Brown University Essay Guide

In this Brown University Essay Guide, Admissions Experts Nick and Elinor will cover how to approach the 2020-2021 Brown University supplementary essays. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Brown University is the 7th oldest institution of higher education in the United States and a member of the esteemed Ivy League. It is often touted as one of the most progressive Ivy League universities — in 1969, students Elliot Maxwell and Ira Magaziner managed to successfully organize a student movement that convinced the administration to do away with their traditional core curriculum. In its place stands Brown’s hallmark Open Curriculum which liberates students of their typical general education requirements and allows them to explore courses of their own choosing. Understanding this history and how it shapes Brown’s current philosophy on education is an essential first-step to writing successful supplemental essays when applying to Brown.

Prompt 1: Brown’s Open Curriculum allows students to explore broadly while also diving deeply into their academic pursuits. Tell us about an academic interest (or interests) that excites you, and how you might use the Open Curriculum to pursue it. (250 words)

Nick: It’s no surprise that Brown’s first essay prompt is about the Open Curriculum. After my first few days on campus, it was quite apparent to me that there were three general types of Brown students: the one who has no idea even remotely what they want to study, the one who wants to become an engineer as well as a philosopher, and the applied math major who will never take an english class again in their life. Each of these three types of students will be able to take the fullest advantage of Brown’s Open Curriculum and pursue what they deem worth pursuing academically.

In this prompt, you should try to paint a picture of what your educational experience at Brown University will look like based on your current academic or extracurricular interests. Are you a Chem-Olympiad national champion who finds comfort in the process of writing out resonance structures? Have you published a few journal articles about the binding affinity of oxygen to red blood cells under different environmental conditions, but you also spend your summers working for your local representative’s campaign team? Or maybe you’re just confused about you really want to study because you go to a STEM school and are one of the only people there who reads Jane Austen outside of class for fun.

Whatever it is that you know — or don’t know — you want to study, talk about that in this essay and specifically reference how the open curriculum would allow you to personalize your education to your liking.

You don’t have many words to work with in this prompt, so find a way to be concise without sacrificing flavor. It helps if you can include the name of a course, professor, or Brown organization that aligns with what you wish to study.

Elinor: Brown University’s Open Curriculum is undoubtedly one of its most attractive features for many students. At Brown, there are no required courses outside of your major — you just need to take two classes that have a writing component, called “WRIT”. This allows students to chart their own education — reflecting Brown’s core values of independence and intellectual curiosity.

With this prompt, it’s important that you answer both parts of the question. You need to explain how the ability to take whatever classes you want outside of your major is going to contribute to your intellectual growth. Maybe you’re planning on majoring in computer science, but you’ve always wanted to learn more about education, and you also love to read. You can talk about how you’re excited to be able to dive deep into all three of these passions at Brown University, taking courses in the CS, education, and English departments. Make sure to name specific courses or Professors that interest you, and why. Be specific.

While the open curriculum appeals to many students because it means they can avoid taking subjects they don’t like, don’t start listing subjects you’ll be glad to never have to study. Instead, focus on how this will allow you to explore multiple subjects in depth outside of your major. If you’re undecided, then you can take this even further, and explain how this academic freedom will let you take the time to reflect and learn more about yourself and what truly interests you.

Prompt 2: At Brown, you will learn as much from your peers outside the classroom as in academic spaces. How will you contribute to the Brown community? (250 words)

Nick: This prompt is fairly straightforward. What do you as an applicant bring to the table? How do you envision yourself making an impact on the Brown community and leaving a lasting legacy? How will you shape the perspective of the friends that you’re surrounded by when you’re technically not learning?

Perhaps you are in an a cappella group right now and want to perform with the Jabberwocks under Faunce Arch, because you saw a video of them singing and loved the effect that they had on the students who were listening. Maybe you and your family are part of a less main-stream religion, and you’re frequently inviting your friends to participate or learn more about it.

One of the most important aspects of college, particularly at a school like Brown, are the connections that you make outside of the classroom and the interactions that you share with others. I traded many hours of sleep during my first year in college simply meeting new people in my dorm lounge and engaging in conversations about topics like politics, religion, and philosophy. Brown is an incredibly diverse community both racially and intellectually. Tapping into that wealth of knowledge, learning about other people’s cultures, and contributing your own perspective to the mix is an opportunity that you simply cannot experience in a classroom.

