Applying to Medical School: Secondary Essays

Secondary Essays are sadly a necessary evil for applying to medical school. In the 2020 – 2021 application cycle, I was able to submit 28 secondary applications! That’s compared to being overwhelmed by just 4 of them in 2017.

If you didn’t already know about these tips & resources for completing your secondary applications, reading this post will help you through this process tremendously!

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What are Secondary Essays?

Secondary essays the the essays you have to complete in order to submit your secondary application. Unlike the essays you write for your primary application, these essays are specific to each school.

When Do You Get Them?

After your primary application has been submitted and verified you will receive secondary applications from schools you applied to. Some schools send them automatically and some screen the primary application first to check that you meet their minimum GPA and MCAT requirements.

When Should You Submit Secondary Applications?

A good rule of thumb is to aim for submitting your secondaries within two weeks of receiving them. This obviously takes some planning, otherwise you will get all your secondaries at once and probably fall far behind that goal.

Best Tips for More Success & Less Headache

Tip #1: Pre-write you Secondaries

If you only remember one thing from this post, I hope it is this tip! Secondary essays are going to be a headache regardless… but imagine how much worse it would be if you got all of them at once! If you apply to 20 medical schools, then you could have 60 essays waiting to be written withing two weeks. Not fun. Instead, go to this website here. You can look up all the prompts to the schools you plan to apply to. Set a certain amount of essays to write each week and stick to it. That way, when you start getting secondary applications you are half way or completely done and can submit them early!

Tip #2: Don’t Repeat Anything From Your Primary Application

This is easily the hardest and most frustrating thing to try and avoid. The secondary application that I submitted earlier in the week was for ATSU, a DO school in Arizona. They ask you to list your three most meaningful clinical experiences and explain why. So I had to figure out how to write why being an EMT is meaningful to me without saying the same thing from my primary application. Being told not to repeat yourself, then being asked almost the same question twice… so incredibly frustrating. But if you want to get an acceptance, the best thing to do is suck it up & nix the complaining now because you will have to do it a lot!

Tip #3: Look up The School’s Mission Statement

The same website that has all the secondary prompts for each school, also includes their mission statements. I find this also frustrating because some mission statements a quite vague. Either way, know the school’s mission statement when you are completing their secondary application. Your essays should convey that accepting you as a student for their medical school would be in line with their mission statement and values. Not an easy task, but use the resources later in this post to help you get a feel for what that means!

Tip #4: Use Your Personal Stories to Show Who You Are

AKA don’t say “You should accept me into your medical school because my best attribute is collaborating with others”. Tell a story about that time when you actually collaborated with others. For example, one of the essay prompts for ATSU’s secondary application was to tell them what would be my strongest attribute as a SOMA student. In one quick sentence to answer the question directly, told them what I believed to be my strongest attribute (promoting a collaborative environment with my classmates). Then the rest of the essay was a story from college where I actually did just that. I explained a problem my equestrian team was having, how I recruited other teammates to work together to find a solution, then explained the outcome and how I hope to use that attribute as a future medical student.

Unlike other aspects of applying to medical school, writing stories like these are actually pretty enjoyable for me personally. After all the stories I wrote to explain my activities in my primary application, I really feel like whoever ends up reading it will feel like they are getting to know who I am. That is exactly what you want to feel like after writing a story in your essay. So do some reminiscing and come up with good personal experiences that show who you are!

Tip #5: Copy, Copy, Copy!

What do I mean by this? Well, when you get a secondary application it is basically a link to a website where you will fill out the application. If you use said website to do the actual writing (instead of Word or Notes) you should definitely copy it to a Word document, or whatever you prefer to use, before you hit submit or save.

Why, you ask? Because if you spend 10 minutes writing out an essay (or worse, way longer!) the system will most definitely log you out. AKA, when you go to submit or save that particular essay you will be logged out and it will NOT be saved!

So please, avoid the tears and just copy it over to Word before you hit save. Then log back in, copy your essay, and hit save right away.

To avoid this problem completely, you could just use Word to do your essay. Just take not of what word count you have to stay within and copy it over when you are done! No tears needed!

Tip #6: Ctrl+Z is Your Best Friend

So despite already knowing about the above tip, my brain failed me and I forgot my own advice. It sucks, but it happens. Earlier this week when I finished up one of my essays, I hit save and… it was gone. There may have been a tear or two. Then I refused to even look at my laptop for the next five minutes. Then I went into desperation mode and to my happiest surprise there is actually a way to fix it! Granted, this definitely doesn’t work in all cases. If you go to a went to a new page or anything like that, your essay is sadly gone for good. But in this case, I learned that if you right click and hit “Undo” or do Ctrl+Z, it comes back!

