Harvard Vs Brown – Which School Is Better?

Suppose you ask your average person on the street to describe a great university. 

In that case, they’ll surely talk about scholars striding the quad in robes and tassels, green campus ground surrounded by stately old buildings, and, of course, lots of smart students. 

And if you press them to be more specific, they’ll probably use the words “Ivy League.”

Ivy League may technically be an athletic conference, but it also describes eight of the oldest and most respected institutions in the country. 

They all date back to the founding of the United States, if not earlier, and they have been associated with the greatest minds and most notable leaders in the world.

For many, Harvard University is the paradigmatic Ivy League school. The oldest higher learning institution in the country, Harvard began as the seminary Harvard College in 1636. 

Over the nearly 400 years that have followed, the university has branched out into nearly every field. It counts among its former students eight American presidents, including John Adams and Barack Obama, and hundreds of millionaires, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.  

Harvard is also one of the richest schools in the world, with an endowment of more than $41.9 billion. Thanks to that funding, the school can create an unparalleled learning environment with world-changing research institutions and essential facilities. 

The 3.5 million books held at the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library include an original Gutenberg Bible, while Harvard’s art museums include original works from German Expressionists and Dutch Masters.

While it may not have the same immediate name recognition, Brown deserves as much attention as its sister. 

Founded in 1764 as Rhode Island College, Brown bucked the trend of its fellow early American schools by admitting any student who met their requirements, regardless of their religious affiliations. 

Thanks to that commitment to free inquiry, Brown has been at the forefront of several academic innovations, initiating one of the first engineering programs in the U.S. and the third-oldest medical school in New England.

Among Brown’s most unique qualities is the “open curriculum,” first instituted in 1969. In place of the general education requirements, one finds at most schools, the open curriculum allows students to choose the classes that interest them most, thereby becoming “the architects of their own syllabus.”

With such attributes, it’s clear that both Harvard and Brown are excellent schools. But which is better?

Harvard Vs. Brown – Academic Requirements for Admission

Brown University Engineering Center
Kenneth C. Zirkel, Brown University Engineering Research Center, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Ivy League schools are among the best in the world. They’re also one of the most elite. Even the least famous Ivy League institution allows nothing but the best of the best to join its student body.

As two of the world’s best schools, Harvard and Brown have fairly similar requirements for their applicants. 

For both schools, hopefuls must submit a completed Common Application, as well as various letters of recommendation and school transcripts. 

Neither school indicates the minimum GPA to be shown on those transcripts, but you can be confident that they only consider top students.

On average, Brown students have a GPA of 4.08 (weighted), while Harvard students have an average GPA of 4.18 (weighted). To get grade averages at this level, you must not only earn As in nearly all of your high school classes, but you must also take advanced courses, such as AP and Honors classes. 

Furthermore, while you can get one or two Bs and still have a GPA within the above ranges, they cannot be in your advanced courses or classes in your major.

In recent years, most universities have waived their standardized test requirements. Harvard and Brown plan to continue that policy for the time being, but they do accept test scores from those who choose to submit them.

Standardized test scores may help strengthen an application with some shortcomings. However, you should only submit your scores if they fall within the average ranges at those schools.

Admitted Harvard students scored between 720 and 780 and between 740 and 780, respectively, on the reading and writing and math portions of the SAT. 

Brown students had similar numbers, coming in between 700 and 760 on the reading and writing SAT and between 720 and 790 on the math portion. On average, students at both Brown and Harvard students scored between 33 and 35 on the ACT.

While neither Brown nor Harvard will consider any student with numbers far outside these averages, supplemental materials can make up the difference in an application with slightly lower grades. 

With a strong letter of recommendation or application essay, you can make an argument for the benefits you’ll bring to the student body.

Harvard Vs. Brown – Ranking, Acceptance Rates, and More

As you can probably guess, very few people can meet the extremely high standards that Brown and Harvard have for their students.

But the schools both remain very popular, receiving thousands of applications every year. And yet, only a small percentage actually receive offers of admission.

An incredible 32,724 students applied to study at Brown in 2021, but only 1,665 were admitted, resulting in an acceptance rate of 5.0%. 

