Dealing with the deluge of secondary applications

medical school admissions secondary applications

They come slowly at first. A trickle, maybe just one for a time. But then it grows into a stream, and finally a surge. This accurately describes many phenomena, such as the first spring thaw in New England or medical students arriving at free food events. But I’m talking about medical school secondary applications. After you complete a universal primary application that’s sent to all the schools you’re interested in, schools that want you to proceed further will send you their secondary application. These are school-specific, with unique combinations of prompts, word limits, and deadlines. Schools do not coordinate with each other, so predicting when and in what order you’ll need to work on them is nearly impossible. 

If all of this sounds a bit overwhelming, it can be. Trying to balance between the demands of life – be it school, work, research, personal life – with an often-unpredictable deluge of prompts that sound similar (but not really?) can swamp even the most disciplined. However, after learning from my own mistakes, talking to fellow medical students, and working with applicants to develop strategies that helped them get into top medical schools, there are a few suggestions that may help you better handle the secondaries when they come.

What do you want to show about yourself?

The essays you write should be about you, your experiences, and how those experiences have shaped you. Because you can’t convey everything, you need to be deliberate about what you do want to convey. Some things to consider are your motivations for going into medicine, things that make you unique, meaningful experiences, etc. However, there is no simple formula since everyone has very different paths and circumstances, and some aspects of your experiences can be deeply personal. Deciding what you’re comfortable with sharing and what anecdotes and stories you wish to tell is essential for figuring out what to put for your essays.

The categories of secondary essay prompts

There are certain archetypes of essays that you’ll see time and time again. These include: “tell us about a time you overcame adversity” or “why our specific school.” For these prompts that occur repeatedly, it is extremely helpful to have a template that can be the foundation that you use to construct your essays. I say foundation, because these should be short (given sometimes frugal character limits) and stripped to its essence (so that you can customize to the school’s specific prompt). While schools will oftentimes dress up their prompts with additional text, most prompts can usually be reduced to a core archetype and identifying which ones is critical for you to customize your templates appropriately. 

The prompt is the prompt is the prompt.

It is tempting to copy and paste essays with very similar sounding prompts. This can be dangerous because similar sounding prompts may be asking for very different things. For example, two prompts I had to address (edited for brevity and clarity) were: “Tell us something about your personal identity that will shape what type of provider you will be” and “Tell us something about your personal identity and how it will add to our community.” Both are, in essence, asking about a unique aspect of who you are as a person, but you may end up wanting to discuss very different topics depending on your experiences. Be sure to pay attention to exactly what the prompt is asking for and ensure you address it.

Avoid redundancy

Your goal is to demonstrate both depth and breadth. Achieving this goal may difficult if you talk about one thing too many times. For example, I ran into the issue of using the same experience for the “overcoming adversity” and “tell us something unique about yourself” essay archetypes. That’s not to say that you should never discuss the same experience more than once, since some experiences may be important to you in multiple ways. However, a single experience dominating your application may render it difficult for you to convey other important aspects of your experience. Being aware of this will help you convey the complexity and uniqueness of your path.

Decide how to prioritize schools

You can’t control the order or timing in which you receive your secondaries. There are many factors that may influence how you prioritize which ones to work on: proximity to deadline, whether the school doing rolling admissions, how important that school is to you, difficulty of getting into that school, how your interviews are going, etc. While your strategy will depend on your specific situation and priorities, always keep a little running tab on how you plan to triage incoming secondaries and be sure to update it as your situation changes. 

Beyond the secondary

When you submit your completed secondary, it doesn’t just disappear into a void. The experiences you discuss in your secondaries are common conversation starting points during interviews. Your goal with the secondaries is to make yourself stand out on paper. But during the interviews, you need to transform who you are on paper into the living and breathing manifestation of the applicant your interviewers know from your essays. This way, when your interviewers go up to the admissions committee, they will say: “this is so and so, this is who they are, and this is why I am advocating for them to be a member of our medical school.” 

While I hope that these suggestions will help with your application process, applying to medical school is no doubt be an extremely difficult process. At the end of the day, no matter what happens and no matter how overwhelming things get, you are the most important asset that you have and you are skilled and worthy. And it is okay to tell yourself at the end of the day/week/month that you’ve done enough, you will get through this, and you are worthy.

Preston studied neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. There, he researched molecular mechanisms of Parkinson’s Disease and received numerous awards and grants for his work. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a BS and MS, Preston began pursuing an MD/PhD at the Harvard/MIT MD/PhD program as a student in the Health, Sciences, and Technology (HST) program.


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