What do James Develin, Ted Turner, Julie Bowen, and Alison Stewart have in common? They all went to Brown -- and, with the right application essays, you might, too!
With record-low acceptance rates (the admit rate for Brown in 2016-2017 was 9.3% -- making it one of the less competitive Ivy League schools… but still, that’s pretty brutal), it’s important for you to spend time crafting outstanding supplemental essays -- ones that complement your Common App essay while reinforcing the “theme” of your application.
The question is, how? Let me walk you through it. If you need additional help, check out my Rates and Services page or Contact Me!
1. Upload a resume (optional)
If you're wondering, "Should I upload a resume for my Brown application?" the answer is probably no.
For most students, this isn’t going to make much sense. You will already have filled out your activities section, and it’s hard to imagine you would have much more to say in a resume.
Of course, you may be an exception. Perhaps you’ve been published in multiple magazines, journals, or blogs. You could use this space to put the titles of your articles, who published them, and any information you have about their performance/metrics.
Or maybe you ran out of room in your activities sections, so you had to condense three summers of research in different labs into one single, “Science Research Assistant” entry. In a resume, you could provide information about each internship, like whose lab you were in, what your responsibilities were, and any courses you took to prepare for the role.
But if you don’t feel you have anything new to say or old to expand upon, I don’t think it’s worth investing too much time in this. Most young people don't have a "resume."
2. Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 word limit)
At this point, they’ve seen your activities section -- and possibly your resume. It would look strange to talk about something in this essay that wasn’t previously mentioned, so use this space to elaborate on something they already know, rather than introduce something completely new.
It’s a reasonably straightforward question -- but that doesn’t mean you have to take a straightforward (which, often, means boring) approach. Roughly 90% of these essays Brown admissions officers read are going to sound like this:
I have been passionate about [Activity] for [X] years, and plan to continue it in college. In fact, Brown is the perfect place for me to do this because they have [publication or club that every other school you’re applying to also has].
Fill in the blank with anything. Debate. Chess. Lacrosse. It doesn't matter.
OR. Since you’re trying to stand out among tens of thousands of other qualified applicants... think of the things you've built, written, sold, or done. Think about your proudest moments in this activity. Think about what purpose and meaning you’ve found in it. Why did you start? What did you like and dislike?
THAT is what the admissions committee wants to read in your essay.
So, for example, say I love basketball. The “boring” 150-word basketball essay is:
Ever since I third grade, I've had a passion for basketball. It was the first competitive sport I ever played, and I love to be physically and mentally aggressive, since I'm a very compassionate and kind person off the court. Although rigorous academics are important to me, balance is also important, and basketball is a stress-relieving activity for me. No matter how much calculus I have to study, after a game of basketball, I can go back to it feeling refreshed and ready to learn. This year, I am the captain of the team, meaning that I have responsibilities as a leader, and also as a fundraiser. I relish the opportunity to develop both my leadership and athletic skills in this position.
I won't be playing on the University of Michigan Women's team, but I plan to play on the club team, as well as start co-ed and women's IM teams for my dorm, classes and other groups.
What did you learn about me from this essay? If you’d read my activities section, you’d’ve already known how many years I’ve played and that I’m the captain this year. I use a few words to describe myself (“compassionate,” “kind,” “believe in balance,” leadership”). But, of course, I’ve violated the most basic rule of good writing:
Show, don’t tell.
Here's a much better version of the sports essay:
Pardon the cliche -- but everything I know about life, I learned from basketball.
I learned that the most important thing is to get in the game. The best way to improve is through experience. So master the skill that will get you on the court -- even if you never do it during the game. Because without it, nothing else matters.
The second most important thing: win the mental game. Off the court, I build a fun and inclusive community as a dorm proctor. I tutor, trying to make the aorist tense exciting to fellow Greek students. But the first thing I do on the court... is convince the person I’m guarding that I'm about to destroy them. It’s about posture, confidence, and starting explosively. The first five seconds can set the power dynamic for the whole game.
Third, fundamentals. They matter, and need to be perfect.
Finally, if you don’t do it 100%, there’s no point doing it at all.
Of course, this particular essay could come off as aggressive. It might rub the reader wrong -- especially because I’m a woman, and, you know, sexist double standards. But… it might not.
You can never know for sure how readers will respond, so the best thing you can do is have one or two (but not more -- at some point, you’re going to start getting conflicting, subjective opinions, and it’s no longer productive) other people read your essay. How did it make them feel?
Just because they don’t like it, though, doesn’t mean I can’t submit it as is. Other people’s feedback matters -- but at the end of the day, it’s my choice. I have to decide if I'm willing to take a risk in order to show an important part of who I am.
So, tl;dr: It’s easy to be boring and repetitive in this essay. Try not to be.
3. Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated earlier in this application? If you are "undecided" or not sure which Brown concentrations match your interests, consider describing more generally the academic topics or modes of thought that engage you currently. (150 word limit)
This prompt is similar to the previous one, in that they both have a huge potential to be boring. E.g.,
“As long as I can remember, I have always been interested in biology.”
Try to be different! Try to be interesting! Especially if you’re applying to any kind of writing program -- don’t tell them you want to be a writer, and then write a boring hook sentence. Be creative. Be outside of the box. Seize their attention! Force them to be interested!
