It’s June, and you’ve submitted your application to medical school. Perfect, but are you feeling restless now? Many applicants feel as though they are pacing the floors during the down weeks between submitting their primary application and receiving secondary essay prompt invitations.
If this is you, why not begin prewriting secondaries based on predictable secondary prompts?
Many medical schools send out secondary prompts that are similar to those they used in prior years, and many prompts align with those sent by other schools. Prewriting the foreseeable essays can significantly reduce your time, effort, and stress. The secondary invitations tend to all start coming in at once, and this intense, second phase of the application process requires quick turnaround to meet the programs’ deadlines. Prewriting gives you the opportunity (and time) to carefully craft your essay responses with less pressure from looming deadlines. Prewriting can turn these down weeks into opportunities to reflect on probable questions, gather your thoughts, and create well-constructed, engaged answers.
Here is advice on how to do just that.
Research previous years’ secondary essay prompts for medical schools, especially your target ones. Some programs post them on their website. Many are available in online forums such as the Student Doctor Network, and you can also find last year’s list of school-specific secondary prompts and essay tips on Accepted’s website here.
Although prompts will vary in nuance and character/word limit, there are often common themes that reoccur across institutions, such as diversity, adversity, teamwork, leadership, ethics, and community service. These challenging themes dovetail values and character – theirs and yours. Yet the thematic secondary questions in particular are known to trigger high anxiety for medical school applicants, because they are not about meritorious achievement but meritorious values. Strong essay responses communicate good judgment, demonstrate a commitment to social justice and equity, and convey empathy as an inherent, personal characteristic. In short, applicants cannot hide behind the coattails of achievements, nor behind empirical and quantitative thinking. Rather, the prompts require you to assess your deeper understanding of professionalism and service; your educated understanding of multiculturalism, plurality, and equity; and either your stalwart ability to gain inclusion or your ability to assess and act on a situation that is unjust, neglected, or biased.
First, however, you must answer the prompt (unless doing so is optional).
Second, you want to be authentic in your response.
But let’s say Applicant A is inherently uncomfortable in tense situations and fears exploring an adverse situation in writing. Perhaps it will result in too much emotion and subjectivity in their response. What should A do?
And let’s say Applicant B is comfortable with exploring qualitative issues such as diversity but does not have a diverse background or identity. What should B do?
The short answer is that Applicant A and Applicant B should do the same thing: warm up to the idea that there are various ways to respond.
That’s good news! There are multiple ways of approaching a theme and staying genuine. One person could write effectively about diversity by discussing how they embody diversity through their identity, culture, race, ethnicity, or other attribute. They could share an example or two about when “being seen” mattered most, or “how being marginalized taught me to resist/adapt/speak.” Another person could write about assimilating to other cultural norms. Some essays we’ve seen like this include “What I Learned Shadowing a Parisian Ophthalmologist,” “How Building Houses in Maricao, Puerto Rico, Showed Me My Relative Privilege,” “How the Black Lives Matter Club at [Private University] Changed Me (for the Better),” and “The Day My Soccer Team Confronted Racism Together Was the Day We Began to Trust Each Other.”
To learn a variety of ways you could respond authentically to a qualitative prompt, check out Accepted’s blog post
Lastly, there are still the standard questions you already know you will have to answer (either in a secondary essay, an interview, or both):
- AMCAS: Why Medicine?
- AACOMAS: Why Osteopathy?
- Where do you imagine yourself in 15 years?
- What will you be doing between now and the time you will start medical school?
- Explain how you were impacted by Covid-19 personally, professionally and academically.
- Why us (why X school)?
Take the time to brainstorm ideas for each essay prompt. Reflect on your experiences, achievements, challenges, and motivations. Do not repeat your personal statement in whole or in part (though you could expand on an essential but briefly mentioned detail in it).
Avoid cookie-cutter responses that state the obvious. Avoid saying what you think you are supposed to say; this often results in generalizations or platitudes and are almost always way too superficial. Perhaps read up a little bit on the theme in academic databases that appeal to you. Dig deep and explore from there. Once you have some original ideas, write, review, revise, and polish your drafts over time. Stay specific. And in a certain sense, educate your readers (the adcom, literally).
Take advantage of having started early by then taking time to step away from your drafts.
When you return to them later with fresh eyes, refine your tone and vocabulary (aim to be precise and clear rather than to impress), correct any grammatical errors, eliminate excess words, improve clarity, and enhance the maturity and depth of your answer. Ensure that your content effectively contributes to your application’s overall success in presenting a comprehensive portrait of who you are as a future doctor.
Be your true self, with remarkable aptitude, benevolence, and character.
When you officially receive the 2023-2024 secondary prompts, tailor your draft essays (or relevant parts of them) to create individual responses for each school that exactly address what the prompts are about. Although it is conventional to stay close to (and within) word/character limits, do not pad your response just to approach the limit. Sometimes a more natural moment of closure works better.
Review your final drafts to be sure your responses harmonize with the particular school’s orientation to medicine, its service to particular regions or communities, and its values.
Lastly, be sure your responses are true to you. Honestly, it is important to put your true self out there. Think of your role as “educating your reader,” which of course begets the fact that you have found something to show and teach. This takes prewriting, reflection, and insight. As an applicant to medical school, you’re opting into a future as a leader in healthcare and wellness for everyone, for a plurality. Revere that part of yourself, though with humility. Explain and show rather than boast.
Next, move on to tackle the rogue and original wild-card secondary prompts. That will be a creative challenge, too, and perhaps a good subject for a future blog post.
We’re here if you need us. Check out Accepted’s comprehensive secondary services for medical school applicants.
Dr. Mary Mahoney, PhD, is the medical humanities director at Elmira College and has more than 20 years of experience as an advisor and essay reviewer for med school applicants. She is a tenured English professor with an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a PhD in literature and writing from the University of Houston. For the past 20 years, Mary has served as a grad school advisor and essay reviewer for med school applicants. Want Mary to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!