How To: Master the Med School Secondary Essay (with examples) 2023

After you submit your primary applications, medical schools will ask you to submit secondary applications (most automatically) the majority of which require you to write secondary essays of varying lengths.

The essay prompts should serve as clues to the culture of the medical school and indicate what kind of information is important for them to know about applicants. As you research each school to apply to, begin to make notes about what draws you to that school so you can use these thoughts in your secondary essays.

You can prepare for these in advance by organizing notes in these areas: my accomplishments, obstacles I have overcome, challenges I have had and how I’ve handled these, why I want to attend this school, what kind of physician I want to be, what activities I’ve been most intimately involved with and what have I learned.

Secondary Essay Basic Guidelines

  • Write essays for your top choice and target schools first! You are likely to be overwhelmed by the tidal wave of secondary applications you will receive so don’t make the mistake of completing, for example, all of your reach schools first!
  • Do not rush your work. Unless a medical school specifies a return date, there is no “deadline” to complete your essays. Complete all of your essays, if possible by August 1st or by Labor Day at the latest.
  • Answer the essay prompts carefully. The biggest mistake students make is trying to squeeze a prewritten essay for an inappropriate prompt.
  • Some prompts will force you to repeat information that is in your primary application. This is okay!
  • Don’t feel that every topic you write about should be momentous. Sometimes writing about more personal details of your life can offer more insight into your values, ideals, and life decisions.

Most Common Essay Prompts

Several common secondary essay topics that are listed below.

Greatest Challenge/Failure/Adversity Essay

Essays that ask about personal challenges, failures or adversities are seeking information about your ability to manage conflict and challenge. They also want to know how you cope with conflict and that you can be objective when things don’t go your way.

Medical schools want to know that you are level headed, and that you won’t crumble when feeling vulnerable or faced with less than ideal situations. Students often immediately gravitate to academic or scholarly subjects for these essays, but, sometimes the most compelling topics are those that are personal. Why? These topics can often say much more about your character, values, ideals, and decision making. Ideally, you should also write about what you learned and how you grew or changed as a result of the challenge, failure, or adversity. 

Students also consider writing about red flags for this topic such as a class failure, poor MCAT exam or institutional action. Generally speaking, we find that these topics are usually less interesting and don’t offer enough information about who you are as a person.

Essay Example:

I had worked on my presentation for weeks. I knew it was so important, not only for me, but for my principal investigator (PI), that I present the work we had done succinctly and clearly since I would be speaking in front of the entire biochemistry department. Public speaking has never been a strength and I was very nervous. Before it was my time to speak, I could feel my heart racing and my palms sweating. When I got to the podium, I was literally unable to speak; I was shaking uncontrollably and had to sit down while my PI took over. It was the most humiliating experience of my life. I was able to calm down, and, rather than leaving the auditorium, I waited until the conference was over and apologized to my PI who was kind and forgiving. I then resolved to improve my public speaking skills. The the next day I signed up for a Toastmaster’s course and have taken every opportunity since this incident to speak in public. Although I still get nervous before I have to speak, I have learned to actually enjoy speaking in public.

Essay Example:

I saw the Microsoft Word document on the screen of my roommate’s computer. It looked familiar. I realized that this essay my roommate had written on the works and life of Jane Austen contained the exact language I had seen elsewhere. Where had I seen it? Why was this so familiar? I also asked myself, “Do I have a right to be looking at  this document?”

Then it dawned on me. When my roommate got this assignment for her literature class, we discussed it with our housemates from down the hall.  One girl offered to give my roommate a paper she had written on this topic for an AP class in high school. She printed out the paper and gave it to me to give to my roommate. Curious about the topic, since I am a Jane Austen fan, I read it before handing it to my roommate. The document on the computer in front of me contained parts of this paper that were copied, verbatim.

The issues here were complicated. First of all, I was invading my roommate’s privacy. I should not have been looking at her computer even though we often shared our computers. But now that I was aware of what she had done, I felt an obligation to confront her.

