Medical School Secondary Application Essay Prompts

By: Ryan Kelly

BONUS: Every Secondary Essay Prompt For Your Medical Schools

Overachievement is clearly the norm for pre-meds. So it’s no surprise that they’re expected to complete something ‘secondary’ months in advance.

If you’re a conscientious applicant, then you probably had your primary application ready far before June 6th. But perhaps you’re more of a “pressure-makes-diamonds” type who finished just in the nick of time?  

Either way, you’re now entering the last weeks of secondary essay prep, so it’s time to bear down and take care of business. They might be called ‘secondary’ essays, but that doesn’t mean you can treat them as afterthoughts. If taken too lightly, they can be an applicant’s tragic downfall.

How do you tame the beast of secondary essays? Follow these seven tips to maintain your sanity and give yourself the best chance of securing an interview:

Strategy 1: Pre-write, pre-write, pre-write.  

Did we say pre-write your secondaries? Pre-write your secondaries! We’ve said it before, and we will continue to say this until we’re blue in the face, because it’s the single biggest mistake pre-meds make with regards to secondaries.

Let’s answer some objections to make sure you have no excuses left:

“But I don’t know the essay prompts!”

Ah. We have a solution for you. We at Passport Admissions have diligently collected every secondary essay from every medical school in the country and made them available on our website, for FREE.

Seriously, take a look:

http://students.passportadmissions.com/medical-schools-by-state/

“But what if the prompts change from year to year?”

With few exceptions, they don’t. UCLA - same for the past 8 years. UCSD - same for the past 8 years (with a few tweaks in the character count). Georgetown - same for the past 8 years.

Other schools may change it up a bit, but the changes are usually minor, so you can typically still use the old essay, just with a few modifications.

“How do I know which schools change and which stay the same?”

Use our secondary essays to see. We have collected the past several years (indeed, in some cases, all the way back to 2008) so that you can see which schools change and which don’t.

http://students.passportadmissions.com/medical-schools-by-state/

Please don’t put off these essays.

Strategy 2 - Generate essays that you can re-use.

The secondary essay process is like hiking over a mountain. It’s terribly daunting at first, but you become more trail savvy with each successful step forward. Once you reach the summit, there will still be more ground to cover, but it will be a painless downhill journey to the finish.   

To make the uphill climb less painful, focus on content that you can tweak and reuse for several schools down the road. Many students fail to realize the quantity of secondaries they must write (25-30 schools = 50+ pages of writing). Prioritize the schools with 10 or 12 prompts, since they will make each additional school that much easier to complete.

UCLA (Geffen School of Medicine) is a great place to start building this answer bank. They ask for 10 different 800-character essays, which can serve as solid foundations for schools that ask for longer answers. If you’re not applying to California schools, try using our secondaries database to find another school with at least 5 or 6 generic prompts to get you started.

Strategy 3 - Write in your own authentic voice.

Avoid the dry, overly professional voice you might assume med schools want to hear. Maintain a certain level of formalism, but use your personal flavor to make the essays stand out in the giant pile of applications.  

Strategy 4 - Avoid the temptations of perfectionism.

You cannot afford to dawdle on a single prompt or school for too long. Never feel as if you must squeeze in as many characters as possible. Get it done, get it polished, and move on. Don’t settle for junk, but with such a high volume, a finished secondary is a good secondary!

Strategy 5 - Use the essay prompt to judge what a school wants from your essay.

The phrasing of a prompt will likely indicate what the school’s looking for. Read it carefully a few times. Is it mostly asking for factual information? Or does it have a follow up question that forces you to expand ideas or attach meaning to an experience? Are there key word choices in the prompt? What values are embedded in the question, and have you addressed those values through your own stories and experiences?

For example, UCLA’s ‘scholarly project’ prompt has no follow-up question, indicating that all 800 characters should be dedicated to exhibiting the project’s “scholarly” nature (independent research, theorizing, analysis, problem solving, trial and error, revisions, etc.)

Oppositely, UCLA’s ‘problem’ prompt boils down to the idea of ‘growth’ in the follow-up question, which implies that the school is looking some before-and-after picture or metamorphosis to illustrate your maturity and personal development.  

The character limit also suggests what a school wants. A school like Yale gives you 500 words to describe why you’re drawn to its program, which encourages a lot of depth and specificity. But UCLA (see below) only allows 800 characters, a constraint that challenges a student to be substantive but also concise at the same time. With fewer characters, it’s best to use small moments or examples to show bigger lessons and ideas.

Part 4: The “Why Us?” Secondary Essay

Example "Why Us?" Essay Prompts

Example 1: “What makes LLUSM particularly attractive to you?” (Loma Linda University School of Medicine)

Example 2: “How will becoming a Creighton educated physician enable you to achieve your lifetime goals and/or aspirations?” (Creighton University School of Medicine)

"Why Us?" Essay Background

These are everyone’s favorite prompts (I wish my sarcasm could jump through the screen).

The first step to writing an effective “Why us?” essay is to restrain yourself from writing about how great their medical school is or where it's located.

