Tackling Medical School Secondary Application Essays

Bulletproof Strategies to Write Your Diversity, Adversity, and "Why Us?" Secondary Essays

Medical School Secondary Application Essays Shemmassian Academic Consulting.jpg

(Note: This article represents a modified version of Lesson 5 of our free comprehensive guide to medical school applications, Get Into Medical School: 6 Practical Lessons to Stand Out and Earn Your White Coat.)

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Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: The Diversity Secondary Essay

Part 3: The Adversity Secondary Essay

Part 4: The "Why Us?" Secondary Essay

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Part 1: Introduction

Most medical schools to which you submitted your primary application (AMCAS) will send you their school-specific secondary applications that usually require you to write additional essays.

This process is incredibly grueling, much more so than writing your personal statement or completing your AMCAS Work and Activities section.

While secondary application essay prompts vary in length and topic, there are two pieces of good news:

  1. They’re typically shorter than your personal statement
  2. Some topics come up over and over and over again

You can use this latter fact to your advantage by recycling certain “core essays” with few modifications for multiple schools. Moreover, you can pre-write recurring essays.

(WARNING: Make sure to always answer each school's specific prompt, especially when secondary application fatigue inevitably kicks in. Moreover, double check that you've referred to the correct medical schools' names in your secondaries. For example, if you're writing an essay for Tufts, be careful not to mistakenly leave in "Emory" if you're recycling your Emory essay for Tufts.) 

Although you should aim to submit your secondary applications as soon as possible to take advantage of rolling admissions, never sacrifice essay quality to do so. In the grand scheme, there really isn’t much benefit to submitting a few days to a week earlier.

In my experience working with many medical school applicants, the following three—with varying prompts—come up most often:

  1. Diversity
  2. Adversity/Challenge (e.g., "Describe a significant challenge you overcame and what you learned from it.")
  3. "Why Us?" (e.g., "Why do you hope to attend [our school]?")

Rather than list a bunch of "tips" to write your secondary application essays, I’m going to provide some background for each essay topic before listing and challenging some common misconceptions that limit students’ thinking. Then, I will offer fresh ways to write each one, as well as strong samples from students who got into prestigious medical schools.

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Part 2: The Diversity Secondary Essay

Example Diversity Essay Prompts

Example 1: “The Committee on Admissions values diversity as an important factor in the educational mission of the Wake Forest School of Medicine. How will you contribute to the diversity of your medical school class and to the medical community in general?” (Wake Forest School of Medicine)

Example 2: “The Committee on Admissions regards the diversity (broadly defined) of an entering class as an important factor in serving the educational mission of the school. The Committee on Admissions strongly encourages you to share unique, personally important, and/or challenging factors in your background, such as the quality of your early educational environment, socioeconomic status, culture, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and life or work experiences. Please discuss how such factors have influenced your goals and preparation for a career in medicine.” (Stanford University School of Medicine)

Diversity Essay Background

Medical schools love advertising the diversity of their student bodies through their class profile statistics, brochures, and pictures of smiling students from various backgrounds. Is this just for show?

Unlikely. Medicine—and other health care fields—are most effectively practiced when clinicians are able to understand and respect whomever is seeking service, regardless of their backgrounds. Thus, having a diverse student body creates a stimulating learning environment that incorporates multiple perspectives.

Before we get into misconceptions about the diversity essay, I want to clarify the meaning of cultural competency by first offering the NIH’s definition: Deliver[ing] services that are respectful of and responsive to the health beliefs, practices and cultural and linguistic needs of diverse patients."

In other words, cultural competency refers to:

  • The awareness that patients have diverse health beliefs, practices, and needs
  • The effort and willingness to understand these differences
  • The effort and willingness to incorporate these differences to provide effective care that fits patients' contexts

On the other hand, cultural competency does not mean:

  • Believing you know everything about a particular group of people—including your own—and therefore knowing exactly how to treat them
  • Having to learn everything about a particular group of people before you are able to effectively treat them

Diversity Essay Misconception 1: “I don’t come from a minority background, so I have nothing to write about.”

Let’s clear this up right away: Your diversity essay does not have to be about your or others’ ethnocultural or socioeconomic backgrounds. Moving past this notion will expand your thinking and options for choosing a compelling topic many fold.

