Medical School Secondary Essay Prompts: The Most Common Questions to Prepare For

Padya Paramita

Medical School Secondary Essay Prompts: The Most Common Questions to Prepare For

You’ve uploaded your transcript, MCAT score, extracurricular information, personal statement, and finally clicked the submit button on the AMCAS. You might want to use the next couple of weeks to relax. I wouldn’t recommend it, considering your medical school secondary essays are right around the corner. Schools cut off a big portion of the application pool between the secondary and the interview stages, so don’t take the medical school secondary essay prompts lightly!

Although medical schools don’t typically begin sending out secondary applications until early July, you shouldn’t just sit around and start reading a 400-page novel for fun while you wait. Rather, prepare yourself to have common essay topics ready for the minute the prompts are sent out. Below, I’ve outlined the general timeline of secondaries, how to keep yourself organized in the process, the most common medical school secondary essay prompts and how to approach them, recent secondary questions at MD programs, and overall dos and don’ts when writing your medical school secondaries.

How to Prepare for Secondaries: The Basics

Secondary essay prompts are demanding and ask you questions that allow you to reflect on your experiences, career goals in medicine, and challenges that you have overcome. Medical schools want to know why you’re interested in their program and how they might be a good fit for you and vice versa. The number of applicants who receive secondaries varies from school to school. Most schools automatically send out secondaries upon submission of the primary to all applicants, while others ensure students have passed an initial screening and met the GPA and MCAT cutoffs (typically set at a 3.0 GPA and 500 MCAT score) before sending out secondary essays.

First and foremost, you should not put off submitting your secondaries, because your application is not considered complete without them. At most schools, your AMCAS will not even be read until you’ve submitted this portion as well, so don’t delay. Medical schools don’t usually state a deadline for the secondary essays but if they do, absolutely adhere to it, or all your hard work will go to waste.

Second, medical schools view the time you take to turn in your secondaries as a direct reflection of your interest in their program. If there’s no deadline, you should be looking to complete them and send them back within two weeks of receiving them. The two week turnaround time is long enough to be meticulous, but short enough to show eagerness. If you sit around and take over a month to send back your secondaries, don’t expect an interview. But if you take time to think about possible medical school secondary essay prompts and how you might prepare for them in advance, you won’t be scrambling at the last minute.

Secondaries Organization & Game Plan

In order to keep yourself organized and monitor the secondaries for each school, start a spreadsheet. It should detail whether you’ve received the prompt, whether you’ve paid the secondary application fee ($50 or $75, depending on the school), the method to submit, the essay topic(s), and whether you’ve submitted the essays or not. This way, you can keep track of your progress and what remains to be covered for each school, avoiding additional stress during this high pressure period.


The best way to prepare for your secondary essays is to simply start writing about yourself. While there’s no way to figure out the secondary essay prompts in advance for all your schools, you can generate tailored, well-written essays far more easily if you go ahead and tackle traditional essay topics. Medical school secondary essay prompts often follow a general pattern that you can readily get a sense of. The word or character limit for the secondary essays is set by each school, and could range anything from 2000 to 4000 characters.

The secondaries ask for essays about you, so keep in mind your most impressive qualifications, why you want to attend medical school, and how each school might be able to help you achieve your goals. You want to choose topics which bring out the best version of yourself. Remember, the people reading your applications are humans. You don’t want to bore them. You want to stand out as a unique individual in the process. It can come in handy to keep a separate document outlining your reasons for pursuing medicine and the unique opportunities at each medical school that resonate with your passions within the field. This can help you get the ball rolling so you’re ready to conquer medical school secondary essay prompts.

Examples of Common Medical School Secondary Essay Prompts

You should put approximately 25-30 medical schools on your list to stay on the safer side of the intensely competitive medical school admissions process. Schools often have a range of 2-9 secondary questions for you to answer. Take a moment to do the math. This means that you could end up answering over seventy medical school secondary essay prompts. You only had to write one personal statement in the primary, so the number of essays you have to write for the secondary stage can seem like a massive mountain to climb.

