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How to Ace Medical School Secondary Essays

28 min


A medical school applicant working on her secondary essays in a library.


After completing the AMCAS primary application, you may understandably feel exhausted! However, despite your accomplishments thus far, there is one last step in the application process before you can start interviewing. You will now start receiving secondary applications and medical school secondary essays.


Unlike the AMCAS, secondary applications are tailored to each school you applied to. You’ve already written and submitted your personal statement. You have experience writing more creatively and describing yourself in a more personal and individualized manner. In your secondaries, you will be further expanding on:

  • Who you are
  • Why you’re applying to a specific school
  • Why you’re a good fit for that school
  • What makes you a unique candidate


Keep in mind that in your personal statement, you’ve already explained why you want to go to medical school. The purpose of your AMCAS was to demonstrate that you’re qualified to attend. Now is your chance to go beyond these points and explain how you’ve determined that you are a suitable candidate for each school on your list, and the attributes that set you apart from all the other applicants.


You will receive many essays, fully dependent on the number of schools you applied to, but there will be substantial overlap among essays from different programs. If you start early, do your due diligence, and follow our guidance, you will set yourself up for success and convince schools that you are worth interviewing for a coveted spot in their matriculating class. Read on to learn 10 tips and tricks on how to ace your medical school secondary essays.



Answer the Prompt!


Chief among all the advice we can offer is to answer the prompt. This may seem obvious to you as you read this, but this needs constant reminding. It is very easy to lose the forest for the trees when you are in the middle of writing and focusing on the minute details of sentence structure and grammar. There are a multitude of strategies to address this problem, including reviewing your essay at multiple stages of completion and sending it to trusted friends and mentors for additional pairs of eyes (more on the value of these below). However, you can prevent this from happening in the first place by creating an outline centered around a single short answer to the prompt, as described next.



Start With a Medical School Secondary Essay Outline


An outline serves several purposes.

  1. As mentioned, it ensures that you are answering the prompt and developing a narrative around your simplified answer.
  2. It helps organize your thoughts. It is easy to lose track of specific points and concrete examples when you are trying to juggle overarching structure with small details at the same time.
  3. It encourages you to write concisely. Assuming you are outlining in bullet points, you will initially express all main points with as few words as possible. Writing in prose requires adding in “unnecessary” words and embellishments, especially when creativity is valued. Always remember to maintain a healthy balance between expression and conciseness.
  4. It helps during the review process to make sure that you’ve actually written what you intended to write. I have often found myself veering off topic in my own writing. At this point referencing my outline (either while writing or after completing a draft) can help me find my way back to my original thoughts.



Show, Don’t Tell


You’ve probably heard this ad nauseam starting way back in elementary school. But as with many cliches, its frequency of repetition highlights its importance. Admissions committee members truly do want to get to know you. That’s why they send you a secondary application and are dedicating time to reading what you have to say.


Most essay prompts ask about very personal topics, including who you are and what experiences have led you to where you are now. It is very difficult to capture an individual with a few short essays. But the best writers and most successful applicants leverage their ability to tell personal stories and convey genuine emotions to provide a small glimpse at who they really are. Take plenty of time to reflect on each prompt and try to think of specific experiences in your life that you can turn into vignettes or examples. The more vividly you can imagine the experiences or events you come up with, the more clearly you will be able to “show” them to your readers.



Pick a Theme and See it Through


Besides simply answering the prompt, you want to add your own unique flavor to your answer. For example, if an essay requires you to explain adversity that you’ve faced and how you overcame it, it is not enough to simply come up with an example of adversity and explain, step-by-step, how you moved past the situation. 


Try to consider how your personality traits or background led you to approach the situation. Consider how your strengths and weaknesses influenced your ultimate solution. Did you ignore wrongdoing by others and utilize your calm demeanor to continue on your path unhindered? Or did you take advantage of your diplomacy skills to approach someone and solve the problem head-on? Always remember that there is no wrong answer to these types of questions unless you are describing unethical or inappropriate behavior.



