new ground.
While you may be tempted to discuss your ethnicity or nationality in response to this prompt, it is difficult to do so without drawing on clichéd themes because of the 150-word limit.
Instead, you should probably draw on an extracurricular activity, friend group, or family. When you consider this group, the focus should be primarily on explaining the group’s impact on you. You should only spend one or two sentences explaining the group — the remainder of the essay should talk about interactions with the group and analyze them.
As with the examples above, it might be helpful to focus on a specific anecdote. For example, if you played on a football team with other students who were taking Chemistry AP, you might talk about reviewing flashcards between weightlifting sets during early morning conditioning.
While it may have been difficult to pull yourself out of bed some mornings, the mixture of mental and physical conditioning might have taught you that you learn best not alone at a desk but rather in a disciplined community setting.
Ideally, if you are going to talk about some kind of activity that many, many other applicants are going to mention (like playing on a sports team or participating in a club), it can always be helpful to focus in on a small and strange moment that you can’t imagine any other football player or student council representative talking about.
While a “Why this major?” essay would normally require you to specifically address the reasons you chose the major, the qualifications you possess for that major, and the reasons you like Brown’s program of study for that major, for this prompt you should pick just one of these aspects to highlight because you only have 150 words
Specific details about Brown are only required if you plan on addressing why Brown’s program (Mathematics, for example) appeals to you. Otherwise, you should focus on more intrinsic factors such as why you want to study math (ideally more than just for career reasons), why you enjoy doing math, or why you’re qualified to study math at Brown.
For example, you could point to your favorite type of math and briefly analyze why it appeals to you. Maybe you have an affinity for recursion and the paradoxes of set theory. Maybe, like Douglas Hofstadter, you are fascinated by how “self-reference and formal rules allow systems to acquire meaning despite being made up of ‘meaningless’ elements.”
Alternatively, you could discuss an extracurricular activity (such as Math League) that introduced you to the joys of competitive math. Because you are talking about your major field of study, and not just the thrill of competition, you might want to stress how you especially enjoyed the collaborative environment of your high school Mathlete team.
Finally, you might write an essay where you speak to something unique that Brown has to offer someone with your interests. Maybe you love geometry and are especially excited about the inter-campus collaborative initiatives that join Brown and Yale, like the BATMOBYLE lecture series. If you take this route, it may take some deep digging on Brown’s website to find the specific activity that speaks directly to your academic interests.
If you go with describing “more generally” the academic topics or modes of thought that engage you, your answer need not be so “general” as to be vague. It may simply be that your interests do not fit neatly into any one disciplinary category — which is perfectly fine!
Brown’s open curriculum encourages interdisciplinary exploration. For example, maybe you have spent a lot of time in the last year inside a hospital while your grandfather was battling cancer.
While you do not see yourself as pursuing a career as an oncologist, you were fascinated by the design of the hospital — why were the walls painted that color? Who chose the art that hangs on the walls? Is there any intentional thought behind the way chairs are arranged in the waiting room? You’ve always been fond of interior decorating, but what really grabbed your attention was how the color palette and the furnishing contribute to the healthcare environment.
Again, it is not clear what kind of major you might take here. Maybe psychology? Maybe art? Maybe the growing subdiscipline of “healthcare design?” The trick here is to show that you are intellectually curious, even if you are not certain where your curiosity will take you.
When answering this question, it is important to recognize that it is actually asking two different, but related, questions, and is a little bit more specific than the normal “Why do you want to attend Fancy University X?” question. For the normal “Why this university question?” you might do some research online and find a few specific programs or initiatives that really speak to you.
For example, if you were going to Columbia, you — as an aspiring journalist of international conflict — might talk about your interest in events on covering human rights held by their journalism school. The same tactic can work for this Brown essay, but with a twist.
This essay question makes reference to “the Brown Curriculum” or the “open curriculum” that is a peculiar feature of Brown’s university system. In order to answer this question, you need to understand what the Brown Curriculum is, and explain why you think it would suit you particularly well.
As Brown defines it:
The open curriculum eliminated all distribution requirements, introduced a credit/no credit grading option and generally encouraged maximum flexibility in each student’s course of study. Rather than defining a broad set of distribution requirements, the open curriculum gives students the freedom to choose for themselves. This philosophy has defined Brown’s place in the landscape of higher education for more than four decades.
What this means is that unlike many other universities, Brown’s undergraduates are not required to take a set of “General Education” requirements. This allows students to pick and choose courses that most interest them — whether that be diving more deeply into their chosen object of study, or exploring a wide variety of classes.