The good news is, there will be some overlap in the kinds of prompts among the schools. That said, you should expect each school’s essays to need quite a bit of tweaking to adjust to specific prompts. And don’t expect to be able to reuse every essay you write! But preparing for typical prompts is a strategic starting point. Listed below are a number of secondary essay prompts which are common among many medical schools:

  • Explain why you wish to attend this particular medical school.
  • What diverse or unique element will you bring to this medical school community?
  • If you graduated before you applied, summarize your activities since you graduated.
  • Describe a challenge you overcame or a time when you faced an ethical dilemma and how you learned and grew from that experience.
  • Who is the most influential person in your life and why?
  • Describe a meaningful leadership position.
  • What are your goals as a physician?
  • What research or independent academic work have you completed, and what did you accomplish or learn?
  • What do you think is the role of a physician in a community?
  • Describe a humbling experience and what you learned from it.
  • Elaborate on an area of interest outside of medicine (e.g., hobbies).
  • Describe the characteristics that make you who you are. How will they impact your success as a medical student and physician?
  • From the list of activities and experiences listed in your AMCAS application, please select one that has most impacted your decision to enter medicine.
  • Is there any other information you would like to share with the admissions committee?

Medical schools often send some combination of these prompts, or similar questions relating to your identity, meaningful experiences, or goals. So even if you don’t know exactly which medical school secondary essay prompts to expect, the list above should give you a clearer picture of what to prepare for.

How to Tackle the Most Common Prompts

Now that you’ve seen the classic questions medical schools ask for secondaries, it’s time to analyze how to answer them. Generally, if you look at the pattern of the prompts, admissions committees want to know who you are, why you’re motivated to pursue medicine, and how you would fit in at their school.

To further break down the ways schools specify what they’re looking for, let’s look at some questions based off of the common medical school secondary essay prompts:

“Why This School” Essays

Take a look at the following “why this school” prompts from three different medical schools in 2018, and the way they framed their questions:

  • Georgetown University - Why have you chosen to apply to the Georgetown University School of Medicine and how do you think your education at Georgetown will prepare you to become a physician for the future? (1 page, formatted at your discretion)
  • Mayo Clinic - Why are you specifically interested in pursuing your medical education at Mayo Clinic School of Medicine even if you gain acceptances to other highly ranked medical schools? (500 words or less)
  • University of Toledo - Briefly describe why you wish to attend medical school at The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences. As part of this essay, please discuss, if applicable, any personal connection you may have to The University of Toledo, the UT College of Medicine and Life Sciences/former Medical College of Ohio, the city of Toledo, or the region of Northwest Ohio. (300 words)

Success with these questions lies in actually taking the time to do research on your school list. Make sure you know exactly what the programs offer - you’ve applied to the school for a reason. What are the things you like the most about it and how will it help your goals? Emphasize your demonstrated interest in the school as specifically as possible - detail what about the program’s mission appeals to you the most and fits your personality and plans. Finally, make sure you carefully read the entire prompt and answer all parts. While the objective of the questions is the same (to find out why you have chosen the school), each school puts its own unique spin to the question.

In the past, Georgetown has wanted to know how your training as a physician would benefit from a Georgetown education. To tackle this prompt, jot down specialties only Georgetown offers - faculty, courses, research opportunities - which appeal to you. Don’t pick every single thing off the website. Select a special few details relevant to your interests within medicine and talk about how learning from a certain professor, for example, aligns with your goals.

Mayo’s prompt last year was similar, but asked why you would choose them despite acceptances to other top schools. You definitely need to be as specific as possible in your response. Admissions committee members obviously want accepted students to enroll. They want to know that you’re not applying just for the sake of trying to attend a highly ranked school. So this is the time to demonstrate your knowledge of the program and to feature the opportunities you can take advantage of only at Mayo

Toledo’s “why this school” prompt in 2018 wanted to know about personal connections to the school, the city of Toledo, or the entire region of northwestern Ohio. Public medical schools pay special attention to in-state applicants, and love to see candidates convey interest in the regional appeal of the school. Whether you’ve learned fun facts from a relative who’s an alum or you have a strong connection to the food in the area, expressing concrete details about what you love about the medical school’s environment can help admissions committee members gain an added perspective on you.

