Which Secondary Essays to Prewrite for Medical School Applications

Written and edited by the MCAT Self Prep Tutoring Team

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Not sure which secondary essays to prewrite for medical school applications? I found that prewriting certain secondary applications made the entire process a lot less stressful. After a busy application cycle, I received 9 interview invites! With the next cycle quickly approaching, I believe that following this advice will ensure that your secondary writing is successful. 

First, it’s important to know that each school will have their own set of secondaries that are oftentimes repeated year after year. You can see a school’s secondary question prompts for the previous year’s application cycle by viewing school-specific threads on Student Doctor Network. For example, if I’m applying to University of Pittsburgh Medical School in the 2022-2023 cycle (to begin medical school in fall of 2023), then I would visit their SDN page. Secondary prompts rarely change from year to year, so it is in your best interest to prewrite using these prompts.

While each school will have their own unique questions, there are several secondary questions that you will see again and again, across several schools, just worded slightly differently. If you prewrite answers to these commonly-asked questions, it will be easier to adapt that generic essay to fit the criteria they are looking for. 

Each school chooses if it will have a word or character limit for their essays, and those numbers can vary wildly. Writing a longer version initially so you can revise and condense it later is easier than trying to add more details once you have 20+ secondary applications piling up, so don’t be afraid to write more than you think is necessary early on! That extra text may come in handy, or even turn into its own paragraph or essay, depending on what schools are looking for.  

Based on the most common secondary essay prompts I’ve seen asked by medical schools, here are the 4 secondary essays you should prewrite for medical school applications.

1. The Diversity Question

Example: Our medical school is nationally recognized for its achievements in the realm of equity, inclusion, and diversity. How will you contribute to the diversity of our medical school?

A lot of students feel intimidated by this question, because they think, “I am X race or I come from Y socioeconomic status, so I can’t contribute to this school’s diversity at all!” However, diversity is not limited to race, gender, or socioeconomic status – it includes the unique life experiences that each person has had and how those experiences have shaped who that person is. 

I recommend tackling this question by asking yourself what is unique about you. This could be a life experience, a hobby, or something else that has shaped who you are as a person. With the average age of acceptance into medical school increasing, many non-traditional students are able to incorporate what they did in gap years and how that has helped them grow and appreciate diversity. To finish strong with this essay, mention how your background will make you a great medical student, peer, and physician! Below is an example of a diversity essay that follows this approach.

I would like to share my background as a “pink collar” worker. “Pink collar” means work that is traditionally done by women, involving care and service. I have held jobs as a retail clerk, waitress, babysitter, nursing assistant and home health aide. 

These jobs gave me a close look at the experience of working women. I noticed that there were few opportunities for growth and a lack of mentorship, which may be due to the assumption that women are not serious about their careers. Additionally, many of my coworkers did not want to work these jobs, but felt they needed the flexibility these jobs offered, because of their perceived gender roles in their home life.

Witnessing identity-based limitations has prompted my interest in giving choice to individuals who are restricted in different ways. I have given disabled children more physical freedom by teaching them how to swim, and given uninsured patients the freedom to access medical care at a free clinic.

It is one of my goals to offer possibilities to those that may otherwise feel restricted by their identities. I can uniquely contribute to the incoming class by building on the work the school does with disadvantaged populations and being a source of support to my female peers who may feel limited by their gender. I hope to encourage those around me to do what is best for them, regardless of the restrictions they face.

2. The Gap Year Question

Example: If you have graduated from college, please briefly summarize what you have done in the interim. 

If you are a traditional student (meaning you matriculate to medical school directly after college), then don’t worry about this question. Otherwise, you will be answering this question many times, making it an important essay to prewrite. 

To approach this essay, describe the experiences you’ve gained (or will gain) since graduating college, what you’ve learned, and how you’ve grown as a person during your time off. Below is an example essay using this approach:

Since graduating in December 2020, I have been working full-time as a cardiac monitor technician at a hospital. Because I spend lots of time communicating with nurses and diagnostic departments to ensure patients are tested and treated according to their cardiac rhythms, this job has led me to more deeply appreciate information sharing across healthcare teams. As a medical student and physician, it will be important to me that everyone caring for my patients receives the information necessary to provide quality care.

I am also volunteering part-time at a free primary care clinic to support the delivery of medical care to disadvantaged patients. This experience has exposed me to the obstacles low-income immigrants face in maintaining their health and has shaped my career goal to improve the health of underserved populations. Our clinic recently received a grant that is contingent on taking on new patients. My role includes recruiting and training new volunteers to support this initiative.  

Note that adding a full paragraph of an example that shows these lessons while prewriting is a great idea, since essays with longer word/character limits will allow you to dive in deeper!

