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The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 4 of The Ultimate Guide for the Anxious Premed, available on Amazon and iTunes

Secondary applications are much shorter than the primaries, and are usually only about 3 pages. On them, you will enter more demographic info. Sometimes have the space to upload individual letters of recommendation, and occasionally you will be asked to upload a photo of yourself. It goes without saying that your photo should look clean and professional, but you don’t need to go out and pay for a passport photo either. I had a friend who submitted a facebook photo of himself while out to dinner with friends. He did end up getting into a top program, but mentioned that some schools requested that he send in a more professional photograph. Mine was a headshot taken with one of my university buildings in the background, and I was wearing a nice winter coat and scarf rather than a suit (though a suit would have been perfectly acceptable.) Actually, I use that photo on the “About Us” section of this website, if y’all want to take a look! If you are unsure about whether or not your photo is appropriate, I’d recommend showing it to your premedical advisor and asking their opinion.

Your secondary will also have a space to upload additional documentation, such as updated transcripts or publications. You will also likely get to write some more essays, which can often be school-specific. Essays can range in length from a full page (much like your personal statement), to a barrage of 200-character short-answer questions.

While it’s daunting at first to receive upwards of 14 new essay prompts at once, the secondaries for different schools tend to have overlapping questions. Your essay on “how I will contribute to the diversity at Harvard” can usually be easily modified to describe “how you will add to the uniqueness of the student body at UCLA.” Just don’t make the surprisingly common mistake of sending your UCLA essay to Harvard. That would almost certainly result in a pre-interview rejection.

A lot of common topics are: “how are you unique,” “tell us about your extra curricular activities,” “why do you want to go here,” and “tell us about how you dealt with a difficult situation.” The only difference between many schools will be slight changes in wording and possibly large changes in character count. Writing two essays on the same topic is easy, but it can be challenging to shorten a full page down to a paragraph without losing the important information. I show an example of how I shortened one of my essays at the end of this chapter. As you write and edit your essays, make sure you have somebody proofread your essays for flow and continuity; it’s easy to make big mistakes when you’ve been staring at Microsoft Word all week.

You are often also given an open space to write an additional open-topic essay, if you so desire. The topic might read: “Is there anything else you wish us to know about your application?” or “Tell us something else about you that you haven’t already mentioned.” You may use that space to draw attention to your extra curriculars in those applications where you hadn’t previously referenced them, or you may use that space to describe unique circumstances that surround your application. So, if you’re really insecure about the semester you took off to help your family sort through personal issues, you can write about it there.

Most essay prompts can be found on the SDN Application thread for each school (linked in the resources chapter), if you want to get a jump-start on writing while your primary is verifying.

“Why Do You Want To Go Here?”

“Why do you want to go here?” is one of the more difficult questions you might be asked on a secondary application. Unless you’ve had prior experience with a certain campus, most medical schools tend to look depressingly similar at the time you submit your applications. Unlike undergrad schools, most medical schools advertise similar academic programs, resources, and mission statements. Most emphasize their “early clinical experience” with some “problem-based learning” or talk about “system-based versus organ-based” approaches. The differences between these curriculum types are described later (see Ch 7: Picking the Right School), but you will often not be able to distinguish much about a curriculum based on the website alone. If you want to find out what a school is really like, the best way is to either talk to somebody who goes there, or visit yourself, which you will do on interview days. In the meantime, you can dig deep into the school’s website and pick out some unique details that they capitalize on. If you’re still at a loss, check their recent campus news, or subscribe to the student paper. Look into their policies on community service, look for examples of leadership among their students. How do they prepare their MS2s for Step 1? What are their scores? What student-run groups exist, what support services do they offer for students? If you have the ability to contact somebody who attends that school and ask them specific questions, it might be worth doing that as well.

If you do get this essay question, it’s important that you write it well. Writing an essay to indicate your knowledge of the student-run support group for patients newly diagnosed with diabetes, or the history of their tutoring program for local high school Biology students will impress the AdComs more than an essay about “Your school has a good reputation and I want to live in this city.” I provide two examples of how I answered this question at the end of the chapter.

How long should I spend on my secondaries?

That’s a tough question. While the often-cited turnaround time is 2-3 weeks for all of them, I’d say, spend as long as you need to produce something high quality. I had friends who turned them all around in a week, whereas I know other successful students who spent over a month fine-tuning their essays. Of course, in schools with rolling admissions, the sooner things are in, the better it is for you. However, good timing is no excuse for poor quality. Especially if your application is otherwise average, your essays are where you get the chance to stand out. So make every word count, and don’t rush things for the sake of being done.

