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Medical School Application Secondary Essays

Created July 24, 2011 by Jessica Freedman, M.D.
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You finally submitted your medical school primary application and think you can rest when, starting some time in late June, you start receiving secondary essay prompts—just about every day.

Overwhelmed, you start to wonder why you applied to so many medical schools. Most applicants (except those with exceptional grades, MCATs, and experiences) should apply broadly to a wide range of schools, but doing so translates into writing a whole bunch of secondary essays, which can be daunting.

If you have not yet applied to medical school, you may be asking, “What on earth is a secondary essay and why would medical schools want more information from me?” After submitting your primary application, each medical school will ask you to complete a secondary application. Most medical schools, in addition to asking for an additional fee, will also ask you to write an additional essay or multiple additional essays that vary in length and focus.

Here are my answers to questions medical school applicants often ask me about secondary essays:

Q: If I get a lot of secondary requests, that means I am in great shape, right? It means I have been screened in!

A: Receiving requests for secondary essays is not typically indicative of much. In fact, very few medical schools “screen applications” to decide who will receive a secondary essay request and most medical schools send all applicants secondary applications. So, no, for the vast majority of medical schools, receiving a secondary application should not be interpreted as a “good sign.”

Q: Do these secondaries really matter? I am burned out and cannot bear to write anything more.

A: Every piece of your application “matters” and which piece matters most often depends on the outlook and personal preference of the person reading your application. That said, most screeners read applications in a preferred order and rarely review the secondary essay before the primary application. Therefore, if your primary application, transcripts, and letters of reference either individually or together convince a reviewer that you should be invited for an interview, the secondary essay may not be that important. But, on the other hand, if your primary application is poorly written or does not convince the reader that he or she wants to meet you, then he may read the secondary essay with a more critical eye, looking for more evidence that you are worthy of an interview.

Q: Why are there so many different prompts?

A: Medical schools usually compose specific essay prompts for two reasons: 1) They are seeking some information that they find most applicants do not cover or address in the primary application. 2) The medical school has a focused mission and therefore wants to seek out information to assess your “fit” for their medical school.

Q: Can I repeat information in my secondary essays that I already covered in my primary application?

A: Of course! The only caveat to this is if the medical school specifically states that no material that is already covered in your primary application be repeated in a secondary essay. In fact, I find that when applicants compose comprehensive primary applications, they are often forced to repeat some of this content in secondary essays.  Since medical schools often create secondary essay prompts to address deficiencies they observe in applications, having already covered the material implies your application wasn’t deficient.

Q: I feel like I am asked the same questions over and over again. Can I recycle some of my secondary essays?

A: Many secondary essay prompts have repeating themes, and yes, you may recycle essays, but do so carefully. One major pitfall I often observe, especially as applicants get burned out with essay writing, is that they recycle an essay that doesn’t address the prompt. It looks really bad if you can’t follow simple directions by answering what is being asked. You must therefore always ask yourself, “Does my response answer the question or provide the information requested?”

“Why our medical school?” prompts should be written individually for each medical school and must never be recycled. Every year, medical school admissions officers read essays that state a student really, really, really wants to attend a medical school other than their own because the applicant hastily copied and pasted a secondary essay response written for another medical school.

It is important to maintain your endurance over the summer to complete your secondary essays in a timely fashion. Most medical schools do not have “due dates” for secondary essays, nor do they pay much attention to how quickly applicants turn them around. However, some applicants inadvertently undermine the benefit of an early primary application submission by dragging their feet when completing secondary essays, which delays application review. On the other hand, some applicants try to be ultra-prepared and complete secondary essays well in advance based on “old prompts” (which can be found on SDN), but this is a gamble because every year some medical schools change essay prompts unexpectedly.

Jessica Freedman, MD, a former medical admissions officer, is president of MedEdits, a medical admissions consulting firm. She is also the author of The MedEdits Guide to Medical School Admissions and The Medical School Interview.  You can also follow Dr. Freedman and MedEdits on Facebook and Twitter.

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