It’s summer time. The sun is shining. Hot dogs are cooking on the grill. Footballs are flying at the park. Waves are crashing at the beach. It’s a great time of year, I must say. But for an aspiring doctor working on medical school applications, this time of year signifies something else. It’s about time for secondary applications! Sorry to make that quick transition to the nitty-gritty of med school apps, but here’s the truth: mid to late summer is when secondary applications will be sent out to the earliest applicants. And being prepared for them will give you the best chance of knocking your application out of the park and landing an interview come fall.

The Background

First, to take a quick step back, the medical school application process contains a few key components. First is the primary application, submitted via one of 3 services (AMCAS – for most American medical schools; TMDSAS – for Texan Medical Schools; AACOMAS – for most osteopathic medical schools). We have a prior post briefly touching on this topic, and stay tuned for a future post with further details. After this primary application is submitted, medical schools will send secondary applications to be filled out and submitted by a deadline. This is the meat of our discussion here. Based on the composite of the primary and secondary, applicants will be offered an interview date anywhere from the fall to the following spring. Acceptances will come in during this period on a rolling basis!

What is the secondary application?

Great question, with a very simple answer. The secondary application, as its name suggests, is the second component that is sent to an applicant after they submit the primary application. Each school has a unique secondary application, which contrasts the common primary application which was sent to several schools through the aforementioned services. So the secondary is a chance for each school to get more information from the applicant. Generally the objective is to answer a series of questions in order to address these overarching themes: “Why this school? Why are you the right fit for our institution in particular? What makes you unique?”

Essentially, the secondary application will be a series of short essay questions unique to each program you are applying to (with a fair amount of overlap though). The questions may not be exactly those listed above, but it should be the goal of the applicant to somehow address those concepts in their responses. There is a spectrum of what secondaries actually look like. Some consist of several short answer questions. A few ask for a longer essay. But in general, the average secondary consists of 2-3 short essay questions about the applicant’s experiences and interest in that particular school.

When do the secondary applications arrive? When should I complete them?

In my experience applying to medical school, the applicants who submitted the primary application at the earliest possible time (beginning of June) began to get secondary applications by late June. I received a few secondaries in the last week of June, but the bulk on mine arrived in July and August. Secondary application deadlines differ for all schools, but many lie in the fall or early winter (keep in mind that some applicants will receive secondaries later if they sent their primary later). Some schools will also give a deadline in relation to when you received the secondary, i.e. 3 weeks from time of receipt.

With that said, here is a key concept when completing secondary applications: submit them as early as possible! Just as with the primary application, the earlier you submit your secondaries the better. This is because most schools are on rolling admissions, meaning the sooner you complete your primary and secondary, the sooner you are eligible for an interview. Earlier in the season there are more spots available, and there is no reason to delay applications and decrease your likelihood of receiving an interview simply because most spots have already been filled.

My recommendation would be to spend no more than a few days writing each secondary (with the exception of a few which are longer, or a school you are particularly interested in and want to spend more time on). Don’t rush things and compromise on the quality of your response. Take these essays seriously and make sure they convey a strong message with an effective delivery. But also do not languish over them for weeks. It must be a balance of quality with a quick response. You will find a sweet spot when doing a number of secondaries over the summer, and you will improve in quickness and efficiency as you go.

How many schools should I expect to get secondaries from?

In effect, almost all schools will send you a secondary application. Very few do not. So expect one from each school you apply to. Unfortunately, sometimes this means you will do many secondaries for schools you do not ultimately receive an interview at. Do not worry about this though. It is part of the process, and by completing this necessary component of the application, you are simply giving yourself the best chance of eventual acceptance.

How much do secondary applications cost?

The cost of secondaries varies by school, but generally hovers around $100. The cheapest may be about $30-50 and the most expensive can be more than $200. Now this is no paltry sum. It is certainly a significant financial undertaking. But remember that you chose to apply to these schools for a reason. It should have been a calculated, strategic decision, either because this was a great program you were excited to attend, or because this was a requisite “safety” program to provide yourself some security in the application process. Trust your prior judgment, and submit all secondaries that you can reasonably afford.

What are common questions to expect on secondary applications?

Without divulging exact details of which programs sent which questions, I will provide some examples of common prompts I received:

  • The mission statement of our medical school is “X.” Please state why you are a great fit for our community
  • What aspects of our medical school are most intriguing to you?
  • What are your reasons for applying to our program?
  • Why have you chosen to apply to our program and how will we help make you the physician you aspire to be?
  • What would you as an individual bring to our medical community?
  • Indicate any special experiences, unusual factors or other information you feel would be helpful in evaluating you, i.e. education, employment, extracurricular activities, or prevailing over adversity
  • Please describe one particular extracurricular activity that helped shape you
  • Please describe a moral or ethical dilemma that was particularly memorable and what you learned from this experience
  • Please describe the greatest challenge you have overcome which has helped shape you as a person
  • Please describe an achievement of which you are particularly proud
  • Please provide a brief autobiographical sketch
  • If you took time off after undergrad, what have you achieved in this time?
  • Please address any other issue of importance not otherwise covered in your primary application

Most of these prompts asked for answers ranging from 300 to 500 words, with some asking for shorter answers in the 100 word range. Again, each school differs and this is not a comprehensive list, but it does provide a good idea of the sort of questions schools ask. These were all very similar to actual prompts I received.

What are schools looking for in my answers?

It is important to provide honest answers to each prompt. I think this is the first key. Be succinct and concise. Let your experiences and actions speak for themselves. And let your voice and personality show in your writing. This is easier said than done, but with practice it will come.

Beyond this I would provide this key piece of advice, which I think is the most important: try to tie your answers to this major theme—why am I a good fit for this program in particular? In order to answer this well, do your research! Read about the program. Find something unique about it, something that interests you or fits well with your future goals. If you can provide specifics about the school and how your unique characteristics and goals correlate with those aspects, you will have a strong essay.

Armed with this knowledge and with all the great experiences you have to discuss in your essays, you will excel in your secondary applications. Good luck!