Example: My Secondary Essays

In the section, I have a total of 7 of my secondary essays, with commentary above. The following two essays are responses to the “Why do you want to go here?” question. I had little previous experience with the schools, but I thoroughly examined their websites and took notes on the curriculum elements I particularly admired.

The first essay is for a school with a Top 10 with a unique curriculum that focuses on optional grades and exams, so I focused on that element in my essay. The second essay is for another top-tier school that focuses on early clinical experience in urban environments. These essays landed me interviews at both of them.

Why do you want to go here? #1

I am applying to ____ because I feel like the curriculum that you offer would be a good match for my learning style. I appreciate that your curriculum is progressive, caters to critical thinkers, and that a lot of learning is done through conversation with faculty rather than regurgitation with a paper and pencil. I have always been a self-motivated scholar; my grades were never a product of external expectations. Reflecting back on my undergraduate years, I have often noticed that my “easy A” classes were the ones I learned the most in. Because when you take interclass competition out of the equation, one can enter into the most compelling competition of all: the competition with the self.  

When faced with only my own personal cognitive limits, I find myself pressing my mind to the edge of its capabilities, and in the end, I end up learning far more than I would have if driven only by motivation for a good grade. I strongly believe that nobody can reach their maximum potential until they factor others out of the equation, because let’s face it: me doing my best is far better than me trying to do somebody else’s best.

Why do you want to go here? #2

I am applying to ____ because I strongly believe that your curriculum compliments my interests and learning style, and will help me develop the skills necessary to further my goals in public health and inner-city care.

Your curriculum focuses on active learning, and ____ is located in the type of urban environment I want to work with in the future. I am deeply committed to improving the availability and utilization of preventative health resources in urban populations, and I can see no better way to develop my ability to serve than taking part in a program with early focus on clinical experience in the areas I want to serve most.  

Not only does the ____ program focus on medical activism, but it also provides students with a wealth of research opportunities, and allows them to pursue their own interests with the huge variety of electives offered.

I know that not all medical curriculums will be a good match for me, but I want to go to ____ because taking part in your M.D. program will help me become not just any doctor, but the active, knowledgeable, and well-rounded physician I want to become.

 

The following two essays are responses to very common secondary application questions. The first one asks: “Where do you see yourself in your future practice? and the second one asks: “What difficulties do you expect to face as you study medicine?

For the first question, the character limit was relatively short, so I didn’t have the opportunity to say as much as I would have liked to on the subject. I ended up reusing some parts of my personal statement to answer the question. Some might question the use of similar statements, but I believe that if two questions overlap in nature, using slight repetition is not always bad. In fact, it can even help drive your point in to the AdCom reading your essays. After all, they’ve probably read a few hundred other essays that week, and light repetition can help you stand out.

For the second essay, I wanted to make the reader aware that I understand some of the common issues in medicine, but make it clear that they didn’t deter me. In conjunction with my personal statement, it is clear that I’m the type of person who won’t get discouraged by problems, and will work to find a solution.

Again, as you write your essays, your answers should be unique to you. Use the space given to accurately represent what you want for your medical future. There is certainly more than one right answer to each question, and what worked for me probably isn’t the same thing that is going to work for you. Sometimes the essays will ask you difficult questions. Perhaps you don’t know exactly what you’ll be doing in 10 years, or maybe you don’t foresee yourself experiencing any difficulties at all when you enter medical school. If you don’t know how to answer a question, you should take some time to talk with doctors and current medical students so you can bounce some ideas off of them, and learn about the real challenges they faced, and expectations they had for their futures.

Where do you see yourself in your future practice?

Following the completion of my residency, I hope to work to improve the availability and utilization of preventative healthcare by low-income populations, as well as help to provide more cost-effective resources for managing healthcare. Hosting community programs to educate people about the importance of seeking treatment for progressive diseases, and taking steps to prevent contraction of preventable illnesses would help to provide knowledge that is greatly needed in many populations.

I have become inspired to do this type of work through my experiences working at ___ high school in Los Angeles, and seeing the vast differences a short lecture series on preventive healthcare can make.

What difficulties do you expect to face as you study medicine?

 As I first began shadowing at ____ Endocrine Clinic, I was surprised to see how many patients chose to forgo keeping up with their treatment. It was at first challenging to accept this, but I came to realize that while I may not understand their reasons for doing so, each patient has the rights to treat their bodies as they wish. Knowing that many of my future patients will not acknowledge or accept my help is tough, but it doesn’t make me want to practice medicine any less.

