In the previous article, I provided a look inside the general medical school admissions process. I explained why it can take so long to learn whether you have been rejected or invited to interview. I concluded with recommendations for what you can do in the months following the submission of your application.
In this article we will take a closer look at secondary applications (sometimes called supplemental applications). We will find out why they matter and what you can do to stand out.
Medical School Secondary Applications, Do They Even Matter?
The simplest answer is that yes, secondary applications matter.
Until medical schools receive your secondary application, you are falling further back in the queue of applicants.
You may plan ahead, work hard, and complete the primary American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) application by the earliest possible date.
If so, well done!
Remember, as I shared in the previous article, medical school admissions offices are under pressure to do everything faster.
It is inefficient for members of the admissions team to start reviewing an application before all materials are received; this includes completed secondaries. Believe it or not, many applicants do not complete their secondary applications by the deadlines.
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember the following:
A quick yet thoughtful response to secondary applications can impact both your admissions timeline and outcome.
Keep reading to learn more.
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Common Secondary Questions
Before exploring the common secondary application questions, please keep in mind the following:
Medical schools have the autonomy to create their own secondary applications. Because of this, secondary questions vary from school to school, and may even change from year to year.
Even though secondary applications differ across schools, there are several common question categories.
These categories include resilience, diversity, reasons for interest in a particular school, and plans for the year.
Let’s take a look at each secondary question category.
Many secondary applications include a question designed to explore an applicant’s resilience. Resilience may also be thought of as challenges overcome or experiences with adversity. This is your opportunity to share a significant challenge you have faced. If you touched on resilience in your primary application, can you go into enough detail so that you are not repetitive? Is there another example you can share?
Regardless of background—socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, orientation, ability, etc., we all face challenges.
Keep in mind the following when addressing resilience questions:
Don’t embellish. Present an authentic account of a challenging situation.
Focus on the facts and present them in a way that provides readers a glimpse of your life from your perspective.
In other words, show, don’t tell; try to apply this to any essay format question you may encounter.
Many secondary applications impose restrictive word count limitations. Write multiple drafts.
Once you identify an example of resilience, focus on how you overcame it. What did you learn? How have you grown?
Resilience questions are not there because medical schools just want applicants who have difficult pasts. Medical schools want mature students. Adversity nourishes maturity. Reflect on your life so far.
Do not worry about what other applicants have written about.
Diversity has profound implications both for medical schools and the physician workforce. It should not be surprising that many secondary applications include some sort prompt to learn more about applicants’ experiences with diversity.
It is important to understand how each medical school defines diversity.
Increasingly, when we think of diversity, we mean differences that include, but also go beyond race and ethnicity. Think about diversity of experiences, ideas, and viewpoints.
Many people have asked me what to do when they encounter a diversity question, especially when they do not fit into a racial or ethnic category. I remind those students that diversity can encompass many elements. In a broad sense, diversity encompasses the ways in which we differ from the norms of our social worlds.
Let’s explore this further.
Perhaps you are one of the only people at your school that practices a particular religion. Or, maybe you stand out in terms of your appearance or ability. Maybe you play an unusual instrument. There are so many ways to consider diversity.
Show how you would contribute to the diversity of the medical school.
Perhaps you are passionate about the trombone and decided to major in music performance. You could write about how music and performance have influenced your premed years. How might your experiences contribute to your time in medical school?
Research your medical schools to tailor your responses.
Sticking with the music major example, do any of your chosen medical schools have student/faculty bands? You could share that you hope to get involved and play with your fellow students and connect with faculty outside of the classroom.
Reasons for interest in a particular school
This is straightforward.
Medical schools want to learn why you would like to spend the next four years of your life with them.
Let’s begin with what not to do when responding to this type of question.
Avoid generic responses.
Your application readers will know if you have presented a vague or generic response. Too many applicants do this. Don’t be one of them.
Go beyond what is in the Medical School Admissions Resources (MSAR) database. Take a good look at each medical school’s admissions website. Consider contacting alumni in your area.
The more you learn about your medical schools, the better. Your response to this type of question will reflect your familiarity.
You are applying to a particular medical school for a reason; it should be a good one. This is your chance to share that reason with your medical schools.
Avoid incorrect assumptions. For example, do not share that you want to attend a particular medical school because of some organization that, unbeknownst to you, no longer exists.
I know you will heed this next recommendation.
Please, do not list the wrong medical school.
I have read secondary applications that go something like, “It is my dream to attend Harvard Medical School….” The only problem is I wasn’t evaluating applications at Harvard.
Needless to say, it is hard to overlook a mistake like this.
This leads to my final recommendation for what not to do when responding to questions related to your interest in a particular medical school.
Do not cut and paste your secondary responses.
You do not want to share your excitement in the wrong medical school like in the example above.
While pre-writing your secondary responses is a tip I recommend at the end of this article, it should be clear why you do not want to cut and paste into a school’s secondary application.
Plans for the year
This secondary application question is one I wish all medical schools included.
Put simply, what have you done since submitting your primary application? What will you be doing until you arrive for your first day of medical school?
This is your chance to five updates on experiences listed in the AMCAS primary application and share anything new since then.
In the previous article, I stated the importance of sharing with medical schools any significant changes in your responsibilities, work, or activities.
Don’t count on admissions officers to take any future hours listed in the primary application as fact.
For example, if you shared that you recently started a clinical experience with significant patient interaction and planned on accruing 1,000 hours over the next year, are you still involved? Did you actually take on the position or was it just a possibility? Don’t leave application reviewers guessing.
State something like, “In the primary application, I shared that I recently began scribing in the ED at the Amazing Hospital of Exaltedness. I have continued to work there and accrued a total of 700 hours. I intend on working there another 100 hours this year.”
Share something meaningful that has happened in that role. Was there was a powerful moment? Did you take on more responsibility? Let your application reviewers know.
If you completed an experience since submitting your primary application, provide a takeaway.
If you have taken on any new experiences, let your readers know that too.
Note: This is not the time to share hobbies or leisure pursuits.
Admissions committees want to know that you are still hard at work.
Be prepared to demonstrate that you have been increasing your experiences and responsibilities.
Tip: Reflect on your reported AMCAS experiences. What is your distribution of hours within the AMCAS experience categories? If you are light in certain areas, be ready to share how you are making improvements.
The examples presented in this article should not be taken as a comprehensive list of secondary application questions. Remember, each medical school’s admissions process is different and so too are their secondary applications.
Common secondary application questions center around topics such as:
- resilience-challenges overcome/experiences with adversity
- diversity-something about yourself that contributes to the diversity of a medical school and/or the physician workforce
- why you want to attend a particular medical school
- what your plans are for the rest of the academic year/admissions cycle
Are you continuing to engage in meaningful experiences?
Are you prepared to answer questions around the common topics I presented?
If so, you will do well.
Practice answering these common secondary application questions. If you are able to do this well in advance of applying to medical school, use it as a barometer of your progress.
If you are struggling to respond to a question, does it mean you need more practice telling your story? If so, keep writing those essays; make this a periodic exercise.
Besides writing practice essays, be sure to research a variety of medical schools. Don’t limit your research to schools of interest; pick those that are less familiar as well.
What sets different medical schools apart?
Try to find at least one characteristic for each medical school of interest that excites you. This will help you, not only with secondary questions but also interview days.
I hope you found this article useful and I wish you the best in all your aspirations.
Adam Lowrance, PhD
Let me know in the comment section if you found this article helpful. Where are you at in the process? Are you applying to medical school this cycle, or thinking about doing so in the future?