Among all medical school secondaries, the autobiography prompt is likely one of the toughest to write. This prompt asks applicants to describe their previous background and life experiences in one cohesive essay often rivaling the length of a personal statement. Schools which ask for autobiographies in their secondaries include Vanderbilt and UC San Diego. But, you can use your autobiography response, or parts of it, for other essays as well. We’ll list our ideas down below. When faced with this prompt, many applicants feel intimidated by its scope and do not know how to begin. In this blog post, we hope to provide a framework about how to write an autobiography for medical school, using UC San Diego’s secondary prompt as an example.
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Case study of how to write an autobiography for medical school sample: UC San Diego
Here’s the infamous UC San Diego Autobiography Secondary Essay:
Autobiographical Sketch: This should be a true autobiographical statement. Topics to be included are family, childhood, primary and secondary school years, undergraduate years, and, if applicable, what you’ve done since completing your bachelor’s degree. You should also discuss the motivational factors which led you to a career in medicine including any disadvantages or obstacles which might put your accomplishments into context. A repeat of your AMCAS statement will not be acceptable. (6000 char)
Breaking down the prompt
First, notice that the autobiography covers a wide period of time, from your “childhood” to the present. There are no specific guidelines given about how much to write for each period of your life, so use your discretion to focus on formative experiences in writing your response. It should also be noted that your autobiography must support your motivations to pursue a career in medicine. Remember, this is an autobiography for medical school, so tailor your essay as such!
The length of the autobiography (6000 characters) exceeds even that of your personal statement. However, note that it should meaningfully differ from your “AMCAS statement” in content. Therefore, if you have already used an anecdote in your personal statement, consider choosing a different anecdote or writing about the same anecdote from another perspective. In the next section, we talk about general tips on how to write an autobiography for medical school.
Read our 5 tips on how to write an autobiography for medical school down below.
Other Autobiography Secondary Essay Prompts
Vanderbilt Medical School also has a popular autobiography prompt:
Write a brief autobiography. As completely and precisely as possible, give a picture of yourself, your family, and events you consider important to you. In doing so, identify the values that are of greatest importance to you. If you have completed your undergraduate education, please comment on what you have done or have been doing since graduation. (1200 words)
While other medical schools will not ask directly for an autobiography, they ask similar, open-ended questions about your background, interests, strengths, and life experiences. You can use these essays, including the optional secondary essays, to discuss important facets of your life.
Here are some schools with autobiography-like prompts in previous application cycles:
Boston University Medical School Secondary Application (focus on education experiences): Please provide a narrative or timeline to describe any features of your educational history that you think may be of particular interest to us. For example, have you lived in another country or experienced a culture unlike your own, or worked in a field that contributed to your understanding of people unlike yourself? Or, have you experienced advanced training in any area, including the fields of art, music, or sports? This is an opportunity to describe learning experiences that may not be covered in other areas of this application or your AMCAS application. It is not necessary to write anything in this section. (2000 Characters)
Duke University Medical School Secondary Application: Tell us more about who you are. You may provide additional information that expands your self-identity where gender identification, racial and/or ethnic self description, geographic origin, socioeconomic, academic, and/or other characteristics that define who you are as you contemplate a career that will interface with people who are similar AND dissimilar to you. You will have the opportunity below to tell us how you wish to be addressed, recognized and treated. (500 words)
Duke University Medical School Secondary Application: In addition to the broad categorization of race, ethnicity, geographic origin, socioeconomic status as provided through your AMCAS application, you may use the text box below to provide additional clarifying information that may reflect the impact of any of these parameters on your development thus far as well as the impact that these may have had on your path to a career in medicine and your plans for the future. (200 words)
Duke University Medical School Secondary Application: Describe the community in which you were nurtured. What core values did you receive and how will these translate into the contributions you hope to make in medicine? What improvements do you think might make the community better? (500 words)
Harvard Medical School Secondary Application: If there is an important aspect of your personal background or identity, not addressed elsewhere in the application, that you would like to share with the Committee, we invite you to do so here. Many applicants will not need to answer this question. Examples might include significant challenges in access to education, unusual socioeconomic factors, identification with a minority culture, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. Briefly explain how such factors have influenced your motivation for a career in medicine. (4000 characters max)
Icahn at Mount Sinai Secondary Application: If there is an important aspect of your personal background or identity or a commitment to a particular community, not addressed elsewhere in the application, that you would like to share with the Committee, we invite you to do so here. Aspects might include, but are not limited to significant challenges in or circumstances associated with access to education, living with a disability, socioeconomic factors, immigration status, or identification with a culture, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. Briefly explain how such factors have influenced your motivation for a career in medicine. Completing this section is optional. (100 words)
Johns Hopkins Medical School Secondary Application: (Optional) The Admissions Committee values hearing about each candidate for admission, including what qualities the candidate might bring to the School of Medicine if admitted. If you feel there is information not already addressed in the application that will enable the Committee to know more about you and this has influenced your desire to be a physician, feel free to write a brief statement in the space below. You may address any subject you wish, such as being a first generation college student, or being a part of a minority group (whether because of your sexual orientation, religion, economic status, gender identity, ethnicity) or being the child of undocumented immigrants or being undocumented yourself, etc. Please note that this question is optional and that you will not be penalized should you choose not to answer it.
