Learning by observation is one of the most effective ways to study, so reading Harvard Medical School secondary essay examples in 2023 will sharpen your application, and let you write your own essays with confidence.
Essay writing is a difficult skill to master, so start by reading up on . Understanding acquired knowledge is easier, however, if you can see what the application of that knowledge looks like. To that end, reading secondary essays will help you glean how to go from a prompt, through good essay writing methods, to the best practices in what a final essay will look like. By thinking about writing in those terms, you will strengthen your own work immensely.
Most medical schools in the US ask for you to write , and is no exception. They have both required and optional prompts, and this article will take a look at all of them, giving you sample essays for each.
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On average, how many hours per week did you devote to employment during the academic year
I dedicated as many hours as I could afford while keeping to a vigorous academic schedule. At the same time, I took off only as few hours as I could in order to make rent.
Life is a demanding experience, and mine is no exception. I have found that careful planning and time budgeting helps to keep me on track, working hard, but with enough downtime to prevent burnout.
I held down a part-time job at a hardware store that offered me between 20 and 30 hours per week. I was more often working 30 hours than 20. I respected the store owner very much, and wanted to show my appreciation for being given the job.
Spare time was often spent back at the lab – my true passion this last semester – so even when I wasn’t officially there, I was still there.
My typical week, by hours:
Working at Jim’s Hardware 30 hours/week
Class hours 20 hours/week
Studying hours 15 hours/week
Lab hours 20 hours/week
Exercise 5 or 6 hours/week
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If you have already graduated, briefly summarize your activities since graduation.
This essay has a limit of 4,000 characters
It felt like I was opening up forever, as the summer often does, but somewhere down inside, I knew that I had no time to waste. The time between my last semester and my next semester would be a crucial, tightly-timed period in which I had to study hard, gain experiences, and save money for the next phase of my life.
I had a job lined up, lucky enough to have had at a paid internship in a laboratory. Over the months between my graduation and now we have been looking at vitamin capsules, tablets, and chewable gels. We were essentially trying to find out a better way to make these things so that people can derive more benefit from them by ensuring more of the vital ingredients get absorbed properly into whomever is using them.
Although I was mostly there to assist and follow orders, I nevertheless got to observe the meticulous processes of a professional lab environment. I shared in the frustrations of early experiments’ results, the process of advancing ideas and making progress, and the thrill of actually arriving at some useful – or, potentially-useful – results.
When I wasn’t at the laboratory working, I was looking to my volunteer hours.
My uncle is a hospital administrator, and set me up with a couple of doctors to shadow. One of these doctors, Dr. Stevens, is a psychiatrist – an area of specialization which I enjoy very much. Although confidentiality prevented me from following him on certain aspects of his job, I nevertheless got to learn a lot from him. He was very patient, friendly, and answered my myriad questions – even giving me his personal email address so I could learn more. I wasn’t shy about taking advantage of this, and have been back-and-forth with him, asking questions and getting to know my preferred area of medicine.
I said, “Hi,” a lot, too, as I found myself back at the hospital a lot of other times. I enjoyed my time there immensely, and sought other ways of volunteering to assist. Most of my volunteer hours weren’t as clinical as shadowing, but I still got to spend time helping patients and staff. My primary area where I volunteered was helping with older patients, and I was often an arm to lean on for exercise, or an eye to read a book, or sometimes just an ear to hear a patient who needed company.
Home time was spent studying, pouring over MCAT preparation materials and working hard to get my numbers up. I was eager to get ahead last year, and actually arranged to take the MCAT. I was under-prepared, and did not receive a score that I thought reflected my potential. So, for the past months, I have been studying to hold myself to a higher standard. The next time I take the test, I know I won’t disappoint myself again.
Of course, there was down-time as well. I couldn’t work all the time, and my particular favorite pastime is music. Study breaks often consisted of grabbing my guitar from beside my bed, running scales, singing along a bit, and just enjoying the feeling of playing. I have no illusions about becoming some rock star someday. I’m not the best guitar player in the world, but I’m not really trying to be. I love the instrument, and I love getting better at it; I’ve always enjoyed challenging myself. It’s a wonderful way to relax.
I believe that relaxation is very important. We can’t work all the time – it isn’t healthy – and there are many ways to enjoy life. My great fortune, is that I got to spend my time since graduation in many different ways that I enjoy life: not just with music, but with helping, healing people, and diving into the medical arts.
