Medical School Secondary Essays: Top Writing Tips

At this point, you have likely submitted your primary medical school application via AMCAS, AACOMAS, and/or TMDSAS. The apprehension and nervousness loomed in the pit of your stomach as you hovered over the SUBMIT button. This feeling was washed with pure elation once your meticulously planned work was finally whisked away to the carefully designated schools. Now, your email inbox is inundated with medical school secondary application invites and questions roll across your screen:

  • “Why our school?”

  • “Please tell us about a situation in which working with a team was challenging.”

  • “Describe a non-academic challenge you have faced and explain how you overcame it.”

  • “Describe your understanding of race and its relationship to inequities in health and health care.”

  • “Is there any further information that you wish to share with the Admissions Committee?”

  • “Please take a moment to explain how the COVID-19 pandemic directly and personally affected you as it pertains to preparing for medical school.”

  • “How would you add to the diversity of the incoming class?”

It is a lot, right? I understand completely and I was in your shoes once. Let’s walk through secondary  prompts together, from the top, using my rules for success I often implement when editing medical school secondary essays:

1. Brainstorm

Much as you had with your personal statement, sit down with a cup of coffee and plan the direction that you want your med school secondary essay to go. Correspondingly, you may ask yourself the following:

  • What is the major theme or message I want the reader to take away?
  • Have I already discussed or emphasized this in my primary medical school application?
  • Is there an example or anecdote from my experiences of which I can highlight to demonstrate the content I want to discuss?
  • What are the values or principles emphasized by this particular medical school and how might I write to parallel these?

Once you have an outline or direction in which you would like to proceed, you are far less likely to go off on a tangent. Similarly, you are also more likely to answer the prompt to demonstrate your candidacy for acceptance into medical school.

2. Answer the Secondary Prompt 

This may seem like a no-brainer, but believe me, it happens! 2500 characters later and it is still rather unclear how the applicant would exactly add diversity to the incoming medical school class. To that end, while it is beneficial to use showing language as opposed to telling language, it is also of the utmost importance to say exactly what you mean. The reader can often infer certain points from your writing but it is so important that with a limited number of characters, we tell the admissions committee members exactly what we want them to know. Remember, when applying to medical school, admissions committees first view you through a lens of your writing. Therefore, it is ESSENTIAL to paint a picture of yourself exactly how you would want to be perceived (see number 4 for more details).

3. Do Not Just Copy and Paste

You may have found that medical schools often ask similar questions or derivations of common questions. While the question may be “basically the same,” remember to tailor your secondary essay response in order to address exactly what the question is asking. For instance, suppose University A asks “Diversity of inclusion and thought is essential to our institution. How will you add to the diversity of the incoming class?” while University B asks “At University B, we hold diversity to a high regard. How have you implemented diversity in your everyday life, including academically and professionally?” As you can see, both of these questions address the idea of diversity though are pinpointing different topics overall. Should a student quickly copy and paste their essay, they may be caught not exactly answering what the question is asking. Correspondingly, keep in mind that admissions committees ask specific questions intentionally in order to learn more about who you are!

4. Paint A Picture Of Who You Are 

This is so important! Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of the medical school application process is that the admissions committee’s first impression of you is through your writing. If you were to stand in front of the admissions committee and present yourself verbally, what would you say? Along those same lines, this might be something of which you decide to present in your writing as well. 

Is writing not your strength? We get it – at Motivate MD, we have a multitude of experienced medical students and physician editors here to help you succeed and show who you are through writing. For more information, visit here.

5. Be Specific, Intentional, and Make Each Character Count

While there are varying character limits for secondary essays, there is no doubt that saying everything you would like with a looming character limit is no easy feat. My best advice for any character limit is to be sure you have established the content first as to not limit creative expression. Then, once the content is set and answers the prompt, eliminate characters of which do not take away from the overall message. Similarly, when writing, be intentional and specific. Doing so will often avoid unnecessary characters and allow you to adhere to the character count.

6. No Secondary Essay Is Actually “Optional”

Use any opportunity presented to you between now and matriculation to demonstrate your candidacy. To that end, nothing is really optional!

7. Be Genuine

Medical school admissions committees read a multitude of essays daily and can likely discern genuine, authentic answers from students of whom are writing what they think the school wants to hear. Therefore, you are never at fault for showing authenticity and what makes you unique. This will often go a long way in having your application stand out from the rest of the stack. 

8. Use Anecdotes or Examples, When Applicable 

As an editor and writer myself, I believe one of the best ways to captivate your audience is showing language, a narrative lead, and/or anecdotes of which articulate the overall message you are trying to convey. Often, this language draws the reader in, keeps them interested, and forces them to continue reading. Further, this tactic frequently shows you performing an action or depicts the same qualities of which you would otherwise simply tell the reader.

9. Time Is Of The Essence 

Occasionally, med schools will not list definitive “deadlines” for secondary essays but remember that interview invites are often distributed on a first come, first served basis. Therefore, be sure to budget your time wisely between not only your secondary applications but between your mental health, well-being, and other responsibilities. If your top choice of medical school has sent a secondary application, you may consider prioritizing this school over others. Otherwise, you may prioritize by their initial sent date. As an aside, a little organization never hurt anyone. A simple Excel sheet might be the tool to come in handy. 

10. Use Proper Grammar, Punctuation, And Spelling

After all of your hard work, the last thing we want is for a misspelling or lack of punctuation to come between you and your dreams of becoming a physician. For this reason, have a trusted mentor, friend, or advisor read over your work prior to submission. My quick rules for grammar include the following:

  • Avoid using contractions in formal writing 
  • Punctuation goes on the inside of quotations
  • Medical specialties are not capitalized UNLESS included in the title of a proper noun. 
  • Avoid using real patient names to protect privacy. Create a pseudonym, introduce this name with quotations, and then drop the quotations after the first use. For instance:

 …I met “Wanda” on my first shift at the emergency department (ED). Wanda was nervous at first.

  • Do not begin sentences with the following:
    • And
    • Or 
    • But 
    • Because

11. Have A Trusted Editor Review Your Work

At Motivate MD, you can submit your secondary essays to an experienced editor who will not only look over grammar, punctuation, and spelling but confirm your content will impress the medical school admissions committee members. Click here for affordable medical school secondary essay editing

Undeniably, secondary essays are a significant and often overwhelming challenge of the medical school application process. Regardless, look at it this way: each word you articulate is just another opportunity to show admissions committees just who you are and why you will make a fantastic physician. Take it one day at a time and before you know it, you will find yourself in medical school!

Want to gain a competitive edge over other applicants?

Our medical student and physician editors are ready to help you write effective secondaries. Many of our editors have even served on their program’s admissions committee.