Why Do Medical Schools Have Secondary Applications?
Before we jump into reviewing medical school secondary essay examples, let's discuss the purpose of secondary applications and essays. 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. Medical schools send out secondary essays to further assess the unique characteristics of each applicant that have not been addressed in the AMCAS Work and 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.
In this blog, you will learn about the following topics and themes:
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.
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. For example, UCLA secondary essays are due fifteen days after receipt of the invitation.
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:
If you check out our comprehensive list of medical school secondary essay prompts, you can pull out common themes for the schools you 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.
Even if the prompts do change, the themes often remain similar. This means that you can pre-write (or at least pre-draft) essays based on common themes that 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. Have a look at our blog for UCSD secondary essay prompts and sample responses.
Would you like us to help you with your secondary applications?
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?
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. Similar to the TMDSAS personal characteristics essay, 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 essay medical school prompt include:
- A time when you used your problem-solving skills to help someone from a socio-cultural background different from your own.
- A time you advocated for someone from a different socio-cultural 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.
Check out our video, "How to Think (and How NOT to Think) about Diversity Secondary Essays"
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. Review our blog for a more in-depth guide to writing adversity essays for medical school secondary applications.
Or, watch our video below for adversity essay examples:
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!
Here's a video about the secondary essay prompt, "Your Future as a Medical Professional":
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, explain the situation that led 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:
1 - Why our school?
Write a critical analysis of your personal and scholastic qualifications for the study of medicine, the realization of your professional ambitions, and why you are choosing to apply to our school.
When I was in kindergarten, I was playing tag with my friends when I noticed a kid sitting on the bench. He seemed visibly anxious and left out of the fun so I felt compelled to invite him to play with us. This sense of compassion lay the foundation for my desire to study medicine. As I grew older, I became more inquisitive about the natural world and wanted to know how everything worked and fit together. I started to become passionate about chemistry, mathematics and biology, finding that those subjects gave me the tools to understand my surroundings. I felt empowered with every new concept I would learn; however I never quite felt as though I knew enough. It was only when my friend asked for help with her mental illness that I realized just how much I did not know and how unequipped I was to help someone in this situation. The clash between my sense of compassion and my lack of knowledge and ability to help drove me to want to study medicine.
As I ventured into college, my knowledge-seeking tendencies manifested in an interest in biomedical engineering. I chose this degree for its ability to teach me about the design and manufacturing of groundbreaking medical technologies such as skin-grafts, medical imaging devices, and prostheses. I dreamt of pushing clinical innovations and finding the next technology to revolutionize patient care. Aside from educating myself in medical technology, my college years gave me a lasting perspective and understanding of the Hispanic community’s struggles. I once accompanied my friends to volunteer in a mobile clinic. It was early in the morning when a nurse told me to put up a sign that read: “We do not check IDs.” At first, I was confused, but after careful consideration, I realized that it was to not deter illegal immigrants from seeking medical aid. As the day went on and patients came in, I noticed that most did not have the means to afford regular health and dental care. Most of them prayed that their illnesses would go away on their own because they did not have the means to get professional help. This experience really opened my eyes to the plight of underserved communities and reinforced my decision to pursue medicine so that I could help serve those who were unable to help themselves.
I applied to X University for its opportunities to allow me to work with underserved communities and develop the technical and interpersonal skills to provide patients from these communities the best care. I hope to combine my experience within medicine and engineering to push clinical technologies and advancements further to provide cheap and effective alternatives to current medications and treatments to drive down the cost of healthcare so that it can become available to more people.
2 - Cultural Competency
A. Describe how you relate to someone who is very different from you. Examples of differences may be cultural, racial, religious, economic, gender/sexual orientation, lifestyle.
The world is so diverse and it can be easy to resign to only care for and be informed of one’s own personal interests. To connect with someone else is to choose to forgo ignorance, and aim to understand other people and their backgrounds. This is a choice that is made every day when we decide how to interact in society.
In my first year of university, I roomed with a person who immigrated from Colombia. I saw how difficult it was for her to transition to a new country and to overcome cultural barriers. Instead of accepting the fact that our cultures rendered us incompatible, I decided to educate myself on her culture. I started to read of the political unrest in Colombia, I found Latin music we could listen to, and I utilized my basic Spanish to try to make her feel at home. Five years later, we still live together and are the best of friends. It's clear that a little effort trying to understand the life and journey of someone else can go a long way to building connections and trust.
B. Please discuss the diversity that you would bring to our school of medicine and the profession of medicine.
The challenges I faced as a first-generation immigrant has taught me several valuable lessons, which have influenced my pursuit of medicine. Here in the States, I am granted liberties that are otherwise unattainable in Vietnam- specifically access to quality healthcare and opportunities for growth and enrichment. My first exposure to medicine did not transpire in a hospital but instead took place in a small tent affiliated with a roaming clinic.
The significant gap in healthcare accessibility, advancement, and quality between the States and the developing countries were increasingly apparent when I returned to Vietnam to visit my family. In time, I also realized that these similar circumstances and situations exist in my local community as well. This has inspired me to advocate for the underserved population because I, myself, can identify with their struggles. During our financial crisis, my family received overwhelming support and generosity from several neighborhood communities. I wish to return the kindness. Now more than ever, in a time where immigrants are restricted access, I must fight to give them a voice.