If there is an important aspect of your personal background or identity, not addressed elsewhere in the application, that you would like to share with the Committee, we invite you to do so here. Many applicants will not need to answer this question. Examples might include significant challenges in access to education, unusual socioeconomic factors, identification with a minority culture, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. Briefly explain how such factors have influenced your motivation for a career in medicine.
This essay has a limit of 4,000 characters
One day, I will become a cliché: an old man lecturing his grandchildren on how, when he was a boy, he used to have to really work just to get to school. My family live well off the beaten path, and my round trip just to get to school was three and a half hours. Some of it was uphill, and some of it was by foot, and I had to get up very early to walk to the bus stop on time.
We moved when I was very little, refugees from overseas, my parents barely speaking English, and me speaking nothing at all – I was only just one year old. We moved from a country we were told does not exist, but which we call Tibet.
My father is a farmer and my mother is a school teacher, which came in handy while we tried to figure out education, since she could handle some of the load. We moved in with my uncle, who had immigrated before us, and he had a small farm out in the bush in Pennsylvania.
The life I knew was one of isolated calm, which kind of works when you’re growing up Buddhist. I never felt particularly isolated, because I had a loving family around me, but my first several years as a child were spent in a forest-farm sanctuary. Every now and then we’d drive the almost two hours to town to pick up something we couldn’t grow, make, forage, or build for ourselves.
When I hit school age, my parents decided I couldn’t just be taught at home. Despite my mother’s background in education, they knew that I would lose out on social interaction and linguistic ability. They were right. In fact, I already was behind my classmates.
I don’t remember much of kindergarten, or grade one, but I do know that I was in the middle of more people than I had seen in my life, yet I still felt isolated. We spoke little English at home, and so I had a difficult time communicating with my classmates at first. My progress was slow; at home, my mother made an effort to continue to speak English with me, to give me practice, but my father had poor English skills, and my uncle had just enough English to buy a few things in town on those rare trips out.
Perhaps this is what prompted the second move. When I was around ten or eleven years old, my parents finally took us from our isolated spot and moved into a rural village – just a little town, but it felt to me like a metropolis. Mom’s English had improved with mine; she really did put in a lot of effort. She had acquired a job as a teacher, and so she and I would drive to school together. My father dropped us off in a car my uncle gave them – so old and used that I think it ran on prayer as much as gasoline.
Even at the time, I know my father was uncomfortable with my mother being the primary breadwinner in the family. Or perhaps it was that he was feeling more isolated than ever, living away from his country and now his brother.
My family’s circumstances have given me some unique perspectives. I have spent so much of my life feeling alone or cut off that it doesn’t really bother me. I can sit in solitude. I have become quiet patient as a result. That solitude has made me deeply appreciate what it means to have friends, however, and though I do not have many friends, I love them all dearly.
It would be easy to become cynical and think of myself as an outsider – a refugee is always a little in transit – with language barriers, physical distance between myself and large groups of people, and a cultural heritage that doesn’t match anybody around me; there are very few Buddhists in rural Pennsylvania. But I do not think of myself as an outsider at all. Rather, my perspective is that we are all, in our own ways, outsiders. We all have inner thoughts, and the isolation of our minds keeps us all to ourselves, in one way or another. The joy here, however, is the realization that that makes none of us outsiders. If we all understand isolation, we all need connection. I feel I am connected to my roots, my heritage, my family, my friends, and my people – who are, of course, everyone.
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The Committee on Admissions understands that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted applicants in various ways. If you wish to inform the Committee as to how these events have affected you and have not already done so elsewhere in your application, please use this space to do so. (This is an optional essay; the Committee on Admissions will make no judgment based on your decision to provide a statement or not.)
My mom has asthma, so when the COVID-19 virus hit my family, working its way from one family member to another, what would happen to mom became an all-consuming thought in my mind. The sight of mom’s asthma medication used to seem totally innocuous. Now, that little “puffer” is changed to a harbinger of doom.
More than that, though, the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to change everything about the world. It changed trips to the grocery store, how we say hello to friends, how we think of jobs, and how politics permeates everything.