“How Will You Contribute to Our School” Essays

Check out a couple examples of medical school secondary essay prompts from last year which ask about how you will contribute to MD programs:

  • New York University - The Admissions Committee uses a holistic approach to evaluate a wide range of student qualities and life experiences that are complementary to demonstrated academic excellence, strong interpersonal skills and leadership potential. What unique qualities or experiences do you possess that would contribute specifically to the NYU School of Medicine community (2500 characters max)?
  • University of Nevada - Describe how your background and future goals will contribute to the mission of the University of Nevada School of Medicine.

To answer the “how will you contribute to our school prompts,” you need to think about the theme of your own application, and the theme of the institution itself.

Your essay could follow an application persona, or a recurrent theme throughout to help you stand out from other applicants. For example, your application persona could be that you are an aspiring surgeon who was motivated to be a doctor after helping victims of a natural disaster. Keeping your persona in mind can help you decide which of your qualifications and experiences to highlight in such an essay. What do you bring to the table that other applicants don’t? What are you passionate about? What parts of medicine excite you?

Admissions committees want to understand how they’ll specifically benefit from your unique contributions. Think about what each school is known for. How does its mission align with what you hope to achieve from an education in medicine? Don’t get carried away, just talk about your perspective.

“Describe a Challenge You’ve Faced” Essays

Often, medical schools want to know about how you respond to challenges, as shown in the prompts below:

  • University of Chicago - Share with us a difficult or challenging situation you have encountered and how you dealt with it. In your response, identify both the coping skills you called upon to resolve the dilemma, and the support person(s) from whom you sought advice. We suggest that you limit your essay to about 550 words.
  • Harvard University - If there is an important aspect of your personal background or identity, not addressed elsewhere in the application, that you would like to share with the Committee, we invite you to do so here. Many applicants will not need to answer this question. Examples might include significant challenges in access to education, unusual socioeconomic factors, identification with a minority culture, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. Briefly explain how such factors have influenced your motivation for a career in medicine. (4000 characters maximum)
  • University of Kansas - Beyond academics (grades and MCATs), describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to address this challenge.

When answering prompts that fall under the “challenge” umbrella, you should do a little bit of self-reflection. The applicants you’re going up against may have faced far greater adversity than you have - whether in the loss of their home or facing prejudice of some kind in society. This type of question may be optional, for example, in the case of Harvard’s 2018 secondaries. But, if the question is not optional, and you’re not sure that you’ve really faced many challenges, do not exaggerate your adversity. Grasping at straws for adversity will backfire and show that you lack perspective.

Medical schools want their classes to be comprised of exceptional individuals, each of whom should bring something different to the class. Instead of telling stories that aren’t yours, focus on challenges you might have faced in a unique passion or avocation. Try talking about an obstacle you faced in your clinical adventures or while leading a project for your work or internship.

Dos and Don’ts

Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with what you can expect out of your medical school secondary essay prompts, it’s time to go over some dos and don’ts to make sure you avoid common mistakes and stay on track to write standout secondaries.


Think About Your Primary Application

When answering medical school secondary essay prompts, it’s important that what you wrote in your primary application stays in the front of your mind. You definitely should not repeat experiences that you already outlined in your personal statement or activities list. But, if there’s something you didn’t get to talk about in depth - such as an important part of your cultural background or an impressive research internship, this is the place to write about it!

Ensure That You’ve Followed All Directions

A good place to start the secondary process is to read the prompts very carefully. Identify the task at hand and ask yourself: what is the question really asking? You can treat the task as a to-do list, and elaborate on each point on the list to form an outline of your essay. Look through the prompt guidelines - word limit, page limit, formatting requirements - and ensure you stick to them.

