Secondary Applications and How to Approach Them
Applying to medical school can seem like navigating a maze, a process that is undoubtedly intimidating to many students. From the AMCAS primary application to individual secondary applications, to the interview, it is difficult to feel fully informed about the process. This guide will take you through the process of secondary medical school applications, how to approach them, writing your secondary applications essays, and the best way to prepare yourself to avoid pitfalls along the way.
The Secondary Medical School Applications
After your primary medical school application has been officially submitted and verified, it will be transmitted to all the medical schools you selected through AMCAS. This generally happens sometime during the last week of May – but be sure to verify the date on the official AAMC website, as it varies from year to year. Depending on the school, you will either start receiving secondary application invites immediately or after you have completed the school’s internal screening process (based on primary stats like GPA and MCAT cutoffs). It is probably a misnomer to call it a secondary “application.” Unlike the primary application you have already submitted, secondary applications are individual to each school – you will not be using AMCAS to fill them out and submit them. Rather, each school will have its own portal that will take you to their unique secondary application, with instructions for logging in and filling everything out. Each school will also have its own questions and requirements, but most can be answered with a few solid days of prewriting answers to generic questions – more on this later.
These secondary applications all have their own deadlines, depending on the school. However, it is highly advised to complete and submit these as soon as possible without sacrificing the quality of your medical school application material. Most online forums and pre-health advisors will recommend setting a 2-week turnaround period for yourself, and some schools will even offer the same advice within the email outlining the secondary application process. Try to get the secondary application back to the school within 2 weeks of receiving it. This is one method for holding yourself accountable and maximizing your chances for an acceptance.
Secondary Applications Requirements
Most secondary applications have a typical outline or formulation:
- Background/biographical questions – name, residence, age, family, etc.
- General secondary essay prompts – a space where the school will ask more about you than was included on your primary medical school application, where you can elaborate on personal qualities, achievements, and your reasons for applying to the institution
- Payment – every secondary application comes at a cost, ranging anywhere between ~$80-130
- Document uploads – if you wish to send a letter of an intent or an update letter to the school at any point in your medical school application process, the secondary application portal will include a sub-section for doing so
Apart from the standard details requested in the general questions, such as your name and residence information, you might find some school-specific questions. This includes things like your relationships to the school, programs that the school offers which you may have participated in, and questions about MD/PhD or MD/MPH programs that you may also be interested in.
How To Prepare for the Secondary Applications Essays
In general, your secondary questions will be in essay format, anywhere between 150-500 words. If you’ve applied to around 20-30 schools or more, coming up with a pertinent and well-crafted essay on the spot is a difficult task—to say the least. Luckily, most schools’ secondary questions can be categorized into a few broad topics. In addition, most schools also reuse their secondary questions from previous application cycles, which are easily accessible on school-specific SDN forums. Secondary questions generally have the following categories:
- Personal (non-academic) Challenge
- Failure (non-academic) and Feedback
- Gap Year
- “Why Us?”
- Anything Else
Almost every secondary prompt will file into one of these question categories. Knowing this, you could easily pre-write these essays before you receive them, making small modifications later. Though it is difficult to come up with ideas for these essays, or even evaluate yourself in these ways, once you get the hang of it, each secondary question you answer will be easier than the previous one.
To start your brainstorming, write a sentence or brief description of every single event that comes to mind for each essay but the “Why Us?” prompt. The more ideas you have, the merrier, even if it might seem terrible to start with. This isn’t to say that you need more than one idea per essay, but that the more options you have, the better your chances of selecting a story that presents you as an excellent candidate.
Here are some tips for approaching each of the essay types:
1. Personal (non-academic) Challenge
Generally, when schools are asking you to discuss a challenge you overcame, they care less about the nature of the challenge, and more about how you overcame it and what you learned from the experience. Discuss how/where you sought help (if from other people), and what life skills or personal attributes your hardships helped you develop. Medical schools want to see resiliency here, in addition to growth.
it is typically recommended to pick a challenge that you had a hand in choosing for your medical school applications, rather than something circumstantial that happened to you. Try not to think about this prompt as a space to talk about the difficulty of growing up in an underserved community, even if that is a considerable challenge. This is your space to talk about a project or a goal, rather than a life event. In addition, this must not include an academic challenge.
2. Failure (non-academic) and Feedback
This question is much like the personal challenge; medical schools want to know a time in your life where you failed, or about negative feedback that you have received. If possible, also include what you learned from that failure, and how you have worked to incorporate constructive criticism into your future actions. Try to relate this to medicine for your applications – how did your failure and what you learned from it affect how you will practice medicine?
What medical schools are looking for here is your background and what your character and life experiences reveal about your traits. This might seem limited to race or sexual orientation, however diversity extends much farther than that. Diversity is incredibly open ended, from diversity of thought to diversity of opportunities. Every experience you have had in your life is diverse and different from everyone else’s – try to nail down a few points that highlight your diversity as a medical school applicant and relate them to how they will influence your contribution to the school you are applying to and the practice of medicine.
