Everything You Need to Know About Medical School Secondary Essays

Padya Paramita

Everything You Need to Know About Medical School Secondary Essays

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 off to relax. But, you’ll have to wait a few more months for that nap, because the medical school application grind is far from over. After hitting the submit button on the AMCAS, your secondaries will slowly start rolling in. So, before you decide to start checking things off your bucket list, it’s time to prepare for your medical school secondary essays.

Although medical schools don’t typically begin sending out secondary applications until early July, you shouldn’t just sit around doing nothing. Rather, prepare yourself to have common essay topics ready for the minute the prompts are sent out. To help your preparation for medical school secondary essays, I’ve outlined the basics of the secondary timeline, the most common prompts alongside a few dos and don’ts to help gear you for the process.

Medical School Secondary Essays: The Timeline

Turnaround from Primary to Secondaries

The timeline for medical school secondary essays is just as important as actually sitting down to answer the essay prompts themselves. If you submit the AMCAS immediately after it opens (as you should), you can expect secondaries around early July. Most medical schools don’t set deadlines for secondary essays. The ones who do usually set them for November. Some, however, give you a deadline based on when you receive the secondaries, for example within two weeks or a month upon receipt.  

Depending on the medical school, your secondary essays will start rolling in either a few weeks after you’ve submitted the primary application or once the school checks to ensure that you’ve met their cutoff scores (typically set low at a 3.0 GPA and 500 MCAT score). To be clear: most schools do not read your application until your secondaries have been submitted. The faster you submit the AMCAS, the quicker your verification will be completed, followed by the arrival of your secondaries. The sequence continues: the faster you finish your secondaries, the quicker and more likely you are to receive interview invitations. It is no exaggeration to say that the timing of your medical school secondary essays will shape your chances of being accepted into any medical school.

Obviously, you want to increase your chances of getting admitted and should apply to around 25-30 schools. But what this also means is that you could have four or five secondary essays coming in from each program—some schools have no secondaries, while others have up to nine. When the secondaries from the schools on your list pour into your inbox one by one, it can naturally feel overwhelming. Finding the perfect balance between timeliness and high quality is not easy. But we’re here to help.

How Long Should You Take?

It’s important to remember that your every move counts. Medical school admissions committee members will indeed be paying attention to the time you’ve taken to turn in your secondaries, so approach them very carefully. If you take a month to turn in your responses, they will think they’re low priority and will hesitate to extend an interview invite to a student who is unlikely to attend the school if offered acceptance.

Remember that med schools admit students on a rolling basis. If you take your sweet time, adcoms will already have started reading applications and making decisions about which applicants they want to call for interviews. The longer you wait to turn in your secondaries, the further back you fall in the pile. And the less likely your chances.   

A helpful rule-of-thumb to follow for medical school secondary essays is to return your responses within two weeks of the date you received them. The two-week turnaround time is long enough to carefully write and edit your essay, but short enough to show your enthusiasm for the school.

While two weeks is ideal, if you’re drowning under a lot of secondary essays, you may have to pick and choose which schools you want to take more time with. So, how do you know which of your schools and secondary essays to prioritize?

The Impact of Secondaries on Your Medical School Timeline

Since the medical school application process is rolling, spots at schools get filled up on a first-come first-serve basis. As time passes in the application cycle, your chances of acceptance grow even slimmer because more and more students are given precious interview slots on top of more students submitting their primary applications before the AMCAS closes. As overbearing as the burden of completing almost 70 essays can get, you must try hard not to lose focus and prioritize making each day count in the application process. One misstep or slowing down at any stage could leave you behind the rest of the applicant pool. The secondary turn-in timeline is no different. The longer you take to submit your secondary essays, the further you push back your own timeline, and other students’ chances will climb over yours. 

Instead, keep yourself strictly on track. As soon as you submit the primary application, start writing responses to the common prompts such as “why this program?” or “what will you contribute to our school?” That way, by the time a school sends you their prompts, you’ll be ready, and will only need to adjust or edit your responses slightly, according to the different ways the questions are phrased.

If you stick to the two-week submission schedule and write strong essays that tell unique stories and are edited with finesse, medical schools are more likely to appreciate your hard work. 

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 writing over seventy medical school secondary essays. 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 that 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 essays to expect, the list above should give you a clearer picture of what to prepare for. 

Dos and Don’ts of Medical School Secondary Essays

Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with what you can expect out of your medical school secondary essays, 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 writing medical school secondary essays, 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!
  • Answer what the question is asking - Too many people get caught up in what they want to say and completely fail to answer the question. A lot of medical school secondary essays will have similar prompts, with very slight differences. For example, one school might ask “What makes you diverse,” while another asks “What makes you diverse? How has this influenced your life?” Although they are basically asking the same thing, double-check that you are answering all questions. This is why it’s important that you first read the question and highlight all keywords and phrases. Understand what the school wants to know when writing your medical school secondary essays, and outline your essay accordingly. Make sure your answer directly responds to the question and doesn’t take any significant detours.

  • 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 guideline—word limit, page limit, formatting requirement—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 writing medical school secondary essays, 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. 




    • DON’T 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.
    • DON’T Exaggerate - Writing about something 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.
    • DON’T 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.
    • DON’T 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 in your medical school secondary essays. While it’s good to mix up your word usage and not repeat, don’t go all out with the metaphors or thesaurus.com. 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.
    • DON’T Repeat yourself - The admissions committee already has your AMCAS application. Repetition will not help you at all! If you basically reiterate what you said in the personal statement during your medical school secondary essays, admissions officers will be bored and unimpressed. Instead, you need to provide new information. That doesn’t mean that you cannot talk about the same activities or experiences—you certainly can. It means that you need to discuss another angle of each particular experience. For example, if you previously talked about the ways shadowing at a hospital changed your engagement with patients, maybe you could now discuss how your shadowing experience influenced which type of medicine you would like to pursue, such as pediatrics or epidemiology. Your admissions officers should constantly learn new things about you.

    Writing all of the medical school secondary essays can initially feel like an impossible task. But if you follow all the instructions, convey a story that you haven’t told in your AMCAS application, and turn in a well-polished essay, you can hope to impress admissions committees and take one step closer to that dream of becoming a doctor. 

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