When answering this prompt, think about the conversations that you have with your friends. How have your own experiences shaped your outlook on life? How have you had an impact on others? If you’re able to successfully communicate that to admissions officers, it’ll help them envision what type of person you’ll be on campus and in the community.

Elinor: This prompt can be difficult for students — it is both pretty specific, yet also open-ended. The key is to remember that it is vague for a reason: this is your chance to explain how your circumstances and background make you unique.

What are your core traits and values? Reflect on experiences such as extracurriculars that have resulted in personal growth for you, and how those experiences have impacted the way you interact with others.

For example, maybe you are a very organized person, and you’ve used that skill to get involved in social justice movements in your city. You can talk about how you plan on getting involved in the social justice scene at Brown University, and how you will use your skills to contribute to movements you care about. If you’re interested in starting a new club, this is a great opportunity to talk about that.

Tell us about a place or community you call home. How has it shaped your perspective? (250 words)

Nick: There are a number of directions you can go with this final essay prompt. If you live abroad or moved around a lot growing up, then talk about that (you’ll actually find a lot of these people at Brown). But for the rest of us who grew up in suburban America and have lived in the same town for our entire lives, it’s probably best that we go a different direction with this prompt.

When I personally answered this prompt a few years ago, I talked about the science labs at my high school. When I was a senior, my school had just completed construction on a brand new, state-of-the-art science building equipped with instruments like 3D printers, electron scanning microscopes, and real-time PCR machines. But in the three years prior, I practically lived in the damp and dingy labs in the basement of my school that had last been renovated in the 1960’s. It didn’t matter that the floors and ceilings were probably crawling with mold and asbestos — every Saturday and every day after school in the winter, I would spend hours studying for Science Olympiad competitions with my fellow teammates. To me, these labs became my home. And the people around me? My family. Home was never about the physical structure, but rather, the friends (my family) who surrounded me in it.

That’s just one direction you can go with this prompt, if you feel like your literal definition of “home” would fall on the generic side. Maybe home for you is the beach where you’ve volunteered hours of your time cleaning up trash with an environmental organization, or the publication room of your school’s student newspaper. Wherever it is that you spend most of your time, talk about that.

Elinor: This prompt is much more open-ended than it seems at first glance. Keep in mind that you can choose to be literal about this prompt and describe the impact of your hometown, or you could be a bit more metaphorical and describe a very specific place or group of people that make you feel at home, such as a specific corner of your favorite bookstore, or your swim team community.

While the prompt is asking about a place or a community, you shouldn’t just write a description of what “home” is like. Remember that this question is still asking about you. Make sure to answer the second part of the prompt — what values, personality traits, or beliefs can you trace back to this home? How have they impacted your desire to study at Brown?

For example, in my response to this essay, I wrote about my tiny, homogeneous, and suburban hometown. I explained how I was able to form great relationships with people in my community such as my teachers and the older folks who visited the library, and how their stories inspired me to want to travel and learn more about different cultures.


Nick: Brown University is a unique institution. During your four years on College Hill, you’ll be working alongside some of the smartest people in the world who want nothing more than to leave it a better place than they found it. Everyone I’ve ever met at Brown is extremely passionate about what they’re doing and are intent on helping others. Admissions officers just want to see that you’re passionate about something (or many things) and have acted upon these passions in the past and present. They want to see that you’ve made a difference in your community and that you’ll continue to make a difference in Brown’s community and beyond. Recycling supplemental essays from other universities for your Brown application simply will not work — admissions officers can smell inauthenticity from a mile away.

My best advice? Just be sincere. Do research into Brown’s culture, and not just their academic offerings. There’s a reason why Brown consistently outranks its fellow Ivy League institutions in terms of the number of Fulbright Scholarships awarded each year.

This essay guide was written by Nicholas Sawicki (Brown University, ‘23) and Elinor Martinez (Brown University, ‘21). If you want to get help writing your Brown application essays from Nick, Elinor, or other Admissions Experts, register with today.