Indeed, many of the majors at Brown University have relatively few “required” classes so as to encourage flexibility and exploration. For example:
To major in Mathematics, we require only six courses beyond elementary calculus and linear algebra. Most math majors take many more courses than this in math, but our requirements allow those who wish to major in math to take many courses in non-mathematical subjects. We feel that a broad undergraduate liberal education is important for any student at Brown.
There are pros and cons to going to a school with an open curriculum, and Brown recognizes that its approach is unique. The purpose of this essay question is to make sure you know what you are getting into when you apply to Brown and that you are game for the challenges and possibilities that a truly open curriculum offers.
The most straightforward approach to this question is to describe a plan of study that matches you own idiosyncratic interests, but you will have to be concise because you only have 200 words. Are you interested in international affairs? You might start off with a sentence or two talking about how you came to this interest, maybe because you have lived in Beijing and Qatar and noticed unexpected areas of cultural and political overlap.
In order to pursue this specific interest, you might say that Brown’s open curriculum will provide you with the flexibility you need to continue studying the Chinese language, as well as the cultural and political structures of East Asian and Middle Eastern regions. While other schools certainly offer courses on Chinese literature and Modern Middle Eastern History, Brown’s open curriculum affords you the time to dive deeper into these topics.
After having described how Brown’s open curriculum will allow you to pursue your own particular intellectual interests, if you still have some space, you might turn to mention a few events that Brown has held in recent years that speak to your interests, like Ambassador Chas Freeman’s three-part talk on “Reimagining the International Environment.”
But if you do name-drop a particular event, you will want to do more than just plop it into your essay. With just one to two meaty sentences, you can still start engaging that event in a critical conversation.
For example, you might say that your interest in international relations would make you excited to attend events like Chas Freeman’s talk, but you are also curious as to why “China and Asia” and “the Middle East” are offered as distinct topics on separate days. You might raise the question of what a reimagined international environment would look like if we could not divide the world into discrete geographic groups.
Specialized Program Prompts
In addition to the essays that you will need to write for Brown’s supplement to the Common Application, there are also several specialized programs that Brown offers that require an additional, lengthier essay. These include the application for a dual degree from both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (or RISD) and the Program in Liberal Medical Education (or PLME).
You should not fill out these supplemental prompts unless you really do want to do a dual degree in art and design or become a medical doctor.
The Brown-RISD program is designed to give students an opportunity to blend a Brown undergraduate education with the artistic majors and options available at the Rhode Island School of Design. You should have a very clear interdisciplinary artistic-academic or career goal in mind with this essay — just describing a general interest in art and another subject is not specific enough for the program.
Since one of the short-essay prompts asks you about your choice of major already, your primary focus should be on the artistic field you plan to study at RISD and the interdisciplinary application therein.
While the prompt simply asks for your reasons for selection, the admissions committees also want to know about your qualifications for the program, and with that in mind, you should include some reference to relevant experience (whether extracurricular or in school) that will simultaneously serve as a reason and qualification for your application.
Here, specificity is the key. Returning to the example of hospital interior decorating that I described above, you might mention that you are specifically interested in RISD’s program in furniture design because you think a better hospital waiting-room chair can be made. If you are going to apply for RISD, you will not be talking about your vague interest in the arts.
Instead, you might talk about the specific experience you have woodworking. With 500 words, you have a little bit more space to talk at length about one of your projects. For example, you might tell the story of how you went about making a miniature table set for your younger cousin. In particular, you might discuss the challenges you encountered while trying to learn how to make a curved surface to avoid sharp corners and maximize safety without the use of an expensive machine.
The key in this essay would be tying your specific project back to your interdisciplinary interests: When you are designing furniture and setting up spaces, you are always rigorously focused on maximizing health, safety, and utility for the end users. You want to bring the same attention to detail that you used when making a chair for young children at play to making a chair suited to people seated in more dire and anxious circumstances.
This is a pretty standard “Why medicine?” prompt, which means that you should use many of the same tactics as you would for that type of essay (see our overview to 7-year med programs). To provide a brief rehash, in order to convey why a guaranteed-admissions program is a good “fit” for your goals, there are few different things you need to discuss.
First, you need to discuss why you are qualified for medicine; namely what sort of extracurricular activities did you do in high school that were related to medicine, whether tangentially or directly. More specifically, you want to convey your abilities in two key areas: the scientific side of medicine (i.e., the ability to understand and cure diseases), and the humanistic side of medicine (the ability to connect with patients and care for them).
To address both of these aspects, you will need to weave a narrative that connects your technical scientific training to your capacity for empathy and care. You might begin talking about your fascination with physiology, the thrill of cutting open a frog, seeing the obscure jumble of organs, and learning how to sort out the parts that the text book identifies with neat colored markers.
Maybe what interests you about the human body is how it often deviates from the norms that appear in textbooks. Transitioning from an interest in the technical aspects of physiology, you might switch to the more humanistic side of talking about how, as a medical practitioner, you look forward to working with patients who have limited mobility.
More than just a technical understanding of how one human physiognomy might differ from another, you might talk about how the time you have spent working in a restaurant where you were responsible for serving all kinds of different bodies, with all kinds of different mobility restrictions. What did you learn from having people in wheelchairs tell you what they needed in order to comfortably enjoy their meal? How did you open up the space in order to make them comfortable asking you for accommodations? Your patients, after all, are not just frogs on a dissecting table.
Patient care experience is a big plus for this part of the essay, and experiences such as volunteering at a nursing home or shadowing a physician are great enhancers. In the process of outlining your qualifications, be sure to discuss why you enjoy each of those two facets of medicine. But, as I’ve suggested above, especially when you are talking about the humanistic side of medicine, your experience doing any kind of caring or service work can offer a useful perspective.
After all, when you are treating patients, most of them don’t want to be treated like “people who are in a hospital” — they want to feel like they are in a place where they have some measure of agency, where they can ask questions and reflect on their experience.
One thing worth mentioning: There is a particular clichéd version of this essay that talks about how your grandmother suffered from some kind of disease and died. You felt awful about losing her and hope to become a medical professional because you want to cure that disease.
While it is true that a compelling essay about the death of one’s grandmother can be written, it is also the sad truth that everyone’s grandmother dies. If you tell a story like this, you will want to address not just your desire to provide healthcare, but the specific aspects of your training and experience that have prepared you to pursue a career in medicine.
Moreover, it is also worth thinking carefully about how you talk about what the practice of doing medicine entails. The desire to “heal” people and return them to a “normal” life is certainly admirable. But there are some kinds of necessary healthcare work that do not result in a healthy ending where the hidden ailment is eradicated; sometimes healthcare is the persistent and empathetic management of suffering.
The final thing you want to address is why specifically you want to join an accelerated program. Simply saying that you want to save time (the real reason for many applicants) can backfire. Instead, if you have an application with lots of medical and science extracurricular activities, you can speak about why those activities solidified your desire to do medicine.
Otherwise, if your resume is more balanced, you can resort to saying that you are committed to medicine because you already spent high school exploring other fields and have ruled out other possibilities. In the end, probably your most compelling argument for entering the accelerated program will be the level of maturity and thoughtfulness that you demonstrate in your essay as a whole.
Brown’s PLME is unique in that it is one of few guaranteed-admission medical programs that offers students the opportunity to blend liberal arts with the science-heavy curriculum of most medical programs. Accordingly, they want to see that you have some significant connection with and interest in liberal arts fields while applying to the program.
You should definitely do some research on the specifics of Brown’s PLME. Be sure to highlight specific research or academic opportunities in your essay, and even drill down into specific courses if you can find ones that meet your needs.
Beyond the academics of the program, you should also highlight some sort of humanistic question or skill you are trying to develop. In particular, given the complexity of modern medicine, outlining a desire to learn about fields like medical economics could be extremely beneficial. Alternatively, if you are interested in philosophy, you might note that Brown has a scholarly concentration in “Medical Humanities and Ethics.”
While you want to make sure that you are specific about the courses that you might take and the different programs and certificates you might pursue, you have 500 words, so you will have a little bit of time to be more creative in your response if you so choose.
For example, as you dig through Brown’s website, you might note that there are several “Rotating Art Exhibits” put together by medical professionals and artists. What kind of exhibit would you propose? How does that exhibit speak to your own particular interests, which you would also be pursuing in your course of study? Maybe you want to create an interactive exhibit where people going in and out of the hospital can enter a recording booth and complete the sentence “the hardest thing about my day was…”
You might spend a sentence or two about what you think such a project would accomplish, and how you might present those recordings. If you are interested in creative writing and audio storytelling, maybe this project is about the different ways that we express frustration, and that you think it’s important to create a space within the hospital that recognizes frustration as an understandable emotional response.
To move from your description of the art project to your discussion of your academic plan, you might then simply talk about the different kinds of classes you would need to take in order to build on the interests that motivated the project — maybe courses on the physiology and psychology of the emotions, as well as courses in creative writing and audio storytelling.
The key here is not necessarily to describe the exact set of courses that you will take, but rather to show your admissions officer that you have done your research and that you can assemble a plan. As with the previous question, Brown is trying to figure out if you have the maturity and foresight necessary to start your medical training early and move through it quickly.
The “plan an art exhibit” is just one of many ways of doing this, but we offer it as an example because it is one way of demonstrating that you can think holistically and creatively about how the different aspects of your education might complement one another. Good luck!
Finally, check out the CollegeVine list of 2017-2018 essay prompts for all colleges and universities.