Medical School Secondary Essays: Popular Essay Prompts and Tips To Answer Them

Medical School Secondary Essays: Popular Prompts and Tips To Answer Them

After your AMCAS primary application is transmitted, you will begin to receive medical school secondary essays. While most schools send secondaries to all applicants, certain med schools will screen applicants by academic metrics like GPA and MCAT score and/or content listed on your primary application before extending secondaries. Regardless, submission of your secondary is a prerequisite for interview invitation and subsequently acceptance to medical school, so it’s important for you to stand out in your essays!

In this blog post, we’ll answer all your questions about medical school secondary essays:

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What are medical school secondary application essays?

Secondary applications will typically ask for the following information:

  • Payment (~$100)
  • General questions (family information, demographics, disciplinary record)
  • Course information (classes taken, prerequisites, etc.)
  • Extracurriculars (like work and activities, but abbreviated)
  • Logistics (special programs of interest, ID photo, technical standards)
  • School-specific essay prompts (the bulk of your efforts will be spent here)

 Most medical schools use the same application portal for their secondaries. Some common portals are shown below. Additionally, read popular medical school secondary essay prompts below.

Medical School Secondary Essays - UCSF Application Portal
Medical School Secondary Essays - Hopkins Application Portal
Medical School Secondary Essays - NYU Application Portal

Popular Med School Secondary Essay Prompts

Our Cracking Med School Admissions team has organized the medical school secondary essay prompts into various categories:

Why Our Medical School?

Example “Why our medical school” essay prompts:

  • Given the distinctive educational philosophy and integrated curriculum at FSM, describe how your personal characteristics and learning style would fit the institution, and how Feinberg School of Medicine will help you achieve your professional goals. – 200 words (Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine)
  • Why have you chosen to apply to the Georgetown University School of Medicine and how do you think your education at Georgetown will prepare you to become a physician for the future? – 1 page, formatted at your discretion (Georgetown University School of Medicine)
  • How will you take advantage of the Stanford Medicine Discovery Curriculum and scholarly concentration requirement to achieve your personal career goals? Please limit your answer to 1,000 characters including spaces. (Stanford University School of Medicine)

Tips to answer “Why Our School” medical school application secondary essays:

“Why our school” prompts will ask you to demonstrate your suitability for that specific medical school and/or an aspect of it (i.e. curriculum, mission). The best way to approach this is to research and highlight specific aspects of that school and connect it to your own background and experiences. Do you have a strong teaching background? Then maybe a peer-based learning curriculum would be suitable for you. Or maybe you have done lots of research in a certain field which is strong at that school. Be specific and name programs, physicians, and organizations which you believe would be a good fit for you. Remember: your essay should ultimately focus on who you are and why you would thrive at the school.


“Why our medical school” examples and additional tips:


Example Diversity Prompts:

  • 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 factors have influenced your goals and preparation for a career in medicine. Please limit your answer to 2,000 characters including spaces. (Stanford University School of Medicine)
  • Yale School of Medicine values diversity in all its forms. How will your background and experiences contribute to this important focus of our institution and inform your future role as a physician? – 500 Words (Yale School of Medicine)

Tips to answer “Diversity” medical school secondary application essays:

As a doctor, you will need to empathize and connect with patients from a wide range of backgrounds. Therefore, students with unique backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives are highly sought after in building a diverse class. When approaching diversity essays, think broadly about what experiences and insights you have had that would positively contribute to a medical school class. Have you worked with a unique population of patients? Do you come from an underrepresented group in medicine? Have you faced any hardships or experiences that have given you a unique life perspective? Remember, diversity in not limited to racial and ethnic identity (although this can certainly be a strong focus of your diversity essay). As long as you can convincingly articulate a point of view that is specific to you and supported by relevant experiences then you will be able to craft a strong diversity essay!

“Diversity” essay examples and additional tips:


Example Autobiography Prompts:

  • 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. Please note: if you are applying to the MD/PhD program, please include why you are specifically interested in seeking MD/PhD training at UCSD. (UCSD School of Medicine)
  • 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 (Vanderbilt University School of Medicine)

Tips to answer “Autobiography” medical school secondary application essays:

While the prospect of writing an autobiography for medical school may initially seem daunting, once you begin the process you will see that it can be one of the easier and more enjoyable types of secondaries to write (besides the length). One strategy to tackle to autobiography essay is to brainstorm relevant anecdotes from different stages of your life. For example, consider anecdotes from…

  • Early childhood or your family: these may reflect your background or life experiences
  • Your collegiate years: these should capture your values and beliefs
  • Your clinical extracurriculars: these should reveal your skills and character traits, ultimately convincing the reader you are well suited for a medical career
  • Your nonclinical extracurriculars: these demonstrate that you are compassionate, and care about serving others
  • Any major life events: particularly formative events can reveal a lot about you

Afterwards, identify common themes or threads in the different anecdotes you have brainstormed and patch the pieces together. Ideally, these themes could tie into or predate the themes of your medical school application.