An unbelievable 57,786 hopefuls applied to Harvard in 2022 and only 2,320 were accepted, for a rate of 4.1%.

So if you must have nearly perfect grades to apply to these schools, and nearly everyone will still be rejected, why even try? What’s so great about Brown or Harvard?

The short answer to that question is “lots.” 

According to the most important ranking outlets, Harvard and Brown are among the best institutions of higher learning in the entire world.

According to U.S. News & World Report, Harvard is tied for third in American universities, behind only Princeton and tied with fellow Boston-area school MIT. Brown doesn’t quite make the top ten but does come in at fourteenth place, tied with Vanderbilt University and Washington University in St. Louis.

The merits of both schools better stand out on the specialty lists from U.S. News. Harvard comes within the top five on the lists for best value schools, best writing across the disciplines programs, and best undergraduate research projects. 

Brown not only has the best writing across the disciplines program, but it also comes within the top five on the lists for best senior capstone, best colleges for veterans, and best undergraduate teaching.

As these rankings make clear, people continue to flock to Harvard and Brown because few schools in the world offer education at such a high level. They consider the risk of rejection to be less than the reward of studying at such a prestigious school.

Deciding Whether to Attend Harvard or Brown

Harvard University
Harvard’s Peabody Museum – Public domain photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

With a quick glance at the acceptance rates listed above, you may be tempted to “rightly” point out that the decision to attend Harvard or Brown usually isn’t up to the student. 

But if you can only put your time, energy, and money toward applying to one of the two schools, which is the better choice for you?

Brown’s Alpert Medical School is one of the best in the country, ranked by U.S. News as the nation’s 19th best medical school for primary care and 36th best for research. 

Following the engineering focus at Brown, Alpert’s best-known alums include people behind world-changing medical breakthroughs, such as artificial human ovary co-inventor Sandra Carson and gynecology pioneer Eli Adashi.

Harvard University Medical School has its own list of impressive achievements, thanks in part to its $804 million endowment

One of the world’s richest medical schools, Harvard Med houses research projects involving issues such as environmental changes and gene therapy. U.S. News ranks it as the number two school for disciplines such as radiology, internal medicine, and pediatrics.

Students gain a greater understanding of spiritual questions by considering the impact on the world around them.

While Brown certainly has its respected archeology and humanities programs, its primary appeal is the School of Engineering

With roots that date back to 1847, Brown Engineering is the third oldest in the country and the home of several important breakthroughs. The School attributes its success to its interdisciplinary approach, which teams engineers with non-engineers across campus to find and solve the most pressing problems.

Thanks to this approach, nearly every program of study at Brown touches the engineering school in some way. Following the model set by the school’s vaunted open curriculum, Brown students have the freedom to address the questions in their field using whatever tools may be available to them.

RECAP – Which Is the Better School, Harvard or Brown?

To be sure, any serious student would be happy to study at either Harvard or Brown. Both schools enjoy a level of respect and history that few institutions enjoy. 

Both date back to before the founding of the country, and both belong to the legendary Ivy League schools.

At first glance, they both seem to be very similar. Harvard and Brown both demand a high GPA and high test scores from their applicants, giving preference to students who are at the top of their class.

And while Brown receives fewer applicants overall, both it and Harvard have incredibly low acceptance rates. The overwhelming majority of those who apply to either school will be rejected.

The differences start to show up when you look at their rankings. Brown falls within the top 15 universities in the U.S. and among the top 75 in the world, while Harvard falls within the top 5 in the U.S. and in the world.

After looking at the history, requirements, and rankings of each school, one might be tempted to think that while Brown is unquestionably impressive, Harvard is the better school. After all, most ranking outlets put Harvard within the top ten worldwide, while Brown tends to lag behind within the top 25 or 75. Furthermore, Harvard is simply the more famous university.

However, that sort of thinking fails to understand the way universities operate. In the end, the question is not about which school is better, but rather, which school fits you better?

In other words, both schools are excellent. The question isn’t so much “which is better?” as it is, “what do you want from your educational experience?” Whatever your answer, you’re sure to have a great experience at either Brown or Harvard.