That night, when my roommate returned home from studying, I first apologized for invading her privacy and explained that I had read the document on the screen. I then told her that I realized she had plagiarized and told her I thought this was wrong. She explained that she felt under tremendous pressure since she also had a big organic chemistry mid-term that week and it just seemed so easy to copy the paper even though she recognized it was not right to do so. With my urging, since she had not yet handed the paper in, she stayed up late into the night to compose an original essay and, in the end, she thanked me for noticing and for encouraging her to do the right thing. I realized that even confronting my roommate, which was uncomfortable and awkward for me, encouraged her to make a better choice and reinforced for me the importance of acting ethically even if these easier choice would have been to look away.

Diversity Essay

Essay Example:

Medical schools have broadened their definitions of diversity and for essays like this you can write about your unique interests, talents, or experiences. Maybe you have a distinctive background, perspective, or outlook. Think outside the box when writing about diversity. Do you have a special hobby or accomplishment that sets you apart?

Or, you can also choose to write about your own experiences with diverse or minority populations to illustrate your cultural competence which most people think of as the more “traditional” approach to questions about diversity. We find that most applicants do not currently write about these more traditional topics. Sometimes it can be more impressive to write about topics that are more distinctive to you and your background.

Another Example:

I grew up in a diverse community even though my undergraduate college was quite homogeneous. During college, I sought out experiences beyond campus to immerse myself in more diverse communities. I volunteered in a free clinic, tutored children in Africa, and traveled during my vacations, when possible. I gained insights into the challenges facing others and how their backgrounds and experiences influenced their perspectives and attitudes. On a medical mission abroad the summer after my junior year, I worked in medical clinics helping to care for Mexican families, which helped me understand that such challenges and unfair inequalities in education and health care also exist internationally.

Through my experiences, I came to realize that all patients, regardless of their background, fare better when their unique circumstances, cultures, and outlooks are considered. To improve my ability to communicate with some of these populations, I minored in Spanish and became more proficient in the language through my studies in Spain. I have learned the importance of listening and seeing situations through the eyes of those I help. Throughout such experiences, apart from realizing that I hope to work with these populations as a future physician, I was continually reminded of the pervasive societal inequalities and injustices both locally and internationally.

Whether playing a Beethoven or Brahms sonata, playing music has always been an outlet for me. Since the age of seven, I have emulated my mother, a professional cellist. In fact, even during college, my goal was to practice medicine while working as a professional pianist. While doing my premedical coursework and majoring in biology, I also minored in music and composed my own work. The year following college, while playing piano professionally, I realized this wasn’t what I wanted to pursue for my lifetime. However, my musical interests will always be more than a hobby and serve as my escape from the stresses of daily life.

Why XXXXX School Essay

Medical schools want to know that you have the qualities and characteristics they are seeking. Before writing these essays, read the medical school’s mission statement and review their student biographies (if offered) to get a sense of what the school values in applicants. The key in writing “Why our School Essays” is to offer as many specifics as possible. You want to show you will take advantage of the medical school’s opportunities and that you will make valuable contributions as a medical student. Do this by showcasing how your interests and experiences are aligned with opportunities at the medical school, that you can benefit from what the medical school offers and that you will contribute to the medical school community. Also, many students fail to look beyond the first and second year curriculums when writing about why there are interested in a medical school. What you do during your third and fourth years of medical school, in clinical settings, is just as important. Show that you understand this!

Example Essay:

My interest in geriatrics and emergency medicine evolved as I worked clinically in these two departments last summer. Through my coursework in health policy, I also learned of the imminent need for geriatric specialized physicians to support the aging baby boomer generation. Through your hospital’s renowned telemedicine and information technology departments, I would be offered the unique opportunity to explore this interest further. I would also take advantage of the medical school’s summer research program to participate in research projects related to geriatrics or emergency medicine.

