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How to Write the Brown University and PLME Supplemental Essays 2018-2019
Perched on top of the College Hill neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, Brown University, a member of the Ivy League, is one of the most prestigious colleges in the United States. Brown is currently ranked #14 by the US News College Ranking, and for the Class of 2022, accepted seven percent of total applicants. Notable alumni from Brown include actress Emma Watson, current Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.
Brown, founded in 1764, is the seventh oldest institution of higher education in the United States, and is characterized by its Open Curriculum, in which general education requirements are rendered null, freeing its 6,500 eclectic undergraduates to craft their own educational journeys.
Brown University requires a completed Common Application. In addition to the universal essay prompt, Brown requires four supplemental essays, as well as additional prompts if you are applying to the Program in Liberal Medical Education or the Brown-RISD Dual Degree Program. The prompts may seem daunting at first, but we here at CollegeVine are here to help you tackle these essays to the best of your ability!
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 Questions
How to Write the Brown University Supplemental Essays
In all of the supplemental essays, you want to be well researched into specific aspects at Brown, almost as if you were a student there yourself. You want to show the admissions team that you are intimately familiar with Brown’s community and curriculum, and that you believe you are a great fit inside this ecosystem. Doing this will allow you, as the applicant, to stand out from all the other essays pouring generic praise on Brown’s community and curriculum. These prompt guides will help you do just that.
As you approach this set of essay questions, make sure that the final result is a well rounded portfolio, in which essays provide enough contrast to adequately show of your complexities.
For example, the first essay prompt asks about an activity you do, while the next one asks about your intended area of study. If you want to study, say, biology, you don’t want to spend the first essay talking about your research internship when you could talk about it in the second prompt.
In the essay dealing with a community you were a part of, make sure to minimize overlap with it and the Common App essay, as students frequently cover core parts of their identity in both. This supplemental essay is a good outlet for you to explore a niche community that would complement your flagship Common App essay.
Throughout all four of the general Brown University supplement essays, you have the opportunity to talk about your extracurricular activities and work experiences, but only here are you directly encouraged to place an activity at the center of your essay.
Strategically, you want to choose an activity that captures a large part of your identity (if you haven’t already done so in your Common App personal statement). However, if you feel like you’ve sufficiently talked about your major activities elsewhere, you could use this short prompt to talk about a different, light hearted hobby you may have.
For example, say you have a strong set of conventional achievements and experience in STEM fields, and you’ve already written about them. Here, you could talk about your love for gardening, which you couldn’t really place anywhere else. Using these 150 words to illustrate your feelings when digging into the Earth and awaiting for life to grow out could excellently round out your college profile.
You only have 150 words, so you should avoid summarizing your achievements and duties for too long (this should happen more in the activities and honors sections of your Common App), and talk more in depth about specific experiences that shaped who you are today. You could approach this “briefly elaborate” part in two ways:
(1) You can offer a past tense narrative that immerses the reader in how you were thinking and feeling in a certain situation or moment. For example, you could bring the reader back to a basketball game where your teammate had recently suffered a family tragedy. As the team’s captain, you rallied the team around that teammate, and although you did not win the game, the camaraderie that was built that night elevated the team’s level of play moving forward.
(2) You could use present tense narrative that takes a “slice of life” moment from an activity and walks through your state of mind and emotions as it takes place. For example, if you are into debate, you could choose the moment right before you start speaking, and illustrate to the reader your state of mind that allows you to excel in the round that is about to begin.
For example, if marching band formed a large part of your identity in high school, talk about your junior year season, and what you and your band achieved. Hone in on a breakthrough moment in the year, whether that was a specific tournament or a significant practice session. If you were a section leader, talk about a specific conflict you had to resolve that allowed your team to grow better and stronger.
Moreso than listing how much you won (in marching band or anything else), make sure to emphasize the process behind, and the struggle it took to get there. Use a specific moment to paint a picture of your dedication to the extracurricular activity. The most effective essays don’t even really mention the achievement at all, but they instead dive into why the activity was enjoyable or meaningful.
You may have also held part time jobs while in high school, which you could also talk about. However, what may be more valuable than talking about the activity itself (“bagging groceries taught me discipline”) may be describing why the job was important for you (“I bagged groceries because I needed to contribute to the family income. At first, I hated how dull the work was, and how I had to work while my friends didn’t, but I eventually came to appreciate both the work and my contribution to my family. Nevertheless balancing work and school remained incredibly hard.”).
Ultimately, this essay shouldn’t describe an activity, but should use an activity to describe you, and what drives you and fascinates you.