Diversity can refer to anything that makes you unique or interesting, including:

  • Your great qualities (e.g., being a social connector)
  • Unique experiences (e.g., working as a certified scuba diving instructor)
  • A commitment to service
  • Visions and goals (e.g., using artificial intelligence to improve health care).

Think about why diversity is interesting in the first place: everyone is different. If all people came to medicine from a certain ethnic minority or low socioeconomic background, that wouldn’t be so interesting, would it?

If you do want to focus on ethnocultural and socioeconomic diversity, strong essay topics include:

  • Activities, pursuits, or organizations committed to diversity and social justice issues
  • Health disparities
  • Demonstration of multicultural competence during patient interactions
  • Navigating your own bicultural identity

Diversity Essay Misconception 2: “I come from an ethnic minority background that’s already well represented in medicine, so I have nothing unique to share.”

I hear this most often from students of various Asian backgrounds who feel their demographic is so well represented in medicine that they cannot make a case for their uniqueness as a medical school applicant.

However, given Asia's many countries and races, cultures, subcultures, languages, religions, and philosophies across and within countries, there's probably a ton you could write about. Although you may feel your background is common in medicine, don’t sell yourself short.

Possible topics include:

  • (If you’re an immigrant) Your immigration and assimilation experience
  • (If you’re not an immigrant but your parents immigrated to the US) A thoughtful account about the values/perspectives/goals your parents tried to instill in you, how they may have clashed with your values growing up in a bicultural environment, and how you resolved these differences
  • Different cultural views on health care and how both can be valuable for treating patients

Regardless of the topic you choose, as with all essays, make sure to link it back to your identity and experience by answering these questions:

  • How did you feel?
  • What qualities did you demonstrate?
  • What did you learn?
  • What do you have yet to learn?
  • How do you plan to apply these lessons throughout your education and career?

Diversity Essay Misconception 3: “The more I write the words 'diversity', 'cultural/multicultural', and 'underserved', the more admissions committees will be impressed by my cultural sensitivity/awareness/competence.”

Quite the opposite. These terms, especially when used repeatedly or inappropriately, can be cliché and come off as dishonest. The best essays are those that are written honestly about who you are and your actual perspectives and interactions with diverse individuals.

Sample Diversity Essay

(Note: All identifying details have been changed.)

There are many things a girl could be self-conscious about growing up, such as facial hair, body odor, or weight gain. Growing up with a few extra pounds than my peers, I was usually chosen last for team sports and struggled to run a 10-minute mile during P.E. classes. As I started to despise school athletics, I turned towards other hobbies, such as cooking and Armenian dance, which helped me start anew with a healthier lifestyle. Since then, I have channeled my passions for nutrition and exercise into my volunteering activities, such as leading culinary workshops for low-income residents of Los Angeles, organizing community farmer’s markets, or conducting dance sessions with elderly patients. I appreciate not only being able to bring together a range of people, varying in age, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity, but also helping instill a sense of confidence and excitement that comes with making better lifestyle decisions. I have enjoyed encouraging kids in the inner city to combat similar issues of weight gain and low self-esteem through after-school gardening and physical activity lessons. Now, I hope to share my love for culinary nutrition and fitness with fellow medical students at UCLA. As students, we can become better physicians by passing on health and nutrition information to future patients, improving quality of life for ourselves and others.

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Part 3: The Adversity Secondary Essay

Example Adversity Essay Prompts

Example: Tell us about a difficult or challenging situation you have encountered and how you dealt with it. In your response, identify both the coping skills you called upon to resolve the dilemma, and the support person(s) from whom you sought advice.” (University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine)

Example: “Tell us about a challenging problem you faced and how you resolved it.” (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine) 

Adversity Essay Background

Medical school admissions committees ask about adversity simply to understand how you respond to difficult situations.

In other words, medical schools are not trying to start a competition to determine which students have experienced the greatest adversity in their lifetimes.

Rather, they want to know how you:

  • Manage stress
  • Attempt to resolve issues
  • Reflect on challenges
  • Apply learned lessons in your life

Adversity Essay Misconception 1: “Nothing really bad has ever happened to me. Neither my family members nor I have suffered a serious illness or death. I also did not overcome poverty or flee to America as a political refugee, etc.” 

I’ll say it again: This is not a competition, so it’s perfectly fine if you haven’t experienced an extreme challenge in your life. If you have, you’ll have an obvious topic to discuss, but a significant difficulty alone doesn’t make a great essay.

