How to Make the Most of Medical School Secondaries

The medical school application process is a marathon, not a sprint, as it features an AMCAS application (featuring most of the admin work, a slew of short answer questions, and the always-difficult personal statement), secondary applications for individual schools, and then interview days at select programs. The whole thing lasts for nearly a year and the time spent tends to dwarf the application processes for other types of graduate programs.

The current leg of the marathon is the secondary application round. It is the part of the process that most closely resembles a college application or MBA application process, in the sense that candidates must respond to essay prompts that are specific to each program. This is the stage of an applicant’s journey that demands a focus on “fit” with individual schools, as well as clear motivation for studying (and then practicing) medicine. The AMCAS was the time for setting yourself apart as a med school candidate … secondary season is about fitting in.

Here are three other crucial tips for secondary applications:

1. Key on service. One interesting correlation that is gaining steam in medical school circles is the notion that community service translates to the pursuit of primary care careers. The current med school culture is very focused on producing good primary care doctors, so medical schools are taking a longer look at these trends, and, in many cases, deducing that a commitment to service is one of the best predictors that a med student will enter this field. Applicants should be sure to include all such experiences and look to build around both the service activities as well as the lessons learned when crafting essay responses.

2. Avoid cut-and-paste. One common mistake made by candidates on their secondary applications is that they fail to resist the temptation of cutting and pasting answers from the AMCAS. One requirement of the AMCAS is to answer a series of short prompts, including listing and describing course work, activities, and research experience. Many medical schools include similar questions on the secondaries. For instance, Columbia asks prospective students a question about extracurricular activities that sounds a lot like the short answer prompt on the AMCAS. The temptation to cut and paste the answer is very strong. Of course, this would be a huge mistake. Not only can Columbia cross-reference the new answer with the old AMCAS answer, but simply recycling a list fails to meet the challenge of the question. It is fine to give a basic rundown in an AMCAS short answer, but broader themes must be addressed in a secondary question. You have to make connections between your own experiences and the culture at Columbia. You have to show how your level of involvement will translate to medical school. It’s a whole new ballgame and your best bet is to simply reference the old answer to ensure consistency, and then start fresh.

3. Take your time. An oft-quoted cardinal rule of medical school admissions says that a secondary application must be submitted to the school no more than two weeks from date of issue. The thinking goes that anything longer suggests to the program a lack of interest. This is not necessarily true. Yes, spending three weeks rather than two may tell the medical school in question that you are not a frothing maniac with nothing else going on in your life than secondary applications. Is that the end of the world? Med schools are looking for disciplined people who can handle heavy work leads, yes. But they are also looking for well-adjusted, balanced individuals who can see the big picture. It is far better to take an extra day or two, or even a week, to do a nice, thorough job on a secondary application, than it is to slap it together and rush it out the door. This is especially true if the secondary application happens to come from the medical school at a busy or stressful time – during a move back to college, during midterms, etc.

Finally, note that the general nature of secondary applications has changed in recent years. It used to be that a secondary application was an indication of forward movement, as schools commonly sent out secondaries only to select students as a way of thinning the herd. Now, however, most schools (over 80%, in fact) are automatically sending out secondaries to everyone who applies. This means that students are truly starting fresh with that program. The AMCAS will still be a very real part of the consideration process, but it has not factored in to a future decision yet. Secondaries must compliment the AMCAS. Research must be conducted into each school to which you are applying. As a result, it is our belief that students should apply to no more than 15 medical schools, given the amount of work that awaits them secondaries release.

For more on medical school admissions consulting at Veritas Prep, be sure to explore our services and feel free to give us a call at 1.800.925.7737.