Submitting your primary application is extremely time-consuming and takes a huge amount of work. Such a monumental undertaking is no small feat, and while you certainly deserve a break, you won’t get one. Secondary applications arrive fast and furious just a few weeks after you submit your primary application—and they’re every bit as important as your primary. You need to submit your secondaries quickly for your best chance at securing an interview, which is why it’s imperative that you prepare answers to common medical school secondary questions in advance.
In this post, we’ll discuss 11 of the most common medical school secondary questions and how to best answer them to impress admissions committees. We’ll also show you how to create a plan for completing your secondaries as quickly—and effectively—as possible.
Completing Secondaries Quickly and Effectively
The AMCAS application opens around the first week of May for the following year’s medical school class. Submissions open around the end of May to early June, which means you have a month to complete your primary application. If you plan on starting medical school in the fall of 2023, you need to apply in the spring of 2022.
Your secondary applications will take about two to four weeks to arrive after you submit your primary application. It is imperative that you submit secondaries as soon as possible—within 7-14 days—without compromising the quality of your answers.
Understandably, this is a very short time frame in which to work. At Med School Insiders, we recommend you submit your primary application to around 20 schools. This means you could receive up to 20 secondary applications—all around the same time.
Learn more in our guide: How Many Medical Schools Should I Apply to?
This is why it’s vital to prepare for your secondaries in advance by crafting answers to common questions you are likely to find in many of your secondary applications. This way, you have a good basis of content to work with as secondaries come through. If you wait until the rush of secondaries begins, the quality of your answers will suffer and you’ll be more prone to making mistakes.
For a full overview of the secondary application process, including secondary deadlines, costs, and important FAQs, read our Medical School Secondary Application Guide.
Common Medical School Secondary Questions
Admissions committees want to learn more about you beyond your primary application, and they want to better understand whether or not you will make a good fit at their specific school. Each program has a different set of secondary questions. Some schools will ask several questions and some only a few. But while the wording and number of questions will vary, the gist of them will generally be the same. This means you can repurpose your answers, making changes to tailor them to each specific school.
Below are 11 common questions you will likely find in your secondaries, as well as what schools are looking for from your answers.
1. Describe yourself…
While this is certainly a broad question, programs aren’t looking for a broad answer. Programs ask this question to learn more about your personality and how you see yourself. What skills, traits, or experiences will you choose to highlight?
How you choose to answer this question speaks volumes about your values, and adcoms want to ensure they’re selecting the applicant whose values most align with those of the program. Keep in mind that adcoms aren’t simply looking for the best candidate; they’re looking for the candidate who is the best fit for their specific program.
Be careful not to repeat yourself. Programs already have your primary application, so anything you included in your primary they are already familiar with. They know your qualifications. Now they want to know who the person is behind your scholastic achievements. How do you want the program to perceive you? What notable experience or important element of your personality were you not able to include in your primary application?
Remember to show and not tell. Illustrate your personality traits with proof from your past. How have you exemplified the skills you’re most proud of? Do you have a hobby that’s central to your personality or one you feel has prepared you for the rigors of medical school? What experience from your past shows you at your very best?
We covered this question in more detail in our full guide: Medical School Secondary — How to Describe Yourself.
2. Why did you choose to apply to our program? / Why are you a great fit for our school?
You will certainly come across some version of this question on your secondary applications. Adcoms want to know how serious and enthusiastic you are about joining their program. While it may seem like this is a generic or easy-to-answer question—after all, you know why you applied to the medical school—adcoms are looking for details. How much research have you done on the program? What do you specifically have to offer the program?
This question is a chance to prove to admissions committees that you know their program inside and out. You’re excited not only because you know the program has so much to offer you but because you have so much to offer the program as well. If you give a surface-level answer or regurgitate the program’s mission statement, adcoms won’t take you seriously.
Do ample research. Dig deeper than the school’s website. Check message boards and reach out to current students. Get to know everything you can about the program.
We covered this question in more detail in our full guide: How to Answer the Medical School Secondary “Why Us?” Question.
3. The mission of our school is X. How would you help us fulfill this mission?
This question is similar to the question about what makes you a great fit for the program, but it focuses more on ensuring you have a deep understanding of the school’s mission statement and values.