I also bring with me the traditions and culture of a Vietnamese American. I have developed my own understanding of the diverse facets of the Asian American identity and the ripple effect it has on the community. Through lion dancing and partnering with the Vietnamese and Chinese communities, I grasped the important role that communities play in providing resources. To become one of the few Vietnamese doctors in the area would allow me to address the needs of the community and give me a platform to collaborate with other communities of color. One of my goals is to break down the language barriers and stigmas surrounding the older Asian community and help them achieve their health goals.
I bring a steadfast mindset of advocating for the underserved in my community and as an immigrant Vietnamese American, I aim to use my position to influence decisions that will benefit the entire community.
3 - Overcoming Challenges
Describe a challenging situation you faced and what you did to address it.
My sister was diagnosed with epilepsy at 3 months old, and it has been a continual learning experience. She never qualified for an autism diagnosis, but her behaviors resembled an autistic or neurodivergent individual. As an 8-year-old, I did not notice public reactions to my sister’s behaviors.
But, as we both grew older, I became embarrassed when people would stare at her, or notice her behavioral differences. Behavioral incidents continued to occur throughout my time in high school and college. However, I have grown into a more empathetic person who better understands the difficulties my sister faces. I won’t deny that sometimes it is still embarrassing, but I remind myself that she struggles to control her behaviors and it is not her fault.
The best way I can help her as a sister is to be there for her and try to help her through the emotions she may not be able to express all the time. Understanding my sister has made me into a stronger, more confident and empathetic woman.
4 - Future Goals prompt
Professionalism and the ability to gain respect in the community in which you live is of utmost importance as you embark upon a career as a physician. What three professional qualities do you feel a Student Doctor must be able to demonstrate as he/or she makes the transition into the study and practice of medicine? How will you demonstrate those qualities as a medical student at RowanSOM?
There are many valuable attributes a student doctor must possess, but the three of which I consider the most valuable are self-discipline/reflection, open-mindedness/sensitivity, and teamwork skills.
Possessing self-discipline and self-reflection skills are key for any student doctor planning on tackling the arduous medical courses that will come their way. Through my undergraduate career, I have constantly improved upon my academic study strategies to adapt to the rigors of upper-level biological courses. I realize that when one way does not work it is crucial to consult peers, advisors, and professors to improve my approach. Such changes included recording my lectures, attending more office hours, and even seeking resources outside of my lecture material to supplement my knowledge. I use this principle in my personal health goals as well. For example, my favorite hobby that I use to keep me grounded is going to the gym, where I attempt to break my fitness plateaus by researching and consulting peers. It is this drive to constantly improve myself that will allow me to overcome the many obstacles that will come my way during my medical pursuit.
In addition, it is important for student doctors to be open-minded and sensitive when understanding patients from diverse backgrounds. My research experience at the Center for Addiction, Personality, and Emotion Research enriched my understanding of the socioeconomic and environmental factors that are involved in developing addiction disorders. Learning about the neurobehavioral and psychological processes that underlie addictive behavior reinforced my awareness of the health disparities that arise from environmental and social systems in my local community. It is imperative to understand the patient outside of their symptoms in order to realize the other factors involved in their diagnosis. I aim to one day use this knowledge to inform my future patients of preventative measures and how to overcome their environmental strains.
Lastly, it is crucial for student doctors to develop teamwork skills when entering the field of medicine. Physicians have to be prepared to engage and work within different teamwork structures or environments with other specialists to provide high-quality care for their patients. My experiences as an EMT taught me firsthand how critical it is to build long-lasting relationships based on trust with your team. I have spent countless hours getting to know my EMS crew to ensure that we built a sense of camaraderie that would allow us to work well together during calls. I remember one occasion when my partner was flustered during a stressful call and could not remember the next step in delivering a treatment protocol to a patient. I noticed he was frustrated and subtly reminded him of the next step. Based on our relationship and trust, he acted on my advice and later thanked me for the assistance. Knowing that we always had each other’s back gave us the reassurance and confidence we needed to handle the many unpredictable calls that came our way. I hope to strengthen this same sense of teamwork as a future physician.
5 - Academic Lapses or Breaks
If you have taken a gap year(s), please explain what you have been, or will be, doing since graduating from your undergrad institution.
I threw myself into the medical school application process during my final year of my undergrad degree. Realizing that my application was lacking, I have spent the time since graduation gaining volunteer and leadership experience, improving my MCAT score, and taking science prerequisite courses.
Taking post-baccalaureate classes proved advantageous. I was thrilled when my MCAT score improved significantly, going from 505 to 517. My score was a testament to the hard work and dedication I put into my organic chemistry and molecular biology courses, and to the time management, accountability, and work ethic I refined in studying for the MCAT.