I consider myself a somewhat tech savvy person, at least for the basics. But I never knew you could do this! I’m honestly surprised I even looked for a way to undo it because I had no idea it was possible.

Anyway, hopefully you don’t need to use it and go through that added stress. But just in case, now you can have some hope there is a way to fix your blunder!

Tip #7: Ask a Friend to Proofread or Pay a Professional

So far, I personally plan to stick with the former suggestion. Paying a professional company that edits your essays is expensive AF. If you want to go the free route, just ask someone to look over your essays for grammar essays. Especially if you are like me and you are submitting essays you started and finished in the same day. After you work on something for over an hour, it is very easy to miss silly mistakes. Applying to medical school is a rough process, don’t risk going through it a second time because you had too many silly mistakes in your applications!

Free $

Despite knowing this I was still so over it I just wanted to hit submit and be done. Knowing that’s just plain dumb though, I asked George to look for any errors. He found like three… for example, I wrote “the patient’s at the hospital” and didn’t notice I had a completely unnecessary apostrophe. The person reading your essay doesn’t have to be a grammar genius to catch silly mistakes like that so definitely have someone proofread for you!

Also, if you are still in college, schedule a few appointments with your writing center! They are a great free resource and will probably have a better eye for grammar mistakes than your chemistry major friend. Just note that I would be skeptical if they give you advice on what to write about unless they have experience specifically helping premeds. Students at the writing center probably don’t know much how the process, so I personally would just use them as a resource for grammar help.

Intermediate $

If you want to go the intermediate route as far as money goes, you could offer to pay someone you trust to edit your essays. I asked one of my friends from college to edit my essays and paid her $150. That is a small price to pay for increasing the quality of your essays and way cheaper than the professionals. Just don’t ask any ol’ Joe Schmo you walk by, make sure you are asking someone who is good with grammar and editing for other people. My friend was an English minor and worked at our writing center in college (she also had applied to medical school before, bonus!). Try to ask someone with similar credentials!

Expensive AF $

If you have the money to pay the professionals that work specifically to help premeds with their applications, then I believe it is so worth it. I am NOT saying it is necessary to do, simply because there are so many free resources to help you. I just personally believe that something like that is an investment into your future. Those guys know their stuff and writing better essays helps (but obviously doesn’t guarantee) your chances of getting an acceptance letter.

As someone who is applying to medical school for a second time around, I think it’s not a bad idea IF you have the money. I personally don’t feel like it’s worth spending my last penny to do so and feel confident enough using mostly free resources.

Best Resources on What & How to Write Secondary Essays

Dr. Ryan Gray’s YouTube Channel

If you are a premed student and you don’t already know about Dr. Ryan Gray and Medical School Headquarters, you need to look him up! He is especially helpful for non-traditional premeds (like me) applying to medical school. This is because, if you are no longer in school then you most likely don’t have an advisor to help you anymore. As long and complicated as applying to medical school is, you really need someone to help you through it. Dr. Gray has been that person for me and I think my primary applications turned out 10x better because of it.

Getting Started

I watched this video a couple days before I planned to start my first secondary application.

The Dos and Don’ts of Med School Secondary Essays

Amazing Advice for Common Questions

Once again, Dr. Gray is killin’ it with the most helpful advice around. He made a playlist that answers how to go about answer many of the most common secondary essay prompts. If you are like me, listening to advice like this makes it so much easier to get the wheels turning before I sit down and write an essay. If you haven’t already been convinced Dr. Gray is an amazing premed resource for applying to medical school, this playlist might do the trick!

Intro to the Secondary Essay Playlist

AAMC’s Website

As far as trusted resources go for applying to medical school, it doesn’t get more trustworthy than information straight from AAMC. I think other resources are more helpful because AAMC’s articles can be vague and detail lacking IMO. Still, everything to do with applying to MD schools is through the AAMC, so it is obviously worth reading whatever info they give us. I read the article linked below for some extra ideas on how to write good secondary essays.

Advisor Corner: Preparing for Secondary Applications

You Are Ready to Get Writing!

The only thing left to do is to stop putting off those essays! Rip off the band-aid and start on your first one today! Whether that means doing one essay for a secondary application you have already received OR pre-writing one you know you will have later, there is no better time to start than now!

If you are also taking the MCAT soon, head on over to this post to learn 9 ways you can prepare for test day (besides studying). Or my other blog post that explains 5 incredibly helpful things I learned after taking the shortened MCAT exam on June 19th HERE.