How To Create Impressive Medical School Secondary Essays

December 21, 2023
10 min read
Contents

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Chief Resident in Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medicine, & Admissions Officer, Columbia University

Reviewed: 10/10/23

Are you ready to tackle your med school secondary essays? Read on to learn how to format them, common essay types, and more! 

How to create impressive medical school secondary essays graphic

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 wondering how to create impressive medical school secondary essays. If you've applied to many schools, you’ll be writing many essays. But you need not worry because this article will dive into the different kinds of essay prompts you will receive and how to answer them effectively.

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What Are Medical School Secondary Essays?

Medical school secondary essays are the second component of the 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 seven essay questions while Loma Linda will ask eight.

Purpose of Medical School Secondary Essays

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. 

volunteer for med school

They want to see your uniqueness and what sets you apart from the other candidates.

Best Format to Follow When Writing Your Medical School Secondary Essays

When writing your secondaries, here is a suggested guideline: 

  • Answer the prompt
  • Outline your response
  • Use concrete examples
  • Relate examples to your theme
  • Adhere to word or character counts
  • Reflect on your experiences
  • Proofread 
Med school essay writing tips

Answer the Prompt 

Whatever the prompt is, have a definitive response to start the essay to make your answer as straightforward as possible. 

Outline the Response 

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. 

Use Concrete Examples

Stories are more effective in making a point than general statements. Use examples in your essay to build on your main points. 

Relate Examples to Your Theme

When you provide examples, make sure to answer the question, "how is this relevant?" Your examples should demonstrate how you will benefit medicine and make a good physician.

Adhere to Word and Character Counts

When you have preset responses to prompts, you address all critical points within the character count limits. 

Reflect on Your Experiences 

Describe what you learned and gained from your experiences. Don’t just talk about it; explain why it was significant. 

Proofread

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.

Common Types of Medical School Secondary Essays and Tips for Answering Each Type

Although secondary essay themes can vary, these are the most common essay types.

Diversity Essay

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 the only topics you can cover are multiculturalism, race, and religion. You might think that because you're not a minority, you don’t have anything new to add. 

Diversity at med school

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:

  • Your qualities and what you want to learn, or what you still wish to learn
  • Your immigration experience if you were a newcomer or how your values differ from your social circle; how has the difference of values shaped your way of connecting with patients
  • What do you understand about cultural competency? Are you aware of different medical approaches in the field? Do you apply that to your practice? And why is it important to know about how other cultures view medicine/treatment?
  • Your language
  • Where you grew up (rural vs. urban, in-country vs. abroad)

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.

Adversity Essay

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 isn’t about competing with people's stories of adversity but showcasing your own challenges and experiences and depicting what those experiences have taught you for professional development. It is more of 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 full of hurdles –tests and courses will push you to your limit.

track and field activity

The admissions committees want to see your ability to adapt and problem-solve; so that you can pick yourself up after falling down.

Topics you can include:

  • How you handled disappointing a loved one/or disappointment in general
  • Managing criticism or feedback
  • External situations that were out of your hands
  • Talk about a challenge you’ve faced. What was your response? What was the result? What did you learn?

"Why Our School?" Essay

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.

WHY letters on board

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. 

Gap Year Essay

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.

Med student travelling

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:

  • What did you achieve during your gap year?
  • Why did you want to take a gap year?
  • What experiences did you have? How did this year shape your role as a worker, and how will you deliver the skills you've built through the healthcare field?
  • What did you learn about yourself during this period?

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 along the way and your continuous efforts to grow and learn are what admissions committees will notice.

“Anything Else You'd Like Us to Know?” Essay

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 volunteering or research experience.

med school research

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, a low test score, etc.

Some students believe it is mandatory to answer this question, which 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.

Sample Med School Essay Prompts

From UW School of Medicine

Essay Prompts (250-word limit)

  • “How have societal inequities in the U.S. affected you or people you have worked with?
  • The UWSOM aims to build a diverse class of students to enrich the field of medicine. What perspectives, identities, and/or qualities would you bring?
  • What obstacles have you experienced and how have you overcome them?
  • Describe your competency by explaining how you have explored and come to understand issues in the social sciences and humanities as they relate to the practice of medicine.”

From Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago 

Essay Question 1 (450-word limit suggestion)

“Students at the Pritzker School of Medicine complete the majority of their clinical training at UChicago Medicine (UCM). UCM is one of the top ten most racially inclusive hospitals in the United States with a primary service area of 12 South Side zip codes where poverty is over double the state level. Additionally, our students lead six free clinics in diverse neighborhoods throughout the city of Chicago.
Please share with us the personal and professional experiences that have best prepared you to work in this diverse clinical environment.”

Essay Question 2 (450-word limit suggestion)

“All MD students participate in our longitudinal Scholarship & Discovery research program, which offers protected curricular time, mentoring, and funding for students to pursue their scholarly interests. Please describe your research interests and share how our research opportunities will help you advance your career goals.”

Essay Question 3 (450-word limit suggestion)

“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.”

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. We suggest that you limit your text to about 300 words.”

Explore our Med School Secondary Essay Database to find the 2023-2024 prompts for your dream med schools!


Common Mistakes to Avoid

These are some common mistakes to avoid as you navigate your secondary application essays. 

Failing to Pre-Write Your Essays 

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 (many secondaries are due two weeks to a month after receipt) to submit, so the sooner you can get them done, the better. You should always send secondaries back within two weeks to show your continual interest in that medical school.

Focusing Only on the Situation and Not What You Learned

When sharing anecdotes, 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. 

Not Following Word Limits

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. 

Being Generic

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.

FAQs

Have more questions about secondary essays? Read on for more answers! 

1. When Can I Expect to Receive 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. 

2. Will I Receive a Secondary Application From Every School?

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. 

3. 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. Remember, schools correlate your reply time with your level of interest. It’s best to submit within two weeks.

4. What If a School Changes Its Secondary Essay Prompts?

Schools usually change their prompts every few years, and if they do, the themes often remain the same. Instead of asking why 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.

5. 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.

6. Which Secondary 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.

Final Thoughts

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 of how to create impressive medical school secondary essays.

Don't underestimate the importance of pre-writing your secondaries; 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.

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