You might be reusing bits and pieces from one school’s essay for another. That’s okay. But make sure you’ve edited it to fully answer the latter school’s question and formatting requirements. If admissions committees see that you haven’t completed all parts of the prompt, or that you’ve crossed the limit or format guidelines, it’s an automatic red flag. You will not receive an interview if you fail to meet schools’ instructions. It might seem like a minor thing, but such mistakes definitely happen, especially when you’re writing so many applications.

Leave Yourself Plenty of Time to Edit

You must appear professional on your medical school application, and secondaries are an important part of that. Once you’ve finished writing your essays, edit them as much as possible. There will be a lot of essays to go through and you’ll be under a time crunch, but you need to read and reread them to ensure quality. Make sure you avoid run-on sentences and that you’ve made each word count. Careless errors such as grammatical or spelling mistakes will not reflect well on you.

Think Strategically

The medical school application process is notoriously cutthroat. You have to pick and choose your battles. When answering medical school secondary essay prompts, you should not answer all your reach schools first. You should focus on the schools you’re most likely to attend in order to demonstrate interest, but don’t be too ambitious. Check to see which of the schools on your list - especially schools you’re more likely to get into - have secondary prompts that can be easily answered with solid responses that you have already prepared. You definitely want to be smart in the balance of submitting secondaries both promptly and strategically.



Provide Mixed Messages

Remember, you need to keep your primary application in mind when filling out your secondaries. If some bit of information in your secondary application doesn’t match what you’ve already said in your primary application, admissions committees will notice. Don’t write something in your essays that contradicts what you’ve stated as a value or credential previously.


Writing about a topic you can’t speak in depth about might lead to trouble on multiple fronts. If you do so in your essay and you’re asked about it in an interview, you will be in trouble. In a similar vein, you shouldn’t highlight something that was a minimal experience. You will be competing against brilliant students who have versatile stories to tell. Talking about a minor burn you got three years ago might not be a great way to fill up the space allotted for your secondaries.

Write About a High School Experience 

You’re an adult now. You’ve gone through years of life experiences that have greatly impacted your motivation to become a doctor. Unless it was something extremely formative and absolutely integral for your medical school application, don’t waste your secondaries reliving your high school glory days.

Use Flowery Language

This is not a poetry competition and neither are you studying for the SAT. There’s no need to be pretentious and show off your vocabulary on your medical school secondaries. While it’s good to mix up your word usage and not repeat, don’t go all out with the metaphors or Admissions committees want to know more about you and what you’ll bring to their program. Don’t take the attention away from the story by adding too many long words that ultimately don’t make sense.


Medical school secondary essay prompts offer you the challenge of answering specific questions about yourself and your career interests within a short span of time. But, if you anticipate the kinds of questions headed your way and prepare in advance, with a stroke of luck, you might even have a few first drafts before the secondaries even come out. You’ve got a lot of writing coming up, so the sooner you start working on the common medical school secondary essay prompts, the better. And if you get an interview, and eventually accepted into medical school, the extra effort you put into working on your secondary essays will all be worth it.

General FAQ

Do all applicants get secondaries?

The number of applicants who receive secondaries varies from school to school. Most schools automatically send out secondaries upon submission of the primary to all applicants, while others ensure students have passed an initial screening and met the GPA and MCAT cutoffs.

When is the right time to turn in my secondary essays?

Medical schools view the time you take to turn in your secondaries as a direct reflection of your interest in their program. If there’s no deadline, you should be looking to complete them and send them back within two weeks of receiving them.

What are some common secondary essay prompts?

Some of the most common prompts include: “explain why you wish to attend this particular medical school,” “what diverse or unique element will you bring to this medical school community,” and “if you graduated before you applied, summarize your activities since you graduated.”

How many prompts do I have to answer per school?

Schools often have a range of 2-9 secondary questions for you to answer.

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