Be sure not to repeat the mission statement. Adcoms are already well aware of it. Dig deeper. Why specifically do your values align with theirs? Why do you identify with them? Has standing by these values cost you relationships or opportunities? What paths have they inspired you to take? How do you plan on continuing to hold true to these values?
Saying you share the same values and want to uphold them is not enough—prove it. Choose a moment from your past that shows how you have actually lived the mission statement and values of the school.
4. Where do you see your medical career X years from now?
The “where do you see yourself” question could be referencing 10, 15, or 20 years from now.
Schools understand that your direction may likely change along the way, but they want to see that you’ve thought about your future and have envisioned what your future as a doctor may look like.
Do your best to answer this question thoughtfully, and be careful not to be too ambitious. Keep in mind that after four years of medical school, depending on your specialty, you will still have three to seven years of residency. So, if you are planning on becoming a neurosurgeon, you may still be in residency in ten years. But if this is truly your dream, don’t shy away from saying so!
Don’t worry about having to commit to something. If you’re unsure about your specialty, focus on where you’d like to work, the people you want to work with, and who you want to help. What type of doctor will you be once you begin practicing?
5. Discuss a time in your life in which you failed. What did you learn?
Everyone fails from time to time. While admitting a past failure can be intimidating, especially when you’re trying to sell yourself as the ideal applicant, it’s important to focus on what that failure has taught you. Adcoms do not expect you to be perfect; they expect you to be a mature adult who is honest about their mistakes, learns from them, and always resolves to do better next time.
Describe the failure and how you have sought to address it moving forward. What did you learn? How has it affected your medical journey? How did you persevere and find the strength to keep going?
Maturity is an extremely attractive quality in a candidate, and this question is an opportunity for you to showcase how mature you are.
6. Describe a specific challenge you have faced in your life. What did you learn from the experience?
When answering this question, it’s important to come up with something different than what you have already shared in your personal statement. Secondaries are a chance to expand on what you have already expressed. Schools want to get to know more about you, and repeating yourself benefits no one.
You could describe an academic challenge, a workplace challenge, or a personal challenge. The question is quite broad, so you can determine what you want to include. But whatever you choose, make sure it’s a challenge that authentically demonstrates your personal and professional strengths. Ensure that the experience was impactful but not so impactful that you will feel uncomfortable discussing it during interviews. Anything you include in your applications is fair game to be asked about by an interviewer.
As with discussing a time in your life you failed, focus this response on what you have learned from the experience. How did it change you, whether it be the way you carry yourself, your work ethic, or how you deal with people. How has the challenge shaped your journey moving forward?
7. Describe a moral or ethical dilemma you faced. What did you learn from the experience?
The AAMC has a strict code of medical ethics that all practicing physicians in the US must adhere to at all times. When have you been faced with a moral or ethical dilemma in your past? How did you respond to it? Did you do the right thing, or has your past mistake shown you the error of your ways and inspired you to recommit to a strict code of ethics?
If you’re struggling to answer this question, consider the kinds of questions that are asked on the Casper test. Have you encountered any similar scenarios? Have you ever been pressured to do something you knew to be wrong? What did you do? Have you ever witnessed someone cheating on a test or breaking the law? Did you confront them privately, or did you report them to the proper authorities? What did you learn from the experience? What did you learn about yourself?
Ethics are of the utmost importance to doctors, and breaching the code of ethics carries severe punishments. Pick an event from your past that illustrates your commitment to making the moral or ethical choice, even, and especially, when it’s tough.
8. What areas of medicine are you primarily interested in at this current time?
Schools understand that your specific medical interest may change the more you further your education. In fact, some questions may expressly say, “We understand that your direction may change…” So, don’t think that you have to commit to anything you’re not ready to yet.
Schools simply want to see that you’ve put thought into this. There are many, many different types of medical specialties out there, and if an applicant has absolutely no idea about the direction they want their career to take, it sends a clear sign to adcoms that the applicant hasn’t put enough thought into their career path beyond, “well, a doctor makes a lot of money, right?”
Are you interested in internal medicine, family medicine, neurosurgery, or psychiatry, to name a few? Do you want to be a hands-on physician working in the ER, or would you prefer to focus your career on research and developing life-saving medications?
Do your research and answer thoughtfully. If you’re very interested in attending a specific medical school, tailor your answer to what the program has to offer.
9. How do you think you might contribute to our school’s diversity?
Medical schools believe their college community, culture, and campus learning experience are enriched by including a wide range of different backgrounds, perspectives, identities, and beliefs, which is why the diversity essay exists. It’s an opportunity for applicants with minority backgrounds, an unconventional education, unique family histories, or otherwise atypical upbringings to explain how their uniqueness will add to the college community.
When answering this question, it’s vital to understand diversity comes in many forms—it’s not just limited to your religious background or the color of your skin. Did you have a non-traditional upbringing, such as being raised by a single parent or growing up with a sibling with a disability? Have you experienced a personal health scare? What’s your family’s education level or economic status? Were you ever made fun of or ridiculed for your personal identity?
Anyone can contribute diversity to the campus. Get personal. Don’t hold back or give a surface-level answer. What is unique about your upbringing or your personality? What’s always made you feel different? How can you use this to add diversity to the college community?
For more insight, read our detailed guide on How to Write the Medical School Secondary Diversity Essay.
10. If you took time off after undergrad, what have you achieved in this time?
A question like this might be expressly asking about a possible gap year, or it may be referring to what you did with your months between undergrad and the beginning of medical school.
This is a chance to expand on extracurriculars, speak about your passion projects, or share what you learned while working, volunteering, or traveling.
If you took time to explore the world, why did you make this decision, and what did you learn about yourself and the world? Taking time to pursue a passion or to travel abroad won’t be looked down upon, especially if you are able to explain how the experience contributed to your growth.
Adcoms are looking for passionate students who have compassion for all the peoples of the world and are infinitely curious. What projects or activities did you pursue in your downtime? What did you learn about the world, and how will you apply what you learned to your medical education and future career?
11. Is there anything else you would like us to know?
If you’re asked if you’d like to add anything or if there’s anything else you’d like admissions committees to know, don’t waste this opportunity. While this is another open-ended question, be sure to answer it directly, with specifics.
This is a chance to elaborate on any special experiences, unusual factors, or other information you feel would be helpful in evaluating you. What have you not been able to include in the rest of your application that you want the admissions committee to know about you? Outside of interviews, this is your last chance to express anything you feel will help you stand out from the competition.
Completing Secondaries—You Need a Plan
It’s important to create a strategy for how you will complete your secondaries. Don’t simply tackle them one by one as they come in, as you will quickly become overwhelmed. Keep in mind that you will very likely receive your secondaries in rapid succession, if not all at once. Create a strategy for completing them to avoid burnout and optimize your chances of success.
There are a few different ways to go about completing your secondaries, and your strategy may include a combination of them.
Top Choice First: Complete your top choice or best fit schools first to optimize interview chances. Rolling admissions mean medical schools review applications as they are submitted on a continuous (rolling) basis. Invitations to interview are only made while spots are available. The longer you take to respond, the worse your chances of acceptance are. If you have your heart set on a specific school, be sure to prioritize its secondary application.
Most Competitive First: Complete the most competitive schools first to optimize interview chances. Again, due to rolling admissions, the longer you take to submit your secondary application, the worse your chances of securing an interview are. All of the interview spots will be taken by the applicants who successfully submitted their secondary before you, and if you can’t secure an interview early enough in the process, you will not be accepted.
Lower Rank First: Complete lower ranked/lower preference schools first for practice. If you want a bit of practice before moving on to secondaries from your higher choice schools, complete a couple of secondaries from lower ranked schools to get yourself started. Once you find a groove, switch to higher priority schools.
Most Questions First: Completing secondaries with a lot of questions first will give you a lot of content to work with. You’ll get the bulk of the work out of the way and can then focus on repurposing and tailoring your questions to each school.
Looking for more strategies? Read our 9 Steps to Writing Stellar Medical School Secondary Applications.
Craft Secondary Answers That Stand Out
Applying to medical school is a long journey that doesn’t end after you submit your primary application. Secondary applications are time-consuming, and they arrive right when students are ready for a break. While we understand the struggle, it is vital that you focus and don’t give up during this critical time.
Med School Insiders can help. Our Medical School Secondary Application Editing services will help you craft stand out secondary applications that will get you noticed by your desired medical schools. Our doctor advisors have served on medical school admissions committees and have read hundreds of secondary essays. We know what it takes to succeed, and we’ll help you craft stellar secondary applications tailored to each school you apply to.