Try something like:
“By the time I was six, I’d seen almost every animal on my farm having sex.”
Whoa, right? Who is this girl? What's she talking about?
So let’s run with that.
By the time I was six, I’d seen almost every animal on my farm having sex.
I’d observed that dogs get “stuck together,” cats scream, and ducks… don’t especially care about consent.
I’d also learned that life can be ugly. Newborn sheep inexplicably get left in the snow to die. Horses founder -- sometimes, your only option is euthanasia. Tomcats slaughter innocent kittens.
I spent my summers detasseling corn -- that is, ripping the male reproductive organs off and throwing them on the ground. (This prevents self-pollination, therefore producing a hybrid vigor.) I walked miles in the heat each day, brushing worms and spiders off of my face as I castrated.
These experiences continue to affect me, in the classroom and beyond. Seeing biology at work sparked an interest in genetics -- specifically, the power of GMOs to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. I plan to combine this interest with psychology -- I want to help people overcome irrational fears and become scientifically literate consumers.
I like this essay because it’s very different. It tells a unique part of my story, while highlighting some issues I care about -- hinting at future career goals. By adding that I also have an interest in psychology, I show that I’ve already begun thinking about how to leverage the open curriculum -- hopefully reassuring them that I won’t be one of the inevitable Brown admits who flounders for direction in such an open system.
Concerns, though: in a world of Title IX proceedings and trigger warnings, an essay about biology, genetics, and reproduction might be too edgy.
That's why it's important to talk to your college counselor to get a second opinion.
4. Why Brown? (150 word limit)
Look. Brown already knows that they’re unique because of their open curriculum. You don’t need to explain this. However, in case you missed it:
Brown encourages its undergraduates to study broadly, to become self-reflective, to engage in community life and to rigorously develop their communication skills. Unlike other American colleges and universities, Brown has no required core curriculum or distribution requirements that students must complete in order to graduate. Students at Brown have unparalleled freedom to shape their own education and to make their college curricula a more thorough reflection of their own interests and aspirations.
The open curriculum offers unparalleled academic freedom, and may well be a major factor in your decision to apply. In this case, it’s fine to mention it -- especially if you have a specific(-ish) plan for how you’re going to take advantage of it.
But don’t waste words explaining what it is -- instead, tell them why it’s important to you.
Some other reasons to apply to Brown:
There are thousands of other reasons… but those kind of depend on your specific interests and goals.
Which is why you should try Googling some ways that Brown is a good fit for you. After all, as I wrote in How to Write Your University of Michigan Supplemental Essays:
Dig deeper -- the whole point of this essay is to filter out applicants who were too lazy to do the research.
But here's the other thing to remember: this essay doesn't just have to be about Brown. In fact, the essay should be mostly about you.
So in addition to doing research about the school, brainstorm all the things that are special about you. Ask yourself: what makes me different from other candidates? This can be expertise about a certain topic... or it can be something about your personality. It can be a project you've worked on. It can be a poem you wrote.
Whatever it is, start your essay by talking about that.
Unless you want your essay to be boring -- then just start by saying:
"Brown University is a prestigious institution with a great student-teacher ratio, world-renowned faculty, and an extensive study abroad program."
Instead... let's say I'm a senior who is interested in engineering. Yes, I want to talk about the qualities about Brown Engineering that appeal to me -- but I should start by saying something like:
If boat building is a pirate-ly quality, I am much more qualified to be a captain than Jack Sparrow.
I'd follow up a paragraphs about how, in addition to my school work and other opportunities I've taken advantage of, I also build boats for fun. I might even link to an Instagram account or website where I post photos of my creations.
Next, I would connect this to resources at Brown that would help me develop this passion. Finally, I'd write a cute little conclusion that's consistent with my voice and personality. So something like:
If boat building is a pirate-ly quality, I am much more qualified to captain than Jack Sparrow.
Whenever I'm not doing homework or entering egg-drop competitions, I'm collecting scraps from dumpsters and construction sites -- then using my booty to design a novel boat. Among my greatest hits: the 18-foot "pirate barge" and a fleet of "taco ships" (which you can see at http://goo.gl/uDbAKt).
I'm told that this is "quirky" and "not a good use of my time” -- which is why my compass points to Brown, where all kinds of intelligence are valued.
I can't wait to explore Brown's Design Workshop, where I can engage in project-based learning and rapid prototyping in a creative environment, while collaborating with both Brunos and RISD students.
Additionally, my interest in small-scale technologies makes me excited to study with Chris Bull, an important figure in "appropriate technology." I will also take computer science, because programming is a crucial tool. The fact that Brown uses Pyret as the learning language illustrates that the emphasis isn't on syntax, but understanding the concepts.
I will also, obviously, be taking History0535A: Atlantic Pirates.
This essay shows things about my personality and interests I might not have discussed yet in my application -- all while demonstrating that I've done sufficient research to apply to Brown.
This blog post should be enough to get you started on your Brown essays. Check back soon for Part 2, where I share my advice on the last two prompts of the Brown application:
Tell us where you have lived - and for how long - since you were born; whether you've always lived in the same place, or perhaps in a variety of places. (100 word limit)
We all exist within communities or groups of various sizes, origins, and purposes; pick one and tell us why it is important to you, and how it has shaped you. (100 word limit)
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.