I never thought of myself as a political person prior to the pandemic. I thought of myself as a fairly neutral person, right down to my professional aspirations. Being a doctor isn’t a political thing; they heal and they help all people, so how could being a physician be political?
Despite my full vaccination, despite the booster shots, my family still contracted the virus. I still believe in vaccination, but a lot of people don’t. A lot of people found themselves doubting the medical professionals who were risking their lives trying to keep people healthy and cure the ones who weren’t.
My perception of healthcare and healthcare professionals changed – radically – and I have absolutely begun to see these professions as political. COVID changed that, too, and for me it struck home with such intensity, lying in my bed, coming down with symptoms, developing a mild anxiety about whether I’d be able to smell flowers or taste food in a month’s time, and hearing my mom wheeze downstairs.
Do you know how silencing a wheeze can be, in those quiet moments?
I recovered from the coronavirus fairly quickly – zonked out for about twenty-four hours before bouncing back – but by the time I was over it, my mom was developing symptoms, and hers were bad. They were very bad, as a matter of fact, and I knew that the asthma was always going to be there to make this a tough fight.
My dad, my sister, and I all got lucky; we were out of harm’s way by the time mom hit the nadir. We were isolating and scared.
What can you do with all of that going on and nowhere to escape to? I had school – doing virtual classes – but I couldn’t go to work and I found it hard to concentrate. I became a caretaker. I had the experience, after all, and although I am not a doctor yet, I knew that I had a certain knowledge base that I had been developing for exactly this purpose: to help heal.
So, I did what I could – we all did, my dad, my sister, and me – and mom pulled through. It took her almost a full week, but she came back from the edge.
So much for asthma, but what about politics?
When I got back to in-person classes, I was talking to some friends about the experience. We had been in touch, of course, but I was sharing it with them again, getting it out, like I was releasing the last week, and in the middle of it, another classmate – a boy by the name of Stuart – injected himself into the conversation, running his mouth about how COVID vaccines were a useless conspiracy and that the virus itself was practically mythological.
I am proud to say that I have only punched Stuart’s lights out in my mind. I have done it a dozen times, but I am proud to say that I never let it leak out into real life. In fact, I did the opposite of my angry, reactionary impulses, and asked Stuart why he thought the way he did, and what I should read to be better informed.
This opened up a dialogue between myself and Stuart, one which I continued for the rest of the semester at school. I challenged him, and he challenged me sometimes. I don’t think I have fully convinced my new friend about the truth of the pandemic, but he’s a lot closer.
COVID-19 taught me about patience, about doing what I can, about perseverance, and about how to pull through with my family and friends – the importance of a good support network. It gave me an aspirational goal for my work in the medical field: to save and heal people, like my mom, but also to keep open dialogues with people like Stuart.
The interview season for the 20XX-20XX cycle will be held virtually and is anticipated to run from mid-September through January 20XX. Please indicate any significant (three or more weeks) restriction on your availability for interviews during this period. If none, please leave this section blank.
During the second week of September, and until the first week of October, I have decided to undertake a tremendous opportunity. My family, on my father’s side, comes from Portugal. He is Azorean, and this summer he is returning to the Azores for a time to help as a doctor.
My father is an MD, and immigrating years ago with the dream of becoming a doctor in America. He fulfilled that dream, and along the way, he met my mother. She was studying English Literature at Yale at the same time he was studying medicine.
Our family have made frequent trips to the Azores over the years; my father wanted me to be in touch with where we come from. I have grown to love them as a second home, these islands of tranquility, with tomato-growing soil, and the Holy Ghost Festival.
The last few years, however, we have not found the time. Life has been busy, complicated, and not terribly conducive to travel. But my father recently accepted a call from a friend to come over for a few months and help as a physician.
I am going for a short time to shadow my father. So, from September 12th until October 3rd, I will be saying hello again to old friends, learning by watching my father, and getting back in touch with the tomato-growing soil of the Azores.
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1. Some of the essays don’t have a character limit. Can I write my essay to any length I want?
Technically, yes. If no limit is imposed, you can write as you please. However, you should consider some factors in how long to make your essay.
First, as a general rule, the limit for your essays should be about 1,000 words. You could go a little more, but that’s a reasonable length for an application essay. You want to give yourself enough room to say what you need to say, but not so long that you will bore your reader and make your application tedious.