In this “Why X major” essay, you first want to think about why exactly you authentically resonate with the subject you chose, and why exactly you want to study said subject rather than others. You should definitely utilize the essay “hints” to guide your process: the “skill or concept you found challenging and rewarding” and “experiences beyond coursework.”
Focus your essay on a specific topic (cell division) that could illustrate and symbolize a love for the overall topic (biology). If you struggled with understanding this topic, talk about that, and lead the reader to your moment of enlightenment that fostered within you a great appreciation for the subject.
Another key in this prompt is the word area(s): don’t be afraid to talk about different academic subjects you are interested in, but you should keep it limited to two topics, or even better, an interdisciplinary field that connects the two. Make sure to connect these subjects to specific courses/programs/special features present at Brown, which you would definitely take advantage of if accepted—even though this prompt asks you just about your concentration, the prompt is also asking why you want to concentrate in that subject specifically at Brown.
Here are some examples to illustrate the transition between your past experiences and your potential future experiences at Brown:
Example 1: If you’re interested in computer science, or are vaguely passionate about the workings of technology, you could talk about a specific side project you worked on, or a difficult language you learned, or a class that you took (if your school did not offer classes, you could talk about the struggles behind self-learning computer science). Then you could mention how much you want to study computer science at Brown, where you could take the famous introductory CS 15 course offered by Professor Andy Van Dam, or how you could pursue computer science in tandem with your interest in fields like anthropology and history because of the Open Curriculum.
Example 2: If you were always a book lover, and put down English literature as your intended concentration, talk about the book(s) that really opened up the world to you, or a piece of writing that took immense effort and time to write. Then, you could connect this interest to studying literature at Brown, where you would be free to pursue your interests in all of the humanities, including literature from all over the world. Name dropping related Brown courses like “Literatures of Immigration” and “Proust, Joyce and Faulkner” could also help. You could even talk about the legacy of contemporary writers who attended Brown, such as Jeffrey Eugenides and Edwidge Danticat and Lois Lowry.
Example 3: If politics, activism, or community work is what you always gravitated towards, talk about your experience on a campaign, or as a political intern, or even in a a school club like mock trial or model UN. You could then talk about studying politics at Brown and taking advantage of its programs such as Brown in Washington, the Swearer Center for Public Service, and ample opportunities to participate in local Rhode Island government activities.
This prompt is quite challenging, because it is asking two very different and expansive questions that you must answer in less than 250 words. The key here will be finding strong examples for each part, and seamlessly transitioning between “open curriculum” and “Brown community.” You may just have to start a new paragraph. However, you may also find that the two are related: your contribution to the campus community will be driven by you growing as a person through taking advantage of the Open Curriculum.
Brown’s Open Curriculum is perhaps the key component that distinguishes Brown from its peer institutions. In Open Curriculum, students have no general education requirements, and instead choose their own classes. In order to graduate, students need only to complete their concentration requirements, as well as two writing class requirements.
However, the Open Curriculum is not for everyone, but rather for those who want to take their undergraduate education into their own hands. Here are a few examples and directions in which to go:
First, the interdisciplinary study option. Say you want to concentrate in computer science, but you’re also interested in its connection to ethics. And on the side, you love ceramics. You could talk about how at Brown, doing all of these things simultaneously is feasible because of a lack of general education requirements. You could also talk about taking advantage of RISD courses as a Brown student, and maybe end with talking about how you would love to combine your interests in computer science and art by taking RISD’s “Stop Motion Animation” class.
Second, the “I’m interested in a ton of things but I have no idea what I want to study” option. Because you have until the end of your sophomore year to declare your major, you can talk about how Brown is a perfect place to fulfill all your intellectual cravings and eventually hone in what exactly you’d like to concentrate in. However, there should be some common pattern or intellectual framework that could unify these seemingly disparate interests. For example, you could unite your interests in sculpture and neuroanatomy as part of your desire to seek understanding through 3D modeling.
Additionally, you could mention Brown’s long class shopping period, the fact that students in every class choose to be there, and the ability to take classes outside of your comfort zone pass fail.
In the second part of the prompt, “what do you hope to contribute to the Brown community,” the admissions team is asking you to do some shameless self promotion: what is unique about you, and how can you add to the already abundant diversity on campus? For this prompt, you could browse through the list of preexisting campus organizations and think about which ones you might join, and why. Using this long list as guidance, think about the thematic areas that align with who you are—maybe there’s two to four clubs that you could join as part of your main extracurricular interest, but feel free to talk about other college activities you’d like to do that you don’t have a lot of experience in, or niche clubs you’d like to try out. Also, if something you want to do isn’t on the list, you could mention how you want to start a new organization on campus.
