By Josten Overall and Nick Arlas | July 21, 2017
It seems like all of the pre-meds we run into these days are all in full-on secondary mode, and if you’re reading this you might be too. If you haven’t received secondaries yet, don’t panic! It’s just a matter of time before these apps start showing up in your inbox! It can be a stressful time, as the onslaught of additional apps seems to come all at once post-verification by AAMC. At first it’s exciting, then a bit unsettling, and finally it can be overwhelming. Remember, the secondary application is a critically important part of every medical school application. This is your opportunity to sell yourself on why you’re a great fit for each school that invites you to fill out a secondary. While your primary app is your introduction to medical school programs by highlighting your metrics, work and volunteer experience, the secondary application is your opportunity to persuade each program why you are a candidate whom they should interview. Here is our list of top tips for writing strong, powerful secondary essays!
1. Know the school:
As a medical school applicant, it can be challenging to remember key details about each school to which you apply; however, it is important to understand the school’s mission statement and other unique aspects about the program or curriculum. Having a good understanding of the school and being able to identify why you specifically applied to that school, will help you answer questions that ask about “fit,” “how you identify with the mission statement,” and “how will you contribute to the class and community once accepted.” To do this, visit the school’s homepage and spend some time clicking around. We strongly recommend that you do your research before diving into a secondary app. You may find a specific opportunity that you are excited about, such as a student-run free clinic, a research institute, or a volunteer opportunity. These are things you should mention in your essay, and it shows the school that you actually want to go there and that you know what you’re talking about.
2. Take breaks!
If you ever find yourself hitting a mental roadblock while writing secondaries, remember that it’s more than okay and often necessary to take breaks! Leaving the mental and physical space in which you write your secondary essays, will allow you to recharge and return to your writing space with an open mind and new-and-improved ideas. Taking a break to grab a snack, go on a quick walk, or do something else that you love, will allow you to make productive use of your time, and not become too overwhelmed by the writing process.
3. Provide concrete examples:
Many secondary essay questions will ask you to describe a previous experience or role how that applies to your interest in medicine or to your future success as a medical school student. While you may describe the general details of why that experience was significant, describing a specific example and how that impacted you will may your message even more powerful. For example, you may detail some of the work that you did on a medical mission abroad; however, describing a specific scenario of a significant interaction you had with a patient, colleague or community member, will paint a more vivid picture of what you contributed to and learned from that unique experience. Many applying students will share similar volunteer, work, research and outreach experiences, so using a personal narrative or example will allow your essay to shine!
4. Have others review your work:
Just as when you were writing your personal statement for your primary application, receiving feedback is an important part of writing your secondary essays. You may have also learned that having multiple peers, mentors, or academic faculty review your personal statement can be overwhelming. Each person who reads your essays will have different perspectives on what works well and what doesn’t; you must take any suggestions with a grain of salt. If there was someone who helped you put your best self forward in your personal statement, they are a good person to consult for your secondary apps as well. Reach out to reviewers who can help you make sure every word counts, and that you are conveying exactly what you mean. Over time, you may find that you have become quite adept at secondary essays, and feel that you no longer need to reach out for support. If so, know that you now have the confidence and skill to write some great secondaries!
5. Recycle, but with caution:
A classic mistake that you’ve probably heard is that someone copy/pastes an essay and forgets to change the school name. One of the authors (cough Nick cough) accidently repeated two sentences in separate questions for the same school by doing this. With so many of the prompts overlapping or asking the exact same question, it is important to recycle your responses but to do so carefully. Done right this will save you time, but it can lead to rushing the process which makes you more likely to make the copy/paste mistake. To avoid this, read all of your essays carefully, and customize each one. For example, you will come across an essay about what your experiences are for the upcoming year, and this one is ripe for recycling. However, each school will ask it slightly differently, and have different character requirements. Use the framework from earlier essays, and build out a custom response for each subsequent secondary that asks the same or a similar question.
6. Response time is important:
Secondary season is a rough time for everyone going through the app cycle, but this is a time to really push yourself. It will be a true test of your endurance, especially if you are balancing other commitments like work or school. Set yourself up with a scheduled time each day to work on your secondaries, and push yourself to have a quick turn around time. Interviews are granted on a rolling basis and it is in your interest to have your application in as early as possible. Prioritize the schools that you are most interested in and work your way down the list. Celebrate the victory of each submission and know that they will get easier as you complete more of them and can draw on material that you’ve already created (see tip #5).
7. Use forums for specific information, but do not dwell:
Much like a surgeon you want to know exactly what you looking for when spending time on SDN. Navigate for the school specific thread and use Control-F to search key terms related to your inquiry. Do not get sucked in to whether people have heard back about interview invites, as it does not help you and can be an added source of anxiety during an already stressful time.
8. You can still add schools to your application:
You are still able to add schools to your primary application, and those of you that have applied to a small number of schools might consider increasing your chances by adding some more schools. It’s still relatively early in the cycle, so take a look at the MSAR and apply to as many schools as you can afford. Note: you should only apply to schools that you would actually go to if you were accepted.
9. Money stuff and when to ignore a secondary:
You may find that you applied to a school that you actually are not interested in, and know that it is OK to ignore a secondary invitation and decide not to apply to a school after all. At nearly $100 dollars a pop, knowing that it’s all right to let a few go can help you save for airfare and interview travel expenses. You should feel comfortable ignoring a secondary if you are no longer interested in the school.
10. Remember you are running your own race, and it’s a marathon!
By now you’re probably getting a play-by-play from all your premed friends about how the app cycle and secondaries are progressing. Ignore the noise and focus on your applications. It is crucial that you stay disciplined, work on them every day, and take comfort in knowing that this challenging time is not going to last forever. If you keep your blinders on and run your own race, you will be in a better spot than if you spend time worrying about what other people are doing.
Best of luck to all of you!
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