Secondary Essay Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

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Session 242

Ever after you submit your primary application, the work isn’t over. Secondary essays are still a huge part of your medical school application.

On this podcast, I’ve covered a lot of different topics related to the application process, including personal statements, applications in general, and interview prep. But I’ve never actually talked specifically about writing your secondaries until now, so I want to touch on this topic today. Specifically, we’ll discuss the most common mistakes students make when it comes to secondary essays.

[01:22] First Biggest Mistake: Not Writing Them Sooner

One of the biggest mistakes students make is waiting for the request for secondary essays to come before they start working on them. If you’ve submitted your primary application and you’re not writing your secondary essays, then you’re behind.

You need to get your secondary in as soon as possible so that your application is complete before other applicants.Click To Tweet

Some schools will monitor how long it takes you to send a secondary back and they will use this as a gauge on your interest to get into their school. If it takes you three weeks to respond, while their average response time is a week and a half, chances are that you could be put lower down the list.

The implications of rolling admissions for medical school

Remember that the medical school admissions process is a rolling admissions process, which means that as soon as applications open, the clock is ticking. This is different than applying to college, which is a deadline-driven process. As long as your application is in by the deadline, you’re just as good as everybody else that applied. This is not the same with medical schools.

So the earlier you turn in your primary application and the sooner you’re done with your secondary essays, the sooner your MCAT score is in, the sooner your letters of recommendation are in, and the sooner your application is complete, you have a better chance that the schools will look at your application while they still have plenty of interview spots open.

I cover this in more depth in Session 281 of The Premed Years:

Applying to medical school is like a game of musical chairs. Your chances of getting a seat becomes slimmer as the application cycle goes on… As you get later in the cycle, there’s a decreasing number of seats available and an increasing number of applicants in the pool. This is why you need to apply early and understand how putting off the MCAT can affect you.

Pre-write your secondary essays

Pre-write your secondary essays so when schools send requests to you, you are prepared to send them right back.Click To Tweet

If you’re asking how to pre-write your essays when the schools haven’t sent them to you yet, the good news is most schools don’t change their essays from year to year. There are a few exceptions, but most schools don’t.

We have compiled a Medical School Secondary Essay Database, with prompts from all the medical schools. Look up the schools you’re applying to, and if your primary application is submitted, get started on your secondaries.

You will find that writing secondary essays gets easier and easier over time because a lot of them are around the same theme.

[05:22] Second Biggest Mistake: Letting Them Sit Unopened

The second biggest mistake students make with secondaries is letting them sit on your desk or unopened in the mailbox. Let’s say you scheduled a vacation in the middle of application season for some reason, and your secondaries are just sitting there for a couple of weeks while you’re traveling. You can’t do this.

Time is important for secondary essays, and for med school applications as a whole. You need to get it completed ASAP!Click To Tweet

[Related episode: Does It Matter How Fast I Turn Around My Secondary Essays?]

[06:18] A Deep Dive into Secondary Essays

You will find out that a lot of the questions are very similar from school to school. A lot of them are going to ask about diversity or why you’re applying to a DO school, so you need to be prepared to answer these.

Some students will try to write answers for broad types of questions, like write a generic answer for “diversity questions” or “what will I bring to the class” type questions. Don’t try to answer question batches like that. Just answer the secondary prompts from one school, then move on to the next school. Don’t try to work outside of a school framework.

[07:25] Third Biggest Mistake: Not Answering the Question

One common feedback I give to students I work with is that they’re not answering the question. They told a beautiful narrative about this patient they saved, but they didn’t answer the question the school was looking for. You have to answer the questions.

Secondary essays are so much easier to write than your personal statement because they're asking you specific questions.Click To Tweet

Most of the questions are asking you something very specific, so keep that in mind and make sure you’re answering the question. I recommend you get feedback from somebody. Ask them to review whether or not you’re answering the question asked.

[08:49] Fourth Biggest Mistake: Being Too Generic

A common question for secondary essays is, “What about our school makes you want to go here?” A lot of students can get so generic here that I can just copy and paste it from secondary to secondary for every school that asks the same question.

You need to say something specific about the school. You need to do some research and come up with a list of programs at each of the medical schools, or student organizations at each of the medical schools.

Identify what is unique about that school

In your secondary essays, you need to cite specific reasons why you want to go to THAT medical school. Name specific programs, values, or opportunities they have.Click To Tweet

If you want to join a specific program at that school because of the impact you see it having, talk about that. Mention the program by name. Mention very specific types of things or types of research. Mention the mission statement of the school or the program.

Do your research. A lot of medical schools may look alike after a while, but do your research and see if there’s anything specific that you can draw out to help you write your secondaries.

[11:02] Fifth Biggest Mistake: Repeating the Same Story

Students tend to repeat the same stories from their primary application on their secondary. Don’t tell the same story. Even if they’re asking for your most meaningful clinical experience, you can talk about the same experience, but don’t tell the same story.

Do NOT repeat things verbatim from your primary application in your secondary essays!Click To Tweet

Some essays will specifically tell you not to repeat anything that’s in your primary application. If that is the case, then you can’t even talk about the same experience. You have to figure something else out. It can be frustrating when schools do that, especially when they ask about your most meaningful clinical experience and you already put that in your personal statement.

Listing extracurriculars for your secondary application

Some schools will ask for a list of extracurricular activities. In that case, it is okay to just copy and paste from the list you created for your primary application. You don’t need to re-work everything and re-frame things and tell new stories. Just copy and paste it. Some schools just want it in their secondary and not in the primary application.

[Related episode: 5 Common Mistakes Premeds Make With Extracurriculars]

[13:03] Sixth Biggest Mistake: Copying and Pasting Without Editing

Do not get caught copying and pasting without editing. You don’t want to be that student who sends a secondary essay to NYU that says “I would love to be part of Columbia Medical School next year.”

Be sure to edit it and have somebody look over your stuff. Copy and paste all you want, but then put it aside for the day, and go back and check the next day. Make sure all of the names have been changed and everything is up to date before you send it off.

You don't want to be that student who sends a secondary essay to NYU that says 'I would love to be part of Columbia Medical School next year.'Click To Tweet

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