A Quick and Dirty Guide to Approaching Medical School Secondary Applications
Sahil Mehta MD – MedSchoolCoach
Please excuse any typos or incoherent thoughts. This is a work in progress.
It is time for medical school secondary applications. Honestly, if you thought the primary application was difficult, wait till you tackle these beasts. Here are the major problems people have:
- Way too many of them! Medical schools all of a sudden inundate you with applications all at one time. You are now looking at a stack of 20 applications, each with 1-6 essays on them.
- Generic questions like “why do you want to come here?” You will feel like saying, cause it’s a medical school! Why else?! Then you will start writing the responses and inevitably copy information from the school’s website. At this point, you may feel as though everyone is doing the same thing.
- Repeat questions like “tell us about your most important activities.” You may think did I not just do that on my AMCAS? Why am I doing that again?!
Now these are just some of the frustrations that will come with writing secondary applications. But take a deep breath and you will get through it. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Turnaround time: You want to get a secondary back to a school within a max of 4 weeks of them sending it to you, but ideally 2-3 weeks.
- Perfection: because of the above turnaround time, perfection is harder to achieve on secondaries than on your primary where you had weeks to prepare. While it is still totally UNACCEPTABLE to make spelling or grammatical mistakes, it may be more acceptable to not write a Shakespearean piece for each of the essays.
- Instructions: make sure to follow a school’s instructions. If they say LIST, just list with a few words, do not give them long paragraphs. If they say x characters, stick to it.
Another question that comes up all the time is “which ones should I submit first?” It is a relevant question and the answer is really whichever one you can. I would tackle those that you think are really easy (i.e. have no essays or maybe just one really short one) and get them out of the way. Then, move onto schools you are targeting. If UCSD is your dream school, make sure you are submitting your application to them as soon as possible. If there is a particular school that has a really hard question, you can come back to it with a “fresher” mind at a later time.
Here are some tips for specific medical school secondary questions that come up a lot:
- What is your most important relationship? Who is the most influential person in your life?
This question should be relatively easy. You can of course choose a parent or relative, but also think outside the box to perhaps a teacher or a professor. The most important part of this, and the key to answering all questions, is not the particular person you choose or even the relationship you have with them, but to keep the reader entertained through the paragraph. If you write “my dad is important to me because he was a doctor and he showed me how to take care of patients,” it will not get you anywhere.
- Most important activity
These questions are annoying. You just spent your AMCAS writing about your three most important activities and now they are asking you for more. There are a few approaches to take. If one activity really is most important and you wrote about it as one of your three most meaningful ones, you can write about it again. If there is something dominant in your life, write about that (i.e. you are a classical musician on the side). Things I would avoid are shadowing experiences. Really think about how important that shadowing experience was? Did following around a doctor really change your life?
Straight forward question that you can talk about your most significant research activities. Make sure to give the reader a framework in the first few sentences – show them what the big picture of your project or lab was. Here is a do and do not
– DO NOT start a paragraph with: “I studied receptor RLAJKNCH – r897 which showed that there was no uptake in expression when compared to JLKASN – 8343 when exposed to methyl-alpha-dioxide.”
– DO: “The purpose of our research was to understand how toxins effect cells, which in turn could be used to eventually try to come up with novel drugs. In particular, I studied…..”
- Why do you want to come to school X?
A very popular question and one students often have trouble answering. You should research a school’s website to see what they think they offer, but your SHOULD NOT directly copy from there and say I really love your research pathway and early clinical exposure. If you say just that, your essay will be exactly the same as everyone else’s’. Instead, relate back your experiences and how that fits in with a particular school. You could say something along the lines of “as an undergraduate, I was exposed to the world of clinical research through my project on depression. With Columbia’s required research pathway, I hope to continue this or similar projects. The Psychiatry department at Columbia is known for its prowess in studying hospitalized patients and I know I could contribute to this.” (that is not a great sentence, but the idea is that you want to talk about how YOU fit into a school, not just what the school offers.
- Long term goals
You do not have to have chosen a specialty or fellowship and write about it here. Instead, you can say you are leaning towards x and y because you have been exposed to it in the past. Or you know you love working with children, and so you’d love to do pediatrics. Again, think about how your past experiences fit into your future goals. If you have done global health trips, perhaps you want to mention that and say you eventually would love to be doing international work.
- Diversity. What do you add to the class?
Remember, diversity comes in many flavors. Skin color is certainly one of them, but there is so much more. Let’s be honest, if you are an Asian, you are not diverse when it comes to applying to medical school. Same thing if you are Caucasian. But how about diversity in your field of study in college? In your interests? In your talents as a musician? Or computer programmer? If you really cannot think of a single thing that distinguishes you, you may be in the wrong field. There is something interesting about you. Find it.
- Describe a challenge you have overcome
Lots of students say I’ve never had a challenge. While it may be true you have not grown up homeless, that does not mean there isn’t something out there that has been a hiccup in your life. That said, you should not overplay the time you broke your little toe and couldn’t get to class on time. Examples may include a death in the family, a time when you had to adjust to a new life outside of home, a time when your brother was going through depression and you had to help him, etc.
The above are simply ideas! The real important points to remember again are:
- Keep it interesting. Boring writing gets looked over.
- Relate what you are saying back to things you have done or genuinely want to do.
- Follow instructions.
I hope that helps stimulate your mind a little bit!