The following three essays address the same topic: “What makes you unique? I also used these essays to respond to the “optional” essay question: “Is there anything else you would like us to know about your application?” and the “What will you add to the student body at ____?” You will often see secondaries with the same (or similar) questions, but different word count requirements. I’ll start with the longest response (unlimited word count), and work down to the shortest response.

With the first essay, I used the space to indirectly say several things about myself. I started by drawing attention to my artistic ability (and yes, I can draw things besides awkward stick figures). Medical schools often seek to recruit individuals with diverse talents, and I wanted them to know how important art is to me. As I talk about art, I focus on the aspects of art that translate directly to medicine: the creativity, the ability to create order, and the process of completing a task.

But most importantly, I draw attention to how art has developed my communication abilities. The ability to accurately communicate with patients is the most important thing a doctor does, besides accurate diagnosis. As an empathetic physician, you will need to be able to gauge where a patient is mentally and emotionally, and be able to convey the important information about their condition in a way that they can understand and use.

In the final paragraph, I again gently let the AdComs know that I am not naïve about the dismal state of patient follow-through. Many patients will not take their prescribed medication, won’t come in for check-ups, and won’t make the necessary changes to improve their health. While unfortunate, it’s a part of medicine, and it’s a part that I am prepared to face.

As I shorten the essay to fit lower word counts, I had to loose some of the poetic flow. I replaced some flowery statements with more blunt ones, but still tried to preserve the important aspects: that I am well versed in the visual arts, and that art has taught me how to better communicate with my patients.

What makes you unique?

I learned to paint as I learned to write. I still remember the feel of the acrylic beneath my fingers as I pushed the paint across the plastic easel set up in my backyard. My mother sat next to me, with a pad of paper, writing down the stories I told her about the picture I was painting. Later, my mother would read the story back to me, showing me how the written words on the paper symbolized the same story from my painting. Thus, I learned to paint and write, and how to use multiple media to tell the same story.  

Since then, I have extensively studied art in it’s many forms: learning everything from painting to analog photography to glass blowing, and even completing a high school capstone project on the importance of art in education. Through all of this, there is one thing I have learned: art is more than being able to accurately replicate a scene, its about being able to put order to a set of disorganized things. It’s about making something that is far more than the sum of its parts, from the level of the paints on the canvas to the objects portrayed in the composition.  

Art is about organization and beauty and communication, and in the end, it’s not all that different from what a doctor learns to do. Taking a patient’s history, formulating a diagnosis, and communicating that information back to the patient is really the same process the artist goes through while creating a painting, and it certainly requires the same creativity.

However, all paintings must be finished, and this is where the doctor and the artist part ways. While the artist adds the finishing touches by himself, the doctor cannot do this. After conveying the relevant information to the patient, empowering him or her with the knowledge of personal responsibility in health, the doctor then hands the unfinished painting to the patient, for him or her to take home and work on. Sometimes the patient won’t finish the painting at all, and will let it sit in the closet gathering dust. Sometimes the patient will decide he or she prefers another painting, perhaps one of his or her own creation. But sometimes, the patient will finish it, and hang it on his or her wall for all to see. It is for the hope of this that I want to practice medicine, the hope that my efforts can give each patient the knowledge and opportunity to make the positive changes they can, and inspire their friends, family, and community to do the same.

What makes you unique? #2

I am both a scholar of, and a participant in the fine arts. I have studied everything from oil painting to analog photography to glass blowing, and through this there is one thing I have learned. Art is more than being able to accurately replicate a scene, its about being able to put order to a set of disorganized things, and making something that is far more than the sum of its parts: from the level of the paints on the canvas to the objects in the composition.

Art is about organization and communication. My creative ability, and the skills I have learned through art will help me balance the necessary requirements of the physician: to formulate a diagnosis from a disorganized patient history, and to communicate that information back to the patient in a clear and concise manner. My art is more than a unique hobby. It is what will make me an effective physician, with a diverse range of capabilities.

What makes you unique? #3

I am both a scholar of, and a participant in the fine arts; having studied everything from oil painting to glass blowing. Art has taught me about another way to communicate, and how to order a set of disorganized things to convey a greater message. The skills I have learned through art are the same that a doctor must learn in the art of diagnosis, and they certainly require the same creativity. My art is not just a hobby, it is what will make me a creative and effective physician.