Tackling 4 of the most common secondary questions

medical school admissions secondary applications writing
By Elle G.

Just when it feels like you’re over the hill – you’ve poured all of yourself into that perfect personal statement – the first one arrives. Then another, then a few more, until you’re flooded with the next step in your medical school application journey: secondaries.  

Déjà vu might kick in as you see similar but different questions again and again. While it can feel overwhelming to tackle secondaries from numerous schools, look at it as an opportunity to expand on yourself and your interests. Despite their name, secondaries still carry a vital importance in your application. They show who you are on a deeper level and how you tackle a prompt with a specific topic in mind. 

By understanding the themes many schools focus on, you can be better prepared to execute a genuine response on a tight timeline. However, it is essential to note that it is important to consider the individual aspects of the questions as well. Always tailor your response to the specific language of a school’s secondary questions!  

1. Why us? 

Medical schools know that their applicant pool is applying to a lot of places, and that you are all busy, ambitious individuals. However, they expect you to answer this question sincerely. Your response to this question should reference the specific work the school is doing and how you envision yourself being a part of it.  

This question is a chance to prove your passion for the school you are applying for and is one where a bit of research will help you go the extra mile in conveying your interest. Ask yourself:

  • What does this program offer me beyond a general medical education?
  • What do I bring that makes me uniquely suited for this program?

Additionally, it can be great to briefly reference the wider community, as you will not only be attending this school’s program, but making a home where it is located for several years to come.  

2. Diversity 

Diversity is a central value to almost all medical schools, and they value their applicant’s understanding of their own background as well as how they see themselves contributing to a diverse community. Variations include asking you to outline your background, to specify a moment or memory in which you actively contributed to diversity, to respond to a quote from the school’s mission, and more.  

Admissions committees want to see honesty, action, and effort. Medical schools are places with diverse student bodies that work to teach aspiring physicians how to care for diverse patient populations. They want to see how your perspective embraces and perhaps challenges the institution’s understanding of diversity in productive ways.  

To answer them, think about reframing these questions in simpler ways. Ask yourself questions like ‘What have I done to both contribute to and learn from my current community?’ and ‘How has my understanding of what diversity looks like or should be changed over time?’ Use these lines of thinking to help direct your responses to a diversity prompt. 

3. What are you up to? 

A question like this is both fairly common and straightforward. This is an opportunity to describe your full-time employment, additional education you may be undertaking, the passion projects you are working on, and more. Whether you are still an undergraduate student or have taken several gap years, answer this question by elaborating on how you have spent your time ahead of medical school.  

Don’t feel like you need to necessarily have a “productive” answer to this question; passion takes many different forms, and medical schools love students that are intellectually curious. The most important thing is to be able to explain how your time contributed, or will contribute, to your growth as a person.  

4. A challenge or failure or dilemma 

All these buzzwords – challenge, failure, and dilemma – ask how an applicant responds to varied forms of adversity. These questions are focused on action and reaction. The keys to answering them are by doubling down on the word choice a school uses and by making sure your response differs from your personal statement. 

For a "challenge," you can discuss an impactful moment where you grew as a person. This question is broad, so funnel towards whatever you’d like to highlight, whether a personal, academic, or workplace challenge. In responding to a question about "failure," often it is a question of maturity. As a person, how do you address a mistake, learn from it, and better prepare for next time? Finally, for the word choice of "dilemma," there is a strong focus on ethics. This, for many, is the most difficult version of this kind of question because it speaks to a moral struggle. Ask yourself:

  • Have I ever been pressured to do something I knew was wrong?
  • How did I face a choice that I know was right, but was hard?

These are just four of the many possibilities for secondary questions, but I hope by reading through these general guidelines you are better able to understand the themes and motivations behind the questions asked. Keep in mind that at the end of the day, your most important job is conveying the special person you are! 

Elle pursued a Writing Seminars and History double major and a French minor at Johns Hopkins University, graduating with honors for her history thesis and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Currently, she is a student at the London School of Economics pursuing her MSc in Global Media and Communications.


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