However, this prompt isn’t limited to club participation, as campus life is so much more than that:
You could talk about the unique set of life experiences you bring, and how that is outside of the traditional narrative of what a “Brown Student” is. Through these experiences, you believe that whether it is in a dorm room, campus newspaper, or panel discussion, you can bring unrepresented point of view to the table. However, because there are tens of thousands of applicants each year, make sure that if you want to go this route, you believe your story is truly unique.
Maybe you love working with the local community, wherever you go. Back home, you worked with local political chapters, and volunteered at under-resourced elementary schools. You could talk about how you would want to carry this over to Brown, and forge intimate connections between the Brown community and the local Providence community.
You could also just talk about how you would love to continue a non-extra curricular or work related hobby to campus. For example, if you love doing street photography, maybe you can talk about creating an Instagram account that features Brown students in cool outfits around campus. This, for you, would be your way of bringing the school closer.
This essay prompt is pretty straightforward, but the possibility of things you can write about is boundless. Before you start writing this essay, think considerably about how your different environments have affected you. This could be thought of in matters of race and economic status, or in regards to the specific people surrounding you.
First, let’s look at “physical places where you have lived.” If you’ve grown up travelling all around the world with, say, a military or foreign service family, talk about living in these foreign environments shaped your adolescence. Say you grew up in North Carolina, but suddenly your father’s job called him to Germany, where you lived for the next four years. Talk about how you had to completely shift your cultural norms, and how you had to overcome uprooting your previous life. You could also talk about place in an abstract sense, especially if your family comes from outside of the United States, or moved to a vastly different part of the country. If you have a tension in identity that comes from being a minority group, or by simply being in a new environment, talk about how you dealt with that, or how that has shaped your identity.
If you grew up in the same city your entire life, you may have formed deep connections with a community in your area. This could be your local church, your Taekwondo studio, a refugee center, your grandma’s house, your local baseball field, your neighborhood grocery store, or pretty much anything else. Think about how engaging in activities in a certain place has shaped how you view the world.
For example, by tutoring students learning English as a second language, you have grown in empathy for those who lack the resources to get the educational catch-up they need, mirroring how you yourself struggled learning English in your Spanish dominated home. This has lead you to want to eventually study public policy and education at Brown, so that you can eventually become a bilingual teacher, as well as hopefully influence education policy to address the needs you experienced and saw.
Or you can discuss how you spent countless afternoons getting lost at Costco, fascinated with all the various electronics out for display. Talk about how you spent hours tinkering with all the sample products, which contributed to and symbolized your eventual interest in electrical engineering.
The third part of the prompt, a “group,” is the broadest of all, and you could talk about any structured time spent with one or more people that impacted you. This could be your school’s drumline, your group of friends, or your JV basketball team. This also does not have to be a physical community, but could easily be an online community you found a home in. If you have spent a large chunk of your time talking to groups of people interested in a certain TV show or video game or clothing brand, don’t be afraid to talk about how that influenced your maturation. Anything that substantially shaped who you are today works.
The key here is to emphasize why exactly this seemingly mundane group is close to your heart, and make sure to show rather than tell. Focusing on a dialogue with a groupmate, a person you helped, or specific details in a house that you lived in will allow you to avoid generalities and cliches. These specific moments can easily transition into you talking about your general feelings and point of view about this group. Overall, don’t worry too much about how impressive a particular group sounds on paper. If you dedicate yourself to any group, community, or place, and write candidly about your experience, the passion will inevitably show to the reader.
Although you should have probably mentioned these tests and scores in the honors and activities section of the Common Application, feel free to reiterate them again here if it is important to you. Make sure to only drop in the award or score itself, and don’t create another essay, as there is plenty of space in the other prompts to do so.
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 3.9%. A helpful guide is CollegeVine’s overview to accelerated BS/MD programs, which can be found at this link. Another guide specifically on Brown’s PLME is found here.
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 a 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. However, this does not mean you have to have both majors decided, and you can definitely talk more generally about why you want to pursue a STEM/social science/humanities education in tandem with an arts/design education.
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 + your common app essay and other supplemental essays will also speak volumes about who you are, and 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.
As you have seen, Brown University requires numerous supplemental essays, many of which you may struggle with. If you want professional help on your Brown application essays, click to learn about our College Apps Program.
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