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An Inside Scoop on Brown University

November 15, 2010 / Posted by in Blog

Written by Faith Birnbaum, Brown Alumni ’10

This is a short, unofficial guide to Brown University, for those of you who have the opportunity to choose this institution. I graduated from Brown in May 2010, and I hope that sharing my experiences will help you to make a more informed decision. I doubt that you will be able to find the same information in an info session or campus tour–only the graduates, who are not recruiting you, know what the school is really like.


The most important aspect to consider is the open curriculum. In my experience, this has distinguished Brown from any other college in a multitude of ways. An open curriculum means that Brown does not require any core classes–that’s right, you could graduate without taking a single math class (like me). There are definitely advantages and disadvantages to this system. A huge advantage is that the endless opportunities force you to take ownership of your education. Nobody is telling you what is important, so you must be the one to figure it out. It allows you to explore different fields; for example, my freshman year, I took a class on Human Sacrifice—just because it seemed interesting.

Brown’s selection of classes is vast and unbelievably interesting; subjects that you would normally overlook are expanded and turned into a full credit semester-long class. Freshmen are bombarded with choices like “Political Theatre of the Americas,” “Theory of Probability,” and “Biology of Communication,” along with the more standard History, Science, English and Math fields. To see the full spectrum of classes, go to Mocha, a website frequently used by students to create course schedules: http://brown.mochacourses.com/mocha/main.jsp If you don’t see a class that appeals to you, you are even allowed to create one yourself; under the supervision of a professor, you can form an independent study. The freedom that an open curriculum provides results in a very diverse education, and one that the student should take seriously.

This leads me to the disadvantage of an open curriculum. It is your responsibility to expose yourself to different things. If you are not a self-driven, motivated student, you will probably still do well at Brown, but you probably won’t get the most out of what it has to offer. There are many concentrations (Brown doesn’t use the word ‘major’), and for the student without ambition and drive, it can seem too daunting. You don’t want to end up at the end of your sophomore year–when you must declare a concentration–not knowing what to declare.

Advising is not the best at Brown; the administration has taken steps to improve it, but it still falls short of where it should be. There are older students paired with younger students to talk about classes, and professors that are supposed to meet frequently with freshmen. There is also a Career Development Center, which can advise what classes to take if you are interested in a particular career. However, because there are so many choices, advising can only help so much, and it is ultimately the responsibility of the student to analyze and think through their class choices.

Campus Life
Brown is a small campus with approximately 6,000 students, and believe me, by the end of senior year, it feels a lot smaller! If you see an unfamiliar face senior year, chances are high that you know a few people in common. Students at Brown are very, very interesting, and for the most part, I loved the people I met. There are many different groups and niches, so it is hard to classify what the Brown community is like; the only way to classify it is to say it is diverse. There are students who love to go out drinking, those that prefer to stay and discuss philosophy, music aficionados, types that are introverted, extroverted, family oriented, lost, driven, basically everything. The diversity of the community is a huge plus; if you meet enough people, you are guaranteed to find good friends.

The social life of the school is diverse as well. There are a few frats that throw parties once or twice a weekend. These parties are usually a big attraction for freshmen and sophomores, and they are a great way to meet new people. There are two sororities on campus as well (one of which I was a member, Alpha Chi Omega), and they have smaller social events as well. Greek life is very small, only 1% of the campus joins, and therefore the frats and sororities are very welcoming and friendly; definitely not the stereotypical ones of the south.

If you prefer to avoid the frat parties, there are many people who are up for just hanging out in the dorm. Keene, a freshmen dorm of 1,000 students, is huge and full of activity on the weekends. Many people leave their doors open and it’s not unusual during the first week for you to wander into a neighbor’s room and introduce yourself. Thayer Street, the most popular spot for Brown students on weekends, is full of bars and late-night restaurants.

There is also an emphasis on culture at Brown, more so than I would expect from other schools. Clubs that celebrate heritage and culture are popular, and they frequently put on shows and events. I didn’t get involved in those, but if I could re-do my Brown experience, I would probably join one.

Overall, I would highly recommend Brown University, and I would expect your experience to be very different from mine. Brown is very eclectic, and it fosters personal growth, development, and analytical thinking. In the end, that is really what you want to get out of a good college education. If Brown is on your option list, the best way to figure it out is to contact the admissions department and set up an overnight stay. They’ll pair you up with a freshman, so you can spend a night on campus to get a feel for what it’s really like. Good luck in your search.

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