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How to Answer the FIVE Most Common Medical School Secondary Essay Prompts

>> Comprehensive list of medical school secondary essays <<

Why the Secondary Application:

The main purpose of the secondary medical school application is to determine whether you are a good “fit” with the mission and values of the school you are applying to, whether your answer to the question "Why do you want to be a doctor?" fits with the overall ethos of the institution. Med schools send out secondary essays to further assess the unique characteristics of each applicant that have not been addressed in the  AMCAS Work/Activities Section. This post will go over when medical schools send out secondary applications, how long you have to return them, common medical school secondary application prompts and tips for writing strong essays that application committees will love.

When Do Medical Schools Send Out Secondary Applications?

Once the primary application has been received and processed, schools will do one of two things. They will either send out secondary application packages to all students who applied, or they will send out secondary application essays to the students that have passed their preliminary screening process. How long it will take for you to actually receive the essay prompts is dependent upon how long it takes AMCAS to process your application (which can take up to six weeks during the peak application season) as well as how long it takes the school to process your application. 

How Long Should I Take to Return My Secondary Essays?

Generally speaking, the answer to this question is the sooner the better. Schools see a prompt submission as an indication of your interest in the program. Two weeks should be the most time you allow to elapse before submitting your essay.

Some of you may be realizing at this point that you’ve applied to 10-20 schools and that each will likely send somewhere between 2-10 (looking at you, UCLA) prompts. That’s a lot of essay writing! This brings us to the next point:

Pre-Write Your Essays:

 We’ve compiled a list of sample prompts here. You can look pull out common themes for the schools your are most interested in applying to. You should then create an essay outline or rough essay that addresses each of these themes. Though schools may change their prompts from year to year, pre-planning at least some of your essays will make you much more efficient with your writing, allowing you to create consistently well thought-out essays.

You can also pre-write essays based on common themes which tend to recur in secondary essays. If taking this route, make sure that each example actually works for the prompt and addresses the question before using it. 

Common themes include:

  • Why Have You Applied To Our School
  • Cultural Competency
  • Overcoming Challenges 
  • Future Goals
  • Explanation of Academic Lapses or Breaks

Addressing the Why Have You Applied to Our School Prompt:

The most important component of answering this prompt is doing your research. Do you have a thorough understanding of the school's mission statement and values? What population or populations are they most interested in serving? How do they describe their student body? What curriculum-enriching activities are available to their students? Do they have a strong research program? Is their curriculum a good fit for your learning style? Are all of these things in line with your own values, career goals and learning needs? Being informed will demonstrate an interest in the program, allowing you to write a response showing that you will be a genuinely good fit for the school.

  • Focus on using your narrative to illustrate personal experiences or character traits that demonstrate how you will be a good fit for the culture of the school.
  • Highlight any common values and passions.
  • Highlight any personal connections to the school. Did you grow up nearby? Do you have a support network in the area?
  • What are you most excited about when you think of attending this school? Research? Global health? Community outreach?

>>FREE: 100 Sample Official Medical School Interview Questions!<<

How to Address the Cultural Competency Prompt:

Questions surrounding cultural competency delve into your ability to interact with people whose culture, beliefs or values are different from your own. Are you able to help people in a way that is in line with their values and belief system, even if these values and beliefs are not in line with your own. It  is also important to realize the vital role that effective communication plays in bridging cultural differences. Your essay should focus on the barriers you encountered, the communication strategies you employed to overcome these barriers, how you helped the person in a way that respected their beliefs and how you will apply this lesson in the future.

Great ideas for narratives that could address the diversity prompt include:

  • A time when you used your problem solving skills to help someone from a sociocultural background different from your own.
  • A time you advocated for someone from a different sociocultural background from your own.
  • How you used your communication skills to overcome a language barrier and help someone.
  • A reflection on what you learned from working with people with a different background from your own.
  • A reflection on communicating with people with a different background from your own.
  • A reflection on learning about and accepting the difference in beliefs of people with a different background from your own.
  • A reflection on an interaction with an individual whose values were different from your own.

How to Address the Overcoming Challenges Prompt:

This prompt is looking at what medical schools typically refer to as “resilience”. The reality is that you will be faced with a wide variety of challenges during your medical training. Medical schools are looking for candidates who are equipped with mature coping strategies, enabling them to proficiently navigate whatever life, or medical school, decides to throw at them.

You can use any example from your own life to address this prompt. Ideas include:

  • A time when things did not go according to plan.
  • Overcoming a setback.
  • Overcoming an illness or injury.
  • Dealing with the illness of a loved one.

The important thing to remember with this prompt, is to keep it positive. Focus on the strategies you used to overcome the hurdle that presented itself to you, and what you learned from the situation.

How to Address the Future Goals Prompt:

It’s okay not to know exactly what kind of doctor you want to be. For this prompt, reflect on the experiences that cemented your decision to pursue medicine.

  • What was it specifically about these experiences that made you want to become a doctor?
  • What fascinated you the most? Why?
  • What patient population did you enjoy working with the most? Why?

You can then go on to say what kind of doctor you would like to be, or, if you haven't decided, suggest more generally which direction you would like to see your career take (ie: mention a patient population you think you would like to work with). Many students change their minds once having been in medical school a couple of years, so it’s reasonable to say that you will keep your eyes open and continue to explore every opportunity!

How to Address the "Academic Lapses or Breaks" Prompt:

If you have an academic lapse or took a break that you wish to explain to the admissions committee, you may want to prepare this prompt in advance. The most important things to focus on are:

  • Clearly, yet briefly, explaining the situation that lead to the break or lapse.
  • Outlining how you moved past the situation.
  • Outlining what you learned from the situation, and how you will manage similar situations going forward.

Here's a recap of everything:


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