Finally, many autobiographical medical school secondary essays will include a section about future goals. This is a great place relate your past experiences to your future aspirations and provide a compelling argument for why you want to attend that medical school in particular. 

For more tips, read our entire blog post: How To Write An Autobiography For Medical School


Example Challenge Prompts:

  • Please describe a challenge you faced and how you addressed it. (Weill Cornell Medical College)
  • Share with us a difficult or challenging situation you have encountered and how you dealt with it. In your response, identify both the coping skills you called upon to resolve the dilemma, and the support person(s) from whom you sought advice. We suggest that you limit your essay to about 550 words. (Pritzker School of Medicine)
  • Challenge: Please discuss a challenging situation or obstacle you have faced in the past. Why was it challenging? How did you handle it? Knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently? What did you learn? – 500 words (Vanderbilt)
  • Briefly describe a situation where you had to overcome adversity; include lessons learned and how you think it will affect your career as a future physician. (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine)

Tips to answer “challenge” medical school secondary application essays:

Medical school is hard, so admissions committee members want to know that you are resilient and prepared to take on a challenge. Think back to your experiences in undergrad or afterwards. What situations were particularly difficult for you to overcome? When did you have to step outside of your comfort zone? Have you ever had to resolve a serious conflict or ethical dilemma? Make sure you can reflect on what you learned and how insights from the experience may benefit you in the future. Talk about why overcoming that challenge, or even failing to, has made you better having gone through the experience. Remember- medical schools do not expect you to be perfect! But they want to see that you are reflective and can grow from adversity.

One question we frequently hear from students is whether or not to write about mental health issues such as dealing with depression or anxiety in their challenge essay. Or, others write about a challenge in time management and prioritizing their tasks. It’s okay to write about these topics as long as it sounds like you will still thrive in medical school.

Meaningful Activity

Example “Activity” Prompts:

  • If you wish to update or expand upon your activities, you may provide additional information below. – Word Count 500 (UCSF School of Medicine)
  • Explain an activity that you have been involved in with for at least 6-12 months. What was it about that activity that kept you motivated to continue? What did you learn from that activity? – 1000 Characters (Wayne State University School of Medicine)
  • Briefly describe your single, most rewarding experience. Feel free to refer to an experience previously described in your AMCAS application. (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine)

Tips to answer “activity” medical school secondary application essays:

Take advantage of the open-ended nature of this prompt to expand on one or more of your activities to pique an admissions committee member’s interest in meeting you. It’s important that you don’t copy and paste your “most meaningful essays” in your AMCAS application. The activity you choose for this prompt might be the same as your “most meaningful” AMCAS activity, but you should convey a different.

Medical schools can learn the following from your response to this extracurricular activity secondary essay:

  • In what do you invest your time?
  • What’s important to you?
  • Do you show leadership and potential?
  • What impact did you have in your activity?
  • Are you able to execute on a goal you have?
  • What are the results that you produce?
Gap Year

Example “Gap Year” Prompts:

  • If you have taken a gap year(s), please explain what you have been, or will be, doing since graduating from your undergrad institution. – 2000 characters (Baylor College of Medicine
  • If you have already graduate, briefly (4000 characters max) summarize your activities since graduation (Harvard Medical School)
  • Please use the space below to tell us what you have done since completing your undergraduate degree. – 350 words (University of California, San Francisco)

Tips to answer “gap year” medical school secondary application essays:

Gap year essays are open-ended questions which ask you to describe something you have been involved with either during your gap year. While these seem straightforward, it is important to not make the mistake of approaching these essays as you would a resume description. The bulk of your content should still focus on what you learned and how those insights have prepared you for a career in medicine. For example, if you scribed, you can talk about how working closely with your attending allowed you to gain insights into clinical decision making through a more involved role. Or if you worked in a research lab, you can connect your research interests with your future academic interests as a physician. Similar to the activities essay, take advantage of the open-nature of this prompt.

Optional Medical School Secondary Essays

Example “Optional” Prompts:

  • Describe a time or situation where you have been unsuccessful or failed. (optional) – 3000 characters (Washington University School of Medicine)
  • Do you wish to be considered for the Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community? (UC Irvine School of Medicine)
  • 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 character maximum (Harvard Medical School)
  • Is there anything additional that you would like to address that is not already reflected in your application? – 250 words or less (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine)

Tips to answer “Optional” medical school secondary application essays:

We recommend applicants maximize their chances for an interview by completing all secondary essays including optional ones (unless the prompt does not apply to you). Some optional prompts will be very specific, but most are very open ended. Think of these as an opportunity to showcase something you have not already talked about in your application. You do not necessarily have to write about a different activity; instead, you can approach an activity you have already written about from a different perspective. For example, if you talked about how your research experience shaped your future goