At this stage in your application to medical school, you've gone through the AMCAS primary application process and are now receiving your secondary applications. Your secondaries are a series of specific questions that each school you've applied to sends to you.
That being the case, you are probably now wondering how to create impressive medical school secondary essays. This step in the process is even more important than the last because your essays will let the school know who you are as an individual, how you are a suitable candidate, and what sets you apart from other candidates.
If you've applied to many schools, you will be writing a lot of essays. But you need not worry because this article will dive into the different kinds of essay prompts you will receive as well as how to answer them effectively.
Even though each prompt is unique to the school, there is some overlap and question types can be placed into general categories. This means that you can even pre-write some of your essays to save yourself time.
Medical school secondary essays are the second component of the medical school application process. Each school has a unique secondary application, whereas the primary application was a single application sent to several schools using either AMCAS, TMDSAS or AACOMAS.
Secondary applications will usually consist of a series of short questions or essay questions. Questions will be unique to each school; however, there is significant overlap among them. If you submitted your primary application in June, you could expect to receive secondary applications beginning in July and continuing throughout the summer.
However, it’s important to note that not all schools send secondary applications to all applicants. Some use the primary application as a screening tool, and only send secondaries to students they’d like to see continue on in the admissions process.
A school like Stanford will ask five essay questions (2000 characters for the first one and 1000 characters for the rest) while Loma Linda will ask 11 non-essay questions (including a yes or no question).
Medical school secondary essays give you an opportunity to show the school you want to attend how your goals and values align with theirs and how you would contribute to their program as a student.
Schools want to make sure that you are a good fit for their program and find out more about you than you could address in your AMCAS work and activities section. They want to see how you are unique and what sets you apart from the other candidates.
When writing your secondaries, here is a suggested guideline:
Whatever the prompt is, have a definitive response to start the essay off to make your answer as straightforward as possible.
As you're given a character count limit, it is best to outline your response to use your space effectively. Create a list of all the points you want to make and tailor them to incorporate the school's central values and goals.
Stories are more effective in making a point than general statements. Use examples in your essay to build on your main points.
When you provide examples, make sure to answer the question, "how is this relevant?" Your examples should demonstrate how you will benefit medicine and how you'll make a good physician.
When you have preset responses to prompts, you address all critical points within the character count limits.
Describe what you learned and gained from your experiences. Don’t just talk about it, explain why it was significant.
Re-read your essay the next day to make sure it is free of errors and conveys the message you are trying to make. Consulting a med school advisor can be an effective way to make sure your response is strong and stands out among other applicants.
Sometimes, students re-read and miss their own mistakes, so having an unbiased editor with experience in medical school admissions can be beneficial.
In medicine and other healthcare fields, diversity is essential. A clinician needs to be able to connect with patients from different backgrounds and experiences. Having a diverse student body creates an atmosphere of inclusivity, and as a worker in the social sector, especially front-line work, connecting with your patients is critical.
When writing a diversity essay, you may think that the only topics you can cover are multiculturalism, race, and religion. You might think that because you're a minority, you do not have anything new to add. Or you might think you are already represented well and have no experience with diversity, so you do not have anything important to say.
However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A variety of factors determine what level of diversity you can bring to the table:
Diversity can also come from your experiences: a sibling with down-syndrome, service in the military, an illness that you’ve struggled with or the loss of a loved one. All of these experiences count as diversity and are what medical schools are looking for.
Where you came from and how your skills, experiences, and interests differentiate you from your peers. These unique backgrounds allow different ideas and perspectives to be brought to the classroom.
Additionally, using terms loosely in your essay, like "diversity, "multicultural," or "cultural-competency," does not mean you have an understanding of them. Instead, it may make you seem insincere, so the better way to go is, to be honest. Speak about what you actually know and what you have really experienced with diversity.
The purpose of an adversity essay is for admissions committees to understand your level of resiliency and room for growth in the medical field.
This essay is not about competing with people's stories of adversity, but instead showcasing your own challenges and experiences and depicting what those experiences have taught you for professional development. It is more a reflection piece about managing stress or barriers in your life and illustrating how you overcome them.
The admissions committees want to see this because they want to know if you can overcome hurdles that come your way. Medical school is a massive undertaking that will be full of hurdles - tests and courses will push you to your limit.
The admissions committees want to see your ability to adapt and problem-solve; that you can pick yourself up after you’ve fallen down.
Topics you can include:
This prompt is aimed at determining why you want to attend a particular medical school. Medical schools read through hundreds of secondary essays each year. Instead of highlighting their program facts, which they already know about, show them that you connect to their mission, vision, and values.
The key is to mention your qualities, life experiences, and skills concerning the school's mission, vision, values, and programs. This way, you are not just repeating what the school offers but also mentioning how these programs fit you as an individual.
One approach to answering this prompt is by researching the school's website and finding topics of interest to you or seeing the school's values mentioned consistently throughout the website.
From there, you can pinpoint specific programs you like and write about how you can learn from them and what skills you can offer. Essentially, it is about seeing what the school stands for or what work they encourage and incorporating your own experiences with their beliefs.
For example, If a school places importance on community service and you have relevant volunteer experiences, make sure to mention this and how you want to continue improving those skills. If your experience is more research-based, talk about that experience and how more community service will make you a better physician.
