Secondaries Explained

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Applying to medical school is a completely different experience from applying to undergraduate schools. A huge difference between the two is secondary applications. Secondaries are sent out after your primary application has been submitted and verified by AMCAS. They give you the opportunity to tell more about yourself, share your unique experiences, and explain why you want to attend a particular school. Ultimately, this is where you convince the admissions committee that you’re their ideal candidate.

 

The Basics: Who, What, When?

Most medical schools have secondaries. But when they’re sent out, when they’re due, and what questions they have on them is completely dependent on the medical school. Some medical schools will send out secondaries to every applicant who has successfully submitted a primary application to their school. Other schools will only send secondaries to applicants who have “made it to the next round” so to speak. Often this means selecting students based on MCAT and GPA cutoffs. 

The questions on secondaries may differ between schools, but many of them have common prompts, the most popular being “Why this particular school?” and “How will you add to our student population/make it more diverse?”. Other common themes include overcoming adversity, dealing with failure, expanding upon a meaningful experience, your career goals, and who is the most influential person in your life. Looking at secondary prompts from previous years can help you get an idea of what questions you might see. Good thing we have a database of 2018 secondary prompts!

Secondaries can come out anytime from mid-July onwards. Completed primary applications are sent out starting July 10th. Once schools receive your verified primary, secondaries are fair game. Again, some schools send out secondaries to everyone who applies, meaning these secondaries will be sent out a bit faster. If you’re applying to schools who selectively send out secondaries, you’ll likely be getting those a bit later. 

 

Timing is Everything

Unlike the primary application, secondaries are not held or verified and then sent out all at once. When a school sends you a request to fill out their secondary application, you can submit it practically immediately. In addition, many schools don’t set deadlines for their secondaries or if they do, they’re very late. So, how should you approach this confusing timing? Well, if you don’t know already, medical schools send out interviews on a rolling basis. This means that your best bet is to submit your secondary applications as soon as possible after you get them. The general recommendation to be a highly competitive applicant is to submit within 1-2 weeks of receiving a secondary. This may seem like a lot – and it is. If you’re like the average applicant, you’ve applied to around 20 schools. Many of those will have secondaries. How are you supposed to get all of those done so quickly?! Here’s how: 

  1. Be Organized. Just like you made a list of medical schools you wanted to apply to, and likely had them ranked in order of which ones you wanted most, you should have a list for secondaries. Have a goal of which secondaries you want to submit first, based on which schools are your top choices and which are generally more competitive. 
  2. Start Writing Early. If you submitted your application in time for it to be sent out on July 10th, hopefully, you’ve already started writing your secondaries. Taking a break can be good – applying to medical school is a marathon, not a sprint. But you don’t want to wait too long because, as previously mentioned, medical school interviews are given on a rolling basis. If you submit a secondary earlier, you’re more likely to get an interview for that particular school.

 

How to Start Writing Your Secondary Essays (Even Before Receiving the Prompt)

You do NOT need to wait until you receive the secondary prompts to begin writing! In fact, you really shouldn’t. If you wait until you get the requests to complete secondary essays, you’ll likely be strapped for time and won’t be able to submit them quickly. But where should you start? 

Research the Schools

Secondaries usually have several essays to them, but a very common one that almost all schools include is “Why this particular school?” To answer this question, you’ll need to use specifics about that school’s program. You’ll need to show the admission committee why this school is perfect for you and why you are perfect for this school. This is going to require significant research on your part. You can use the school’s website as your primary resource, but if you can, try to dig a bit deeper too. Figure out what sets this school apart from the rest. Does it have a greater opportunity for research that you’re interested in? Does it have a unique global health program that perfectly aligns with your career goals? Read their mission statement and see if it describes you. Show, don’t just tell, the committee that you will help make their school a brighter and better place. Make it seem like they need you in this upcoming class. 

Speaking of showing the school why they need you, another very common question is “How will you add to our community?” This prompt is often difficult for people to answer. If the prompt uses the word “diversity” students may feel like they need to find some way they qualify as a minority and explain the hardships and unique perspective they will bring to campus. But you don’t need to be a minority to bring a unique perspective! Don’t feel like you need to write about where you came from. Just reflect on what experiences have become a defining part of who you are and show how you would bring a unique perspective and commitment to the student body.

For example, I’m a white female from a pretty decent socioeconomic background. I guess I could write about the hardships of being a female, but that hasn’t defined who I am. I haven’t organized feminist rallies or started student organizations to promote women in medicine. I could write about the fact that I’m a lesbian, that’s definitely come with hardships, but again – that isn’t a defining feature of me or my career goals. What makes me unique, instead, is my taking a year off in the middle of college to work for humanitarian aid organizations and travel the world. THAT experience defined my career goals for me and lit a fire in my heart, driving me to want to become a doctor.

Look at Previous Years’ Prompts

Along with drafting answers to common secondary essay prompts, you should try to look for secondary prompts from previous years. We have a whole host of them on our website. If we don’t have the school you’re looking for, try Googling it! And comment below if there are any schools you want to see us add to our Secondary Prompts Database.

 

The Writing Process

Some schools may read secondaries even more closely than they read primaries. For that reason, writing stellar secondaries is incredibly important. Follow best writing practices, of course, but keep these additional tips in mind: 

Don’t Repeat Your Primary

Referencing your primary is great to promote adhesion in your application and show how everything fits together. But don’t waste the space of secondaries telling a story you’ve already told before. Use these extra prompts as opportunities to show different sides of yourself and really convince the admission committee why they should select you. 

Be Careful of Copying and Pasting!

Since you’re likely going to be filling out many secondaries, and many of them may overlap, it will be tempting to copy and paste portions of your answers. BE CAREFUL. If you accidentally copy and paste a reference from a particular school (for example, I love the research of Professor X) and that ends up in your essay for another school, that’s a careless mistake that will hurt your application. 

 

If you want additional guidance on writing secondaries, check out Med School Insider’s Secondary Application Editing Service. We have expert doctors on our team dedicated to helping you succeed. They’ll help you brainstorm, craft, and edit your secondaries to perfection so that you can maximize your chance of getting into your top schools!

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