While pursuing post-baccalaureate science courses improved my academics, volunteering at a seniors’ care center has opened my eyes to the issues facing seniors and those who care for them. Once, upon entering the facility, I heard a patient calling for help; he had fallen and could not get back into his wheelchair. Per volunteer protocol, I cannot physically assist the residents into their chairs. However, after determining that he was not physically hurt, I calmly reassured him that I was getting help and informed the nurses of his situation. This incident and other experiences at the center allowed me to develop and practice skills such as enforcing appropriate boundaries, working with others, and handling unexpected and stressful circumstances with poise.
From my various experiences, I have developed and refined my belief system and skill set. I've developed a greater sensitivity to those facing physical or mental limitations, and a dedication to serving my community in overcoming such challenges. I’ve learned the value of being empathetic and showing compassion in the process. I've developed the critical traits and values that I am certain this school would be proud of, whether as a student or as a physician.
Here is a recap of the medical school secondary essay examples:
1. What is the purpose of secondary applications and essays?
Secondary essays help medical schools get to know their applicants better. The secondary prompts often address questions and areas of your life that you would not have the chance to talk about in your primary applications.
2. How do I get an invite to complete the secondary application?
While some schools send out secondary applications to anyone who applied to their program, others will send out invites for secondary application after the screening of the primary application.
3. Do all medical schools require the submission of secondary essays?
No, not all schools have secondary application components. However, most of them do.
4. How long should I take to return my secondaries?
You should return your secondaries as soon as possible. Your eagerness to submit your secondaries will signal to the schools your serious intentions. If the schools do not specify the deadline in the secondary’s invite, you should aim to return the essays no later than 2 weeks after receiving them.
5. How long should my secondary essays be?
Each prompt will indicate how long your answer should be. Make sure to stick to the character or word count suggested. Secondaries differ in length; while some prompts will ask for your answers to be no longer than 250 words, others may allow for 1500. Remember not to exceed the character/word count, but also do not feel that you have to use up the entire word limit. If you can write an eloquent, complete answer that is shorter, you can certainly do that. Remember that the quality of your answer will always trump length. Do not ramble on – you must answer the prompt fully, but concisely.
6. Should I pre-write my essays?
Yes, you can plan your secondary essay responses. Many secondary prompts are standard. Most schools will ask you why you want to attend their program, whether you have faced any challenges in your journey to medical school, or whether you can contribute to the diversity of the incoming class. Though you may not write out the entire answer fully, you should brainstorm and come up with the best examples and experiences that would support your candidacy and illustrate your suitability for medical school.
7. What’s wrong with pre-writing full secondary essay responses?
One of the key things to remember about secondary essays is that you have to answer the prompt. You must answer exactly what is being asked of you. If you do not know the exact working of the prompts, it might be wasteful to write out entire answers to last year’s prompts. They change slightly almost every year. However, you can plan your answers to some of the most common secondary essay prompts.
8. I am afraid to discuss my academic lapses or breaks in my secondaries. How should I address my setbacks?
Addressing setbacks in your secondaries is absolutely normal. Many students have taken a gap year before medical school, chose to improve their MCAT score by taking a year to thoroughly prepare for the test, or faced challenges at home that prevented them from participating in important extracurriculars for medical school. You should never be ashamed or afraid to discuss the challenges you faced on your way to becoming a physician.
When you answer these prompts, remember to focus on how you overcame your setbacks. Instead of playing the victim, be sure to highlight how hard you worked to gain research experience during your gap year, or how hard you worked with an MCAT tutor to help you ace the exam, or that you worked several part-time jobs to support your family in challenging times. Your attitude and reaction to these problems show who you are – it is not the setback that defines you, it’s how you dealt with it.
9. I have nothing to write about for the cultural competency prompt.
This is a common misconception. Your answer to this prompt does not have to be related to your personal ethnic, cultural, or racial background. While you can certainly write about these topics, you can also discuss how you engage with others, the unique qualities you possess, and the skills and experiences that make you stand out. For example, maybe you moved frequently as a child across the United States, or served as a cadet, or played team captain on your college hockey team. Reflect on how these experiences affected you – perhaps moving from school to school as a child made you incredibly adaptable in social situations and now you find it easy to breach social and cultural differences you encounter, or your time in cadets formed the strength of character and sense of responsibility that you now employ to help the vulnerable, or being a team's captain habituated discipline and sense of teamwork that helps you unite people of different characters and cultures.
Sometimes our own lives seem boring and uneventful but when you sit down to write your secondaries, stop and reflect on your own life. Not everyone is dedicated to sports, not everyone has experience living in several places in their lifetime, and not everyone has experience with the military. Take time to ponder what makes you unique. This is what the admissions committees want to see in your secondary!
10. I have nothing to write for the “overcoming challenges” prompt.
While it is admirable that you only remember the good things in your life, it is unlikely that you have never faced a challenge or a setback that you can write about. The adversities you write about in your secondaries do not need to be cataclysmic events like immigration, divorce, or illness. Yes, you can certainly focus your essay on these topics if they were a part of your life at some point, but adversity comes in different forms. For example, did you have to work during your undergrad to support yourself? Perhaps combining studies with late-night shifts was a great challenge? And while you should describe the situation for your reader, your essay should focus on what this challenge taught you and what kind of characteristics and skills you learned.
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