If you want to stand out, you can survey students or graduates of the school and inquire about their experiences to see if the school is right for you. How do you reach others? Connecting via social media or reaching out to your peers may be a good start.
This essay's not about writing what the school already knows about themselves but more about what you can learn and benefit from and why this is the right fit for you.
These days, it's common for students to take a year or two off after completing their undergrad degree before they go to medical school. There are multiple reasons for this, and the medical school you are applying to wants to know what those reasons are.
It is a reasonably straightforward prompt: talk about how you have spent your gap year and how it will contribute to your medical school success and beyond.
Questions to discuss in this essay include:
It is always an excellent tactic to connect your gap year to the program of study you are applying for, and even if it doesn't connect, you can still mention how it makes you a more suitable candidate for the program. Even if you did an unrelated job while studying or preparing for medical school, the attributes you learned across the way and your continuous efforts to grow and learn are what admissions committees will notice.
Out of all the prompts, this is likely the most open-ended, and confusion on how to best answer it is understandable. It can be challenging to address such a vague question. How do you know what to talk about? Is there even anything else that I want to discuss?
Use this as an opportunity to highlight anything about yourself and your experiences that aren't well discussed or explained elsewhere on the application.
If you have any pre-written material that you have not used in your essays, this is the time to use them. If this is not an option, you can write a completely new essay discussing topics like volunteer or research experience.
You can also talk about other achievements or skills that aren't directly related to medicine but find a way to relate it back to how it makes you a better candidate. This section is also a good place to explain any shortcomings in your application, such as a failed course, or a low test score etc.
Some students believe that it is mandatory to answer this question, and that is simply not true unless the question states otherwise. If you feel that your application addresses all your key points and conveys your candidacy in the best possible way, there is no need to force it. It's always better to prioritize quality over quantity.
“Autobiographical statement that includes (250-word limit):
Please do not repeat what you wrote in your AMCAS Personal Comments (this will already be on file with our office). If you have already covered all of the above topics in your AMCAS application, use this space to let the Admissions Committee know more about who you are in addition to being someone who wants to be a physician."
“4 additional short essays (250-word limit each):
For re-applicants: From your most recent application until now, how have you strengthened your application.”
From Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago
“Essay Question 1
Please write a short essay about why you are applying to the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. We suggest that you limit your essay to about 550 words.”
“Essay Question 2
Share with us a difficult or challenging situation you have encountered and how you dealt with it. In your response, identify both the coping skills you called upon to resolve the dilemma, and the support person(s) from whom you sought advice. We suggest that you limit your essay to about 550 words.”
“Optional Additional Information
Please feel free to use this space to convey any additional information that you might wish the Committee to know. For example, if you are not currently completing a degree, please share your planned or current activities for this application cycle. You may also wish to include any impact that COVID-19 has had on your educational, research, or extracurricular plans. We suggest that you limit your text to about 300 words."
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is waiting to receive your secondary application before working on it. It would be best if you started working on your secondaries after you submit your primary applications. You have a limited time (most secondaries are due back 2 weeks to a month) to submit, so the sooner you can get them done, the better. You should always send secondaries back within two weeks to show you continual interest in that medical school.
When sharing anecdotes, make sure to demonstrate their value by discussing what you took away from them. Don't just go from one statement to another talking about the events as they occurred.
If the word count is 800 words and your piece is 700 words that is perfectly acceptable. Try and write the best quality piece without going over the word count.
Some prompts will lead you into discussing why you want to attend a particular school. In these cases, to avoid being generic in your responses, say something specific about the school. You should do some research and come up with a list of programs at each of the medical schools or student organizations at each of the medical schools. Identify what is unique about that school: specific values, programs, or opportunities they have.
When can I expect to receive my secondary applications?
Once you submit your primary application and AMCAS receives your transcripts, they begin the verification process. You will receive your secondary applications after AMCAS completes verification and releases your primary applications to the medical schools to which you applied.
Will I receive a secondary application from every school I applied to?
While the majority of schools will send you a secondary without screening your primary application, some will screen your primary. Therefore, you may not receive a secondary from every medical school.
How long do I have to submit my essay?
It would be best if you aimed to submit your secondaries as soon as possible – generally within two weeks of receiving your secondary application. Most schools don't have a strict deadline, and those that do will state it. Remember, schools correlate your reply time with your level of interest in the school. That is why it’s best to submit within two weeks.
What if a school changes its prompts and my pre-written material is wasted?
Schools usually change their prompts every few years, and if they do, the themes often remain the same. Instead of asking why do you want to attend our school, it may change to asking how you feel your passions align with their goals as an institution. So it's still a good idea to pre-write. Even if they change it, you could always reword and repurpose one of your essays for other schools.
How optional are optional essays?
They are somewhere between optional and required. It would help if you only answered an optional prompt when you have relevant information to address. A forced response will not go over well with admissions committees and can hurt your application.
Which essay should I work on first?
You should prioritize the ones from your top-choice schools and the ones that require in-depth answers so that you will have material to re-use if necessary.
Completing your secondary applications is a time-consuming and stressful process. Now that you know what to and what not to do, you can begin working on your essays with some confidence. You are now armed with the knowledge on how to create impressive medical school secondary essays.
Don't underestimate the importance of pre-writing your secondaries and always convey your individuality. Answer the prompt as clearly as you can and expand on your key points. Remember that the ultimate goal is to impress the admissions committee enough to be called in for an interview.