By Ben Nguyen, USC Keck School of Medicine
If you’ve submitted your AMCAS primary application, then congratulations! You’ve just reached the first milestone of the long and arduous process that is the medical school application cycle. You should take a breather - but don’t get too comfortable yet, because secondary season is just around the corner, and many schools use secondaries to screen for interview invites. Here are some important things you need to know:
1. Secondary application questions will be sent out around mid July
They will start as a trickle - perhaps an email every 1-2 days...but they’ll quickly become a tsunami threatening to drown you in a sea of vague prompts and character counts. At the height of secondary season, you may receive 3-4 secondary invitations a day. This may not sound like much, but remember that each secondary contains anywhere from 2 to 5 separate essay prompts, some of which require an answer that is anywhere from 300-800 words long. I worked a full time job when secondaries were rolling around, and I can tell you that they very quickly become overwhelming when you have other responsibilities.
2. Speed matters
Many schools adopt a rolling admissions process - whoever completes their full application first will have their application reviewed for a possible interview invitation. This means that if you drag your feet on the secondary application, your application will sit in a pile of “incomplete” candidates rather than being considered for an interview. If your GPA and MCAT are on the fence, then this will be particularly damaging for you - as more and more interview spots are taken up, admissions committees will often be more selective about who gets the last remaining seats. This means they will be less forgiving about an applicant’s academic or extracurricular shortcomings. Even if your numbers are good, you still don’t want to sit on your hands while other applicants are getting their profiles reviewed for interviews!
3. You should pre-write your secondaries
Remember what I said about that tsunami? It will bury you if you attempt to write the secondaries as they come. The best way to deal with it is to prepare beforehand. Most schools will keep their secondary application questions the same from year to year, with minimal variation. This means that you can find the old prompts from the previous year, and write your answers to them before secondary season.
4. You don’t actually have to write 50 different secondary essays
While each medical school will be sending out a secondary with 2-5 prompts, many of them will be similar to one another. So while you might have 50 secondary prompts to fill out, in reality you only need a solid core group of 10 or so answers that can be adapted, shortened, or extended as appropriate. If you do this part right, you’ll be doing a lot of cutting and pasting to put together secondary essays from your core group of answers when the time comes - and you’ll have a fantastic turnaround time.
5. Here is a list of the most common secondary prompts:
If you can write a 250 word answer to each of these prompts, then you’re in solid shape for secondary season:
- What is your most significant non-academic achievement?
- What is your most significant community service achievement?
- Describe a challenge or obstacle you've overcome and how it has defined you.
- What have you been doing in your gap year(s)?
- Why are you unique and what will you bring to this school?
- What do you like about our school?
- Where do you see your future career in medicine?
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