3. The Challenge/Adversity Question

Example: Please describe a challenge you faced and how you addressed it.

Many students struggle with the adversity question as much as the diversity question because they think, “I’ve had a relatively easy life, what could I possibly write about?” However, a challenge doesn’t have to be some horrible thing that’s happened to you. It could be a misguided belief or insecurity that you have worked to overcome, a time when you stepped out of your comfort zone, or anything that genuinely challenged you and allowed you to grow as a person. 

An important note: although mental health is a common and valid challenge, I would be very hesitant to discuss this here. It is in medical schools’ best interest to train students whom they have no doubts about their consistency and resiliency, especially with how stressful clerkships and residency will be. If mental health is not written about very cautiously and with the clear message that this is something the applicant has total control over now, then this may be a red flag for schools. It’s probably better to avoid this topic entirely, rather than risk the essay being misinterpreted.

 Additionally, I would avoid writing about academic challenges unless they were remarkable (C’s or worse [including a W for withdrawing from courses] in classes or a GPA significantly below 3 in a quarter/semester). Schools will be able to see your academic history through your transcript, and an essay about a B in organic chemistry is more likely to miss the mark than an essay about a true challenge. This is your chance to showcase your resiliency and help admission committees get to know your unique background! An example that uses this approach is below:

My fingers quivered around my trumpet as I played one wrong note after the other. It was my last performance of the school year and once again, I had failed to perform at the best of my ability due to my stage fright. Although the idea of other people judging me scared me beyond belief, my love for and dedication to playing the trumpet motivated me to address this challenge. 

Although at first I felt alone in my struggle, I recognized that there were multiple resources at my disposal. During the summer before the next school year began, I played in front of increasingly larger groups of my friends, visualized positive responses from the crowd, and even took a public speaking class offered by my university. Walking on stage that fall, I had a newfound confidence, with which I played every note right and made the rest of the band and my conductor proud. 

Not only did confronting my stage fright strengthen my dedication to music, but it also taught me that when faced with future adversities, I will utilize all the resources at my disposal-there are usually more there for me than I know. 

4. The COVID Essay

Example: Please use this space to describe to us how you were impacted academically, personally or professionally by COVID-19. 

This is a great opportunity to tell schools more about you and your personal experiences during the pandemic. Have you been a frontline worker during the pandemic? Did the pandemic give you deeper insight into the patient perspective, if you or a family member were affected? Did you channel extra time at home into a new hobby or medically-related pursuit? 

There may also be some overlap with this and the adversity essay, and if the same school has both essays required, I would recommend using a non-Covid essay for the adversity one. These essays are your chance to stand out and give an interviewer topics of conversation for interview day, so repeating yourself is very detrimental. Below is an example essay:

When the number of COVID-19 cases increased in my county, all of my friends moved back to their parents’ homes, while I stayed in my town in order to keep my job at the hospital. As an extrovert, it was difficult to spend the entire summer without seeing my friends or family. However, working through the pandemic brought me closer to coworkers and patients alike, as we turned to each other for comfort during an uncertain time.

On days that I worked in the intensive care unit, I wore a powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) to minimize my exposure to COVID-19. “Mr. B” was a patient on the unit who tested positive for the virus. Each time I entered his room, he would joke, “Hey, there’s an astronaut in here!” in reference to my PAPR’s hood and the Darth-Vader-esque noises it made. Each time he made me laugh, I recognized I was having as much fun taking care of Mr. B as I would spending time with a friend outside of the hospital.

Working in the registry department meant I got called to all units across the hospital and worked with many different employees. Despite not knowing each of them well, I took moments in the break room or nurse’s station to ask them how they were doing or crack a joke about PAPRs (inspired by Mr. B, of course). Many of them confessed that they weren’t able to see their family and friends, and that they missed them like I did. It was grounding to know that I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was.

After working at the hospital during COVID-19, I view my work as a social haven and find more intimacy in the interactions I have there. In the future, pandemic or not, I intend to act as a source of social support to the teams I work with and patients I care for. 

And there you have it! If you have a prewritten essay to each of those 4 prompts, this will likely cover the majority of all secondary essays that you will end up writing during your application cycle. Remember that each school will have their own specific prompts, and you may need to tweak these essays to fit each school’s questions as well as write other essays specific to each school. 

Do you think that you would benefit from extra guidance during your application cycle? MCAT Self Prep offers expert Admissions Consulting and a Medical School Application Course at an affordable price. We wish you the best of luck in your journey to medical school and hope we can be a part of it!


Grace Eddy

secondary essays medical school

Grace earned a 521 on the MCAT and used this expertise to write and edit our AAMC discrete-style quiz project in our e-course. She has taught physiology, chemistry and physics in college as well, and is passionate about helping students improve their passage reading skills.

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