Second, consider the topic asked for. If the topic is very specific and covers a small subject, it’s okay to let your essay be a little shorter.
Third, check out the other essays’ lengths. Two of the Harvard Secondary essay prompts have a limit of 4,000 characters. The others have no stated limit. You probably shouldn’t exceed 4,000 characters on the essays without official limits, since that seems to be a length that Harvard has deemed reasonable.
Lastly, a little advice from Shakespeare: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Better to say what you mean, say it well, and say it quickly than to add nothing to your ideas but ink and air.
2. Should I write the optional essays?
Best practice is to write all optional essays to take every opportunity you have. You have a chance to shine out and rise to the top of the pile with every action you take, so you should take those actions.
Speaking specifically to the Harvard Secondary prompts above, prompt no.5 is certainly truly optional. It is based on the empirical fact of whether or not you have a schedule conflict. If you have no conflict, you have no essay, and don’t need to write it.
Prompt no.4 provides you an opportunity to speak to your interaction with a world-enveloping health issue. There is room here to stand out, so take it. Even though the committee are not grading these essays, your response here can still cause them to think favorably of you, or give you a subconscious “edge”.
Prompt no.3 applies to specific personal experiences, but such a wide range is given that most students will be able to speak to one category, or something like those categories. Again, another opportunity to add to your personal story and relatability is a good opportunity to take. If you can, write this essay.
3. How many characters under the limit can I be?
Ten to fifteen percent short will put you close to the limit and allow you the room to say what you need to say.
Your first goal should be to answer each essay in a way that shows your best attributes to the admissions board. Effectively show your skills, experiences, qualities like perseverance or leadership, personal growth, and passion for the medical field.
Your essay should have an introduction paragraph, a body, and a conclusion. So, that format and structure will necessarily use up most of the word count, if you are following it properly.
4. How do I structure an essay? Is it different from any other essay?
Not really. You don’t require things like references, but you should still follow standard essay writing format, with an introductory paragraph, a supporting and expanding body, and a conclusion.
Give your essay an attention-grabbing opening sentence, and close it off by wrapping up what you talked about throughout the essay.
5. What kinds of experiences should I talk about in my essays?
Following each prompt is paramount. Essay number three is explicitly about your personal background and challenges you’ve faced, so that is your subject matter.
But, that doesn’t mean that you can’t highlight certain elements, or choose more advantageous stories.
Whichever school you’re writing for – in this case, Harvard – go find their mission statement. What qualities is in that? Harvard says that they are looking to educate “students and student-leaders". If they value students and student-leaders, they value leadership. They value a search for knowledge, just as two examples.
Every school will be looking for perseverance, leadership skills, teamwork skills, personal growth, ethical responsibility, and any experiences you have had with healthcare, even in peripheral ways, whether professional or volunteer.
6. How long should I spend writing my essays?
Take a couple weeks to get them write. The key to writing – any kind of writing – isn't the first draft, it’s the edits you make.
Read your essay over and make changes. Ask yourself if the paragraph order is perfect, if the sentences are well-written – not overly verbose, not too simple – and if you have used every opportunity to highlight your best qualities.
Take a few passes at it before coming to the final draft, at which point you can triple-check the spelling and grammar, and make sure you are within the character or word limits.
7. Can I reuse my essays from one application to another?
If they are applicable, yes. You might need to do some edits, of course, but if two – or more – schools have essays addressing your experiences with diversity, you will probably find that you can use material in both essays.
A note on editing, however: check and check again that there is nothing in the essay that applies to one school while writing to the other. Don’t reference a mission statement that belongs to another academic institution, for instance. It’s easy to miss those things, so read your essay carefully to avoid a dreadful, embarrassing misstep.
8. How much do spelling and grammar affect my chances of acceptance?
They are neither the be-all and end-all of the matter, nor are they inconsequential.
All you have to do is put yourself in the shoes of an essay reader – a member of the admissions committee – and imagine that you read one application with good essays and impeccable grammar and another application with good essays and bad grammar. Who do you choose?
Poor spelling might affect a subconscious perception of you, as an applicant, as well.
Of course, if one or two small errors get left in, it’s not the end of the world. It’s unlikely that a strong application will be rejected on that basis alone. Still, don’t risk it; edit carefully, and get somebody else to proofread, if possible.