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I'm a First-Year at Brown, and while I haven't been here very long, I've realized that many academic, professional, volunteering clubs etc. require applications and some (eg. consulting clubs) can be extremely competitive. While some "applications" are little more than a formality, most require multiple short essays or even interviews----for general member status.
I didn't know this when applying to college. However, from doing my own research, this appears to be the case at many of the other Ivies/T20s.
Does this mean that if you're primarily interested in cultural organizations (dance or music clubs can be exceptions) or recreational clubs (board games, hiking etc.) that you'll have to apply to be a member? Not usually. However, if you are pre-professional (med, business/consulting etc,) clubs or volunteering opportunities are one way to demonstrate interest in your chosen field or gain experience.
In some cases (like with volunteering at the hospital,) it's due to a genuine lack of spots available for all interested. With others, it feels more like a manufactured way to improve "selectivity" in the eye of students, especially underclassmen. I recently read Grit by Angela Duckworth, and in it, she cites a Stanford study that found that having an application for something makes gaining acceptance to it more desirable
the same idea holds here with clubs just as it does in college admissions.
If you decide to attend Brown or a similar university, make sure to be prepared to apply widely to clubs, just like with college apps. Do I regret choosing Brown? No, I still feel like it was the right choice for me and I still got into some of the clubs I was interested in----just make sure that you understand the environment you'll be getting into AND consider if you would be a good FIT for it.