Stanford School of Medicine Secondary Application: 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. (Please limit your answer to 2,000 characters including spaces)
University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine Secondary Application: (Optional) The Admissions Committee values hearing about each candidate for admission, including what qualities the candidate might bring to the School of Medicine if admitted. If you feel there is information not already addressed in the application that will enable the Committee to know more about you and this has influenced your desire to be a physician, feel free to write a brief statement in the space below. You may address any subject you wish, such as being a first generation college student, or being a part of a minority group (whether because of your sexual orientation, religion, economic status, gender identity, ethnicity) or being the child of undocumented immigrants or being undocumented yourself, etc. Please note that this question is optional and that you will not be penalized should you choose not to answer it.
5 tips: how to write an autobiography for medical school
Autobiography for Medical School Application Tip #1: Compile a collection of anecdotes from previous secondaries
Because an autobiography spans such a long period of time, it is important to have a collection of anecdotes that clearly showcase your background, values, and ambitions. Therefore, we recommend writing your autobiography essay after you have already compiled a list of stories to draw upon from previous secondary essays. For example, if you wrote about your family background for a diversity essay, an extracurricular for a challenge essay, and your future career goals for a third, then you already have enough starting material to begin your autobiography! We recommend compiling anecdotes chronologically.
Autobiography for Medical School Application Tip #2: Synthesize your anecdotes into a compelling narrative
A well-written medical school autobiography should not merely consist of a collection of disparate anecdotes in chronological order. Rather, it should be a cohesive narrative that conveys a common theme or pattern, much like the rest of your application. Reflect on your experiences and try to identify a common thread that runs throughout all of them. One Cracking Med Admissions student wrote about discovery, from their childhood memories discovering new collectible action figures, to their undergraduate research about new therapeutics for breast cancer.
Autobiography for Medical School Application Tip #3: Show rather than tell with your stories
Consider the following example anecdote from a Stanford Medical Student:
“Volunteering in the palliative care unit of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, I have interacted with patients distressed by unexpected paralysis to patients suffering from terminal diseases like AIDS. One afternoon while I was volunteering, I was warned that room 21 would be very demanding. After responding to three calls in ten minutes, I asked if she would like some company. Her name was Ruth and she was paralyzed from the waist down from a fall. I held her hand and listened to her as she sobbingly told me her fears of losing independence and burdening her busy surgeon son. I reassured her that she could remain independent even if she couldn’t walk and her son would not consider caring for her a burden. As I was preparing to leave the room so she could rest, she said “Thank you. You treated me like a person, not a patient.” Although I had not cured her paralysis or lessened her pain, I did make Ruth feel loved and cared for that afternoon. The satisfaction I felt knowing I had made her difficult time a little better is something I will never tire of or take for granted.”
Now consider if it were rewritten as such:
“Volunteering in the palliative care unit of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, I have interacted with patients distressed by unexpected paralysis to patients suffering from terminal diseases like AIDS. Although I could not cure the patients I interacted with, I saw how my presence alone made them for cared for whenever I was there. The satisfaction I felt knowing I had made her difficult time a little better is something I will never tire of or take for granted.”
While both examples convey the same fundamental idea about the humanistic aspects of medicine, the first example shows the reader those ideas rather than spelling it out for them explicitly, and is therefore more convincing. Moreover, the first is more specific, talking about a specific patient that the student met to support their insight regarding the role of empathy in medicine. Notice that it is the student’s unique perspective and experiences that makes for a compelling response, rather than the insight itself. While you should still reflect to provide more thoughtful insights, show rather than tell throughout the autobiography to bring your stories to life.
Autobiography for Medical School Application Tip #4: Highlight different things about yourself with each anecdote
Think about your medical school autobiography as a sampling platter at a restaurant. You want your reader to get a holistic idea of who you are as an individual, and that means highlighting different things about yourself with each “sample” or story.
Some ideas about things to highlight are:
- Your early childhood and background
- Your core values
- Your motivations for pursuing medicine
- Your leadership skills or initiative
- Your work with underserved or community service
Autobiography for Medical School Application Tip #5: Connect your autobiography to the medical school
You should try to connect the themes or patterns of your autobiography essay to the medical school itself. For example, if you were applying to UC San Diego, you might talk about their free clinics and service to the underserved in La Jolla. You can connect your previous experiences working with underserved patients, or even your connection to the region. Similarly, if you were applying to Vanderbilt, you could talk about their emphasis on research, and highlight specific faculty members you would want to do research with. Even a one paragraph “why this school” at the end of your essay can help tailor your autobiography for the school you are applying to.
Medical School Autobiography Last Thoughts
While your medical school autobiography secondary response may be your longest, it does not have to be your most difficult to write. In summary: compile anecdotes, synthesize them into a narrative, show rather than tell, highlight different things about yourself and relate the finished product to the school you are applying to!
To help you brainstorm ideas for the medical school autobiography and other secondary essay prompts, download our free medical school secondary essay brainstorm tool.
FREE Medical School Secondary Essay Examples and Brainstorm Tool
Use this workbook to write medical school secondary essays. These essays are as important as your primary application!
While reading about how to write a secondary essay for medical school makes doing so seem easy, it is much harder to put this into practice. As such, we have compiled a list of personal statements and secondary essays. Each one of these essays were written by premeds who successfully got accepted to medical schools across the United States. We think these essays demonstrate successful models.
The best resource for example secondary essays is our Cracking Med School Admissions book! We have over 50 personal statements and secondary essay from successful medical school applicants, including essays from our authors! 🙂
Blog post written by Kevin Li and the Cracking Med School Admissions team