At the clinic where I worked, I gained first hand exposure to disease complications, which often were caused by lack of access to primary care. My travels and work in India have shown me how common these issues also are internationally. Your unique medical school program would allow me to continue my active community participation during my first year, while providing care to diverse populations who lack access to care. This endeavor also could be augmented through participation in research and study in South America, so I could pursue my interest in global health while caring for other underserved communities and improving my language skills.

Of supreme importance, the urban location and suburban hospitals affiliated with the medical school as well as the Level I trauma center would offer unparalleled exposure to novel academic and clinical opportunities. Apart from the school’s location in my favorite city of Great City, it is the superior curriculum, supportive medical educational environment, opportunity for community involvement, and team-oriented culture that would make your medical school a perfect fit for me.

What are you doing next year or what have you done since graduating from college?

Answer these questions in a straight forward fashion. Typically, medical schools require that only applicants who are not full-time students answer the question. In answering these questions, write about what you will be doing, but also include information about what you hope to learn and how this will prepare you for medical school.

Example Essay:

For the upcoming academic year, I will continue my research on breast cancer at Outstanding Oncology Center, where I have been working for one year. Our findings last year have already provided evidence for the etiology of what receptor is involved in the development of tiny cell cancer, and we hope to build on these findings to continue our work. I have already become proficient in using the literature to design experiments, and I hope that this year I will learn how to analyze our findings. My hope is that our findings will be significant enough to lead to a publication on which I would be an author.

I will also shadow several doctors throughout the year to broaden my understanding of clinical medicine. Right now I have plans to shadow an internist, a surgeon, and an ophthalmologist.

My Saturday mornings will be spent volunteering at Inner City Clinic, where I will be promoted to the level of triage. I will be responsible for taking vital signs and basic intake histories on patients.

This year will be productive and, I hope, will provide the foundation I need to be an excellent medical student.

Secondary Essay Writing Tips

For each essay prompt you receive, pay attention to the character and word limits and use them as cues for how much information a medical school is seeking. A medical school that limits your responses to only 50 words, for example, is asking you for a simple, straightforward response. On the other hand, the school that allows 1,000 words per essay wants you to elaborate and go into some detail.

Secondary prompts vary, and I find that students can often recycle essays for multiple schools. But reading secondary prompts carefully is important. The most common mistake students make is providing a response that does not really address what is being asked. Even though writing secondary essays can get laborious, don’t try to make an essay you have already written “fit” for a prompt if it just doesn’t work. Remember, good secondary essays can help you earn a  medical school interview.

Sometimes, especially if your primary application is comprehensive, responding to a secondary essay may force you to repeat information that is already in your primary application. That not only is  okay but also suggests that you are in good shape; many schools determine prompts by identifying topics that applicants frequently leave out of primary applications.

I discourage  applicants from  writing a “one size  fits all document” for various secondary essay themes. Since the character/word limit for secondary essays is so variable (50 – 3,000 words) it would be a waste of time to write an essay before knowing specific character limits for each prompt. Having an idea of what you would write about for  each of the common themes is wise, however. Some schools’ secondary essay prompts do not vary from year to year, and you can often find these essay prompts and start working on them in advance. But, be warned, schools do change secondary essay prompts on occasion.

Above all, just as you did with your personal statement, write authentically and honestly and don’t try to spin your responses to tell admissions committees what you think they want to read.

A couple of additional tips:

  • Never quote others; your essays should be about you!
  • Optional secondary essays are truly optional. Don’t fill a space or recycle an essay unless you have a good reason to do so.
  • Unless medical schools specify a secondary essay “due date,” there are no real turn around rules. Submit your essays when they are ready and ideally within two to three weeks after receiving the secondary application.

Secondary Essay Editing Services

MedEdits’ secondary essay review and editing services will ensure that your secondary essays address what is being asked by the prompt while ensuring you highlight what is necessary to distinguish your candidacy.

About MedEdits

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