Glad that’s out of the way.

Consider why admissions committees want you to answer this question. After all, they know you’re applying to many other schools and that your GPA and MCAT scores are at least reasonably close to their admission averages (learn Where to Apply to Medical School to Maximize Admissions Odds).

Admissions committees read thousands of essays annually and want to know that you’ve considered them for reasons beyond the obvious (location, prestige, average GPA and MCAT, etc.).

By integrating your qualities, experiences, and aspirations with their specific mission, programs, and resources, you will have a unique opportunity to demonstrate "fit" in your application. Don’t take this for granted!

"Why Us?" Essay Misconception 1: “I should just read a school’s mission statement and research available resources on their website, and then rewrite the same information in essay form.”

The vast majority of students approach the “Why us?” essay this way, so it won’t make your response seem very special.

I basically see the expanded version of the following essay 90+% of the time:

“I want to go to [School Name] because of their wonderful [program name] and incredible [resources]. {Program] cultivates [attribute] that helps their students become great physicians. In addition, [resources] provide support to help students reach their potential.”

You should be able to see how this essay says nothing about why YOU want to go to their school.

Moreover, medical schools already know about all of the programs and resources they offer, so you wouldn’t be providing much value through your writing.

The better approach to this essay would be to look through schools’ websites to find programs and resources that actually interest you and to identify what each school keeps boasting about (e.g., perhaps they mention diversity or early clinical experience multiple times on their homepage). Then, consider:

  • How YOUR experiences fit with their offerings
  • What YOU could contribute
  • How YOU would uniquely benefit from their program

For example, if a school focuses a lot on community service and you have similar experiences, mention that. In addition, let the school know how you want to further focus your skills while there. On the other hand, if you have a more research heavy background and are applying to the same school, you could either focus on research or discuss how community service will make you a more well-rounded physician. The more specific you can be, the better.

"Why Us?" Essay Misconception 2: “There’s no other way to find out information about a medical school than by reading their site.”

Looking at a school’s website and demonstrating fit is certainly a tried-and-true approach to answering "Why us?" essay prompts, but it isn’t the only one.

To really impress admissions committees, you could integrate information from current students or recent alumni into your response. Ask these individuals whether they would be willing to share their experiences attending a particular school, and also whether you would be a good fit there given your background and goals.

How do you find these people? The easiest people to contact are those you know personally or through a mutual acquaintance. Otherwise, you could contact a school’s administrative staff and ask whether they could connect you to a current student. While this requires additional work, it will be well worth it for your top school preferences.

If you have to contact a stranger, use the following email template:

“Dear [Student Name],

I hope this email finds you well. My name is [Your Name}, and I am currently completing my med school applications. I’m especially interested in attending [School Name] and am therefore hoping to get some more information about the program. [School Name]'s admissions committee gave me your email address as someone who could help me out.

I'd really appreciate it if you would spare 15-20 minutes to answer 3-5 quick questions in the upcoming days. If so, please let me know some days and times that are most convenient for you, your time zone, and the best number to reach you. I’ll do my best to accommodate.

Thanks for your time and consideration. Looking forward to hearing from you soon!

Best,

[Your Name]

Sample "Why Us?" Essay

(Note: All identifying details have been changed.)

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Throughout my undergrad years, I’ve found that working hard to involve myself with others and their unique perspectives is one of the most productive ways in which I can learn. For example, I used to believe that illnesses were just a set of tangible symptoms that resulted solely from maladaptive genes. However, after working closely with families in Boston's inner city, I have come to realize how racial, physical, and social factors, such as a lack of access to fresh produce or primary health services, can influence the likelihood of disease. As I obtained a broader understanding of the many factors that contribute to health, I find myself asking new questions and wanting to learn more. How can we properly assess a community’s needs and design appropriate solutions? How can an understanding of sociocultural factors be used to heal current patients and prevent new ones? I believe that the answers to these questions and others will come from the Community Health Program at the University of Washington (UW). The year-round lecture series on topics, such as “Health Disparities: An Unequal World's Biggest Challenge,” will allow me to engage closely with faculty and students to work towards developing holistic community-based solutions. Furthermore, the UW PEERS clinic and Friends of UW provide an opportunity to work closely with urban Seattle neighborhoods similar to those I have worked with in Boston. Having connected with a range of Boston families, varying in age, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity, I have improved my sense of self-awareness and cultural sensitivity, attributes I hope to continue developing with the surrounding Seattle community. I am confident that UW and the Community Health Program can further prepare me to be a physician who not only improves the lives of individual patients, but also addresses the needs of entire communities.

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Final Thoughts

Secondary applications will likely be one of the most time-consuming, stressful, and exhausting parts of your application process (the other is the medical school admission interview circuit if you’re fortunate to receive multiple invitations).

Nevertheless, you should give yourself some breaks to recharge so that you never rush submissions for the sake of rolling admissions and sacrifice quality.

Like every other piece of written material you submit, aim not only to answer the prompt, but also to give admissions committees deeper insights into what makes YOU so great for their school specifically.

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