This question relates broadly to things you have experienced in your life, or difficulties that you have gone through. Try to pick something that relates more towards life experiences that would signify maturity. This means you should not write about the difficulty of a class you failed, but rather something more mature you have experienced. When you do this, however, try not to reveal too much. There are many red flags for medical schools’ admissions committees here. Many applicants ask on forums whether it would be fine to write about their mental health issues or drug use, for example. These are not things you should write about in this essay, or any other – medical schools do not take kindly to these kinds of things. Although they may be large parts of your life and/or adversity, consider writing about other topics.
5. Gap Year
If you have already graduated at the time of your application, medical schools want to know what you’re going to be doing for the upcoming year. Not having an answer here isn’t an option. Treat this like the “Work and Activities” section of the AMCAS primary application and write about how you will grow personally and professionally in the span of time between your undergraduate education and medical school. Research, volunteering, and general “Work and Activities” opportunities are all great experiences to refer to. Be sure to address possible gaps in your application.
This is where you should elaborate on leadership positions you held and the role you played within your team or group. Don’t be afraid to get into specifics, and if you have an anecdote or event that happened during this time, be sure to describe it! Showing, not telling, is the best way to let your qualities shine. Refer to how your leadership benefited the group and what you did for others. If possible, describe what you learned in this experience, either from the experience itself or from the team that you worked with.
Explain what happened to you or how you were affected during the pandemic, whether it affected your process of applying to medical school or your personal life. This isn’t a mandatory question to answer, if you were not significantly affected, you may leave this blank.
8. “Why Us?”
This will be a personal essay tailored to each school that asks you why you wish to become a part of their MD program in particular. Trying to be as sincere as you can with this question will go a long way. Admissions committees can tell which applicants did their research into the school, and which applicants simply restated their mission statement and values back to them. Don’t be this applicant; take your time, dig deep into the school website, and find something that appeals to you. It needs to fit the narrative of your application, whether it be research, community service, or any other discipline. Remember that, although schools are screening and selecting applicants, you ultimately decide where you will go to school. Apply to schools whose ethos, culture, and vision are in line with your own, and sincerely answering the question “why us?” will come naturally to you.
9. Additional Information
Many schools will have an open-ended question asking if there is anything you wish to tell the admissions committee that you did not include anywhere else on your application, or if there is anything you feel will be beneficial to your application. This question is intentionally vague. Some recommend using this space as a “Why Us?” essay if the school did not already ask this question earlier. Some recommend talking about a hobby or personal interest that can translate to a strong essay that points to positive character traits. However, if you do not have anything additional to add, feel free to leave this section blank.
Developing Your Secondary Applications Essays
Once you have one or more ideas for each of these prompts condensed into a sentence, take a step back and leave them for a while. Come back in a day or two, having a fresh view on what you wrote down. At this point, start expanding on these ideas, and make them into short paragraph(s) to be used in your secondary applications essays. If you find yourself unable to make one of your ideas/sentences into a longer format – it is probably best to try brainstorming once more. Having done this, you now possess a rough summary of your experience in each secondary applications essay question and are well-prepared for secondary application season.
Review these expanded ideas, and then expand on them some more! Try to not overdo it – you don’t have to fill in the entire word limit available to you on the secondary application. If you don’t have more to say, fluffing it up to reach the word limit will only hurt you. A short, concise, and to the point secondary application essay, reaching only half of the word limit, is better than one which restates the same points over and over again. The specifics of the grammar, or the content, shouldn’t matter at this point. Your essays should read more like a stream of consciousness. This is for a reason; the more you get out, the more you can choose from in the next step.
Once you have your experiences spilled out, you now must edit them down into a readable and polished form. Many forums have places for people to share their secondaries with each other or to seek medical students’ advice. Try to get multiple points of view, and make sure to proofread and review your work yourself. Here are a few general tips for the secondary applications essays:
- Be wary of copying and pasting from your primary application. These secondary essays are your chance to bring another perspective of your experience to light, even if you already wrote about it on your primary application. You should especially treat this as your chance to get personal with the experience – feelings, lessons, and thoughts are all highly encouraged and sought after.
- Remain humble. When writing the secondary applications essays, make sure what you write is at least plausible. If you lived in a major city, and have no experience serving underserved communities, don’t write that it is your passion in your “Why Us” essay. Be true to yourself, and true to the school you are applying to.
- Take your time. Although most applicants try to hold themselves to a 2-week turnaround time for a secondary application, it is 100% fine not to. Take your time to craft an essay that you are proud of and want the admissions committee to read. It is much more worth it to take your time and put in good effort into your submission than rush it and submit poor secondary applications essays.
Having pre-written a few secondary applications essays, you might find that you have more than some secondaries ask for. These unused essays can be used as fully fleshed-out ideas during the interview. Either way, you are now fully prepared for almost anything that any school’s secondary application can throw at you. There may be the occasional ‘out of the blue’ question, like this year’s Rosalind Franklin’s “superhero question,” asking you to design a superhero and what they fight – but these are just opportunities to show the school your creativity and ability to be original. All these secondary applications might seem to just be asking you your qualifications for medical school applications, but they are more than that. Treat them as a pre-interview; schools are trying to gauge your ability to articulate yourself and discuss your experiences in unique and personable ways that reflect character traits.