There are multiple ways to approach adversity essay prompts, including writing about:

  • Relatable life events (e.g., letting your best friend down, facing major criticism, making new friends after a big move)
  • Situations beyond your control (e.g., your parents’ divorce, a friend’s drug use).

Adversity Essay Misconception 2: “Fine. I was able to identify some challenges I’ve faced in life. It still doesn’t matter because none of them are significant enough!”

I get it. Medical school admission is a high stakes process, and you want to stand out in every part of your application.

Remember, however, that the best essays aren’t necessarily the ones with the greatest challenges or sob stories. It's your thoughtfulness and handling of those challenges that will set you apart.

To make this process easier, I ask my students to create the following list of 3-4 challenges to help them choose a strong topic (I've used a common topic as an example):

  • Challenge: Difficult academic adjustment from high school to college with corresponding drop in confidence and drive, as well as questioning fitness for medicine
  • Response: Acknowledged poor study habits and corrected them, humbly asked for help from faculty and classmates
  • Result: Sustained improvement in study habits and grades, developed mentorships with professors
  • Lesson: No shame in asking for guidance and help, better to strengthen weakness than rely on false confidence

Once you’ve listed some challenges and their aftermath, choose the one that demonstrates the greatest maturity, thoughtfulness, and growth. Transparency about your hardships and honesty about your growth help to write great essays. It’s also more than acceptable to discuss how you’re still a work in progress and mention the areas you’d like to continue improving on.

Sample Adversity Essay

(Note: All identifying details have been changed.)

I named my one-year-old beagle Fitch, after my favorite clothing store. That fact recurred through my mind as I shouted her name for hours at the break of dawn, wondering how I left the door open and where she could have gone. Was she attacked by roaming bands of coyotes? Killed in a hit-and-run? Lost in the desert mountains? I had raised and taken care of Fitch for years, and so I believed I was solely responsible for her loss and her safe return. Yet, my mother admonished me to not let guilt interfere with my judgments and to reach out for help. Therefore, I enlisted the support of the community, including friends, fellow dog owners, and neighbors, some of whom I had never met before, to find my pudgy, spotted beagle. Over the next two days, this dedicated group helped me create flyers to post in nearby parks, organize teams for day and night searches, and send neighborhood-wide emails. It’s hard to be prepared for difficult situations like these, so between the sleepless nights and uneventful status updates, I found myself learning to be calm and patient like my neighbors, Bill and Susanna, encouraged me to be. Finally, on the third day, a biker found Fitch behind a dumpster, shivering beneath a pile of debris and branches. Although she was eventually safe, I would not be able to hold and feed her to this day had I not knocked on that first neighbor’s door, opening me up to both the physical and mental strength of the surrounding community.

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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 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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Frequently Asked Questions

Below is a list of the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) I receive about medical school secondary essays that are not answered in this article.

I encourage you to ask any other questions you have about secondary essays in the Comments section below. I’ll make sure to answer your questions within 24 hours and add some of them to this FAQ section to make it easier for other students to find this information.

Question: When should I expect to receive secondary applications?

Answer: Once you certify and submit your primary application and AMCAS receives your official transcripts, they begin verifying your application. You will receive your secondary applications after AMCAS completes verification and releases your primary applications to medical schools.

Because the verification process can take several weeks, it's important to submit your primary application as soon as possible after AMCAS opens submission on June 1. Students who submit AMCAS in early June can expect to receive their secondary applications in early July, positioning themselves to take full advantage of rolling admissions.

*Note: Some DO schools send out secondaries as early as mid- to late-June.

Question: Will all medical schools send me a secondary application?

Answer: The majority will. However, whereas most schools send secondary applications without screening your primary application, some competitive schools will screen. You may experience a slight delay in receiving secondary applications from schools that screen.

Question: How soon after receiving a secondary application should I aim to submit it?

Answer: As soon as possible, without sacrificing quality. Moreover, you should aim to submit secondaries no later than two weeks after receiving them.

Question: Is it really a good idea to pre-write secondary essays? What if a school changes their secondary prompts during my admissions cycle?

Answer: Yes, you should absolutely pre-write secondary essays whenever possible because medical schools rarely change their prompts. In the event that a medical school does change their prompt, you'll likely be able to recycle your already-written essay for other schools.

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