Adhere to Character/Word Count Limits


Similar to following the prompt, this piece of advice may seem obvious but can also get lost in the fray of secondary essay writing. Each school and/or essay will have its own count limit, and some are expressed in words while other may be expressed in characters (either with or without spaces). Pay attention to each of these options; you might consider writing the limit in bold at the top of each essay next to the title so that you keep it in mind from the start. This will help avoid the tricky situation of having to cut down an essay that is too long but flows nicely as is. It is almost always easier to add content than it is to cut down, and the closer you are to a final draft the more apparent this discrepancy becomes.



Review Your Secondary Essay, Then Review Some More


The key to writing an excellent, polished essay is to review what you’ve written several times. There are two main types of reviewing you want to do: content and grammar.


When reviewing content, you should ignore spelling, grammar, and sentence structure, unless a glaring error stands out at you and can be easily fixed. Don’t detract from the content though by agonizing over the structure of one sentence. Instead, you should focus on a few different angles:

  1.  Adherence to the prompt, impact of your theme
  2.  Overall flow
  3.  The connection between specific examples and takeaway points

You can review your most important essays multiple times. Focus on just one of these each time so that you hone in on what you want to say and decide whether you’ve communicated it well.


Once you’ve fine-tuned your content, it is now a good idea to read exclusively for formatting and grammar. Take advantage of spellchecking tools, or AI chatbots, but don’t rely exclusively on them. They frequently make mistakes or poor suggestions. Trust your intuition and check every word manually. Sometimes it is easier to catch small errors when reading on paper rather than on your computer. Consider printing out final drafts of your longest or most important essays for one last pass.


Additionally, seek help from whoever is willing to read your essays. Friends, family members, and advisors or mentors are all good people to reach out to. The more eyes you have on your essays, the more perspectives you will get on your ideas. And if you have a particularly detail-oriented friend, be sure to ask them for a second pair of proofreading eyes. Admissions committee members are extremely detail-oriented themselves, so they will catch errors.



Pre-Write as Much as Possible


As soon as you hit submit on your AMCAS, you should first celebrate! Congratulate yourself and take a well-earned break. Then, you should pivot to secondary application mode and get ready for the deluge of essay prompts. To prepare for secondary season, all students should pre-write medical school secondary essays. Regardless of how many schools you applied to. This practice is widespread, and there are numerous resources available to help you pre-write as efficiently as possible.


Look at a variety of databases of prior years’ essay prompts for medical schools across the US. Find those that are relevant to you. Medical School Headquarters and Prospective Doctor are two examples of excellent secondary essay prompt databases. Keep in mind that these are not official resources provided by medical schools themselves. These are not guaranteed to be 100% accurate, but they are crowdsourced from a large community of active medical school applicants and students, so the information is generally excellent.


One important tip is to look back at the last 2-3 years of prompts, not just the prior year. This is because you want to identify the prompts that have remained the same or very similar over the years; some prompts change year-to-year, whereas many others are kept the same because of their importance. Thus, you don’t want to waste time pre-writing a response to a prompt that is likely to change this year.


Prioritize the Medical School Secondary Essay Prompts That Are Consistent Across the Years


Prioritize the prompts that are consistent across the years. Better yet, if the prompt has remained exactly the same across multiple years, you can go beyond an outline or rough draft and feel confident in writing a final draft before you even receive the secondary application. However, for prompts that have changed but appear to ask related questions, consider limiting your pre-writing to an outline or general ideas to maintain efficiency without risking wasted time and effort.


Finally, consider the range of prompts you will receive from different schools. You want to think about creating outlines that can branch off into a variety of different topics. The classic “why our school?” question is a great example of this. Most schools will ask some variation of this question. Of course, your answer needs to be tailored to each individual program. However, there should be some fundamental commonalities because you probably evaluated each school using a common set of criteria. Class size, atmosphere, educational style, clinical opportunities, etc. You can start by outlining the criteria you used to assess each school. Then for each school highlight the criteria they excel in and leave out or rephrase those that they are weaker in. Using a common outline of a single essay type for multiple schools will also help you write multiple essays all with different character/word counts, due to the relative ease of adding content compared to cutting down.



Create a Medical School Secondary Essays Writing Schedule


Pre-writing is a necessary and highly effective strategy, but it is not sufficient on its own. Once the secondaries start pouring in, you may begin to feel increasingly pressured by the recommended two-week turnaround time (soft deadline). To combat this pressure, we recommend creating a writing schedule. Set aside dedicated writing time each day. Planning writing time is tricky because it can feel less necessary and harder to stick to than, say, setting aside two hours to complete a problem set. But the best way to complete writing assignments is to just sit down and write!


Based on the number of schools you applied to and information about how long schools typically take to send out their secondaries, create a rough estimate of how many applications you expect to receive each week. Overestimate this number so that you are over- rather than under-prepared. Then insert at least one writing block into your schedule every day. Even if you can only spare 30 minutes. You’ll be surprised at how much writing you can accomplish in a short time if you eliminate all other distractions and responsibilities.


At the same time, take full advantage of breaks between writing sessions. Writing can be very tiring. Downtime is beneficial for inspiration and creativity, both of which are essential for the style of writing you will be using in many of your secondaries. This will require a readjustment. Most of the writing for your AMCAS was rather dry, apart from your personal statement. A majority of your secondary essays will be more like your personal statement than your work and activities section.



You Are Not Obligated to Submit Every Secondary Application You Receive


If you submitted your AMCAS to 40 schools and realized that you won’t be able to handle that many secondary applications, remember that you can decide not to submit a secondary for any school. When submitting your AMCAS you should think carefully about what you can handle based on your writing style and efficiency, upcoming responsibilities, and available writing time. If you are concerned about the cost of applying to medical school, you should not submit your AMCAS to any school that you don’t fully expect to submit a secondary application to. However, it is also important not to give in to the sunken cost fallacy. Just because you submitted your AMCAS to 40 schools, it doesn’t mean you absolutely must submit all 40 secondaries otherwise you wasted your money. If you are genuinely worried that trying to write too many essays will lead to lower quality across the board, then pare down your list. Make sure that you are prioritizing quality over quantity. Think about the cost before you submit your AMCAS. But once you are into secondary season, focus on essay quality and turnaround time above all else.



Avoid These Common Medical School Secondary Essays Mistakes


Not Answering the Medical School Secondary Essay Prompt


This one is self-explanatory!


Answering the Prompt but Losing Focus or Meandering Throughout the Essay


Some people have the habit of writing in a stream-of-consciousness style. This can be a great way of genuinely expressing yourself but can create confusion or poor focus if not reviewed or edited properly. Similarly, some like to build up to their main point to enhance its impact. Secondary essays are not the place for this. You should make your point clear from the start and use the allotted space to expand on your answer and provide specific supporting examples or arguments.


Not Adhering to Character/Word Limits


You should not exceed hard limits under any circumstances. Many readers will not even pick up an essay that doesn’t follow the rules. Soft limits, however, are more flexible by design. The point is to express yourself as clearly as possible and using more room to do so is encouraged if the space is used valuably. Finally, trust that no limit means just that. As long as you are directly answering the prompt and providing accurate and interesting information, you can use as much space as you’d like. Just keep in mind that in these cases readers are assessing not only your answer but also your ability to write with precision, limit excess, and show respect and consideration for their time and attention.


Forgetting to Change the Structure or Specific Details of Pre-Written Essays


Pre-writing is a must-use strategy for secondaries, but it runs the risk of this important type of mistake. Whenever you are adapting an outline or draft for a new school, you should start by reading it from start to finish to identify themes, details, and program names that need to be changed. Admissions committee members know that students pre-write essays, but if they see a glaring mistake that indicates forgetfulness or lack of attention to detail, such as writing the wrong school’s name or referencing a different mission statement, they will ding you for it!


There you have it, 10 pieces of advice that will help you ace your medical school secondary essays and show your favorite schools just how unique and competitive you are. The AMCAS was the place to prove to programs that you are qualified to be a medical student. Now, the secondary application is the venue to reveal who you are as an individual, set yourself apart from the crowd, and explain why you are a good fit for each school on your list. Do your research on your schools and follow these writing tips to ensure success in this penultimate stage of the medical school application cycle. For help with essay editing, MCAT tutoring, and more, schedule your complimentary consultation with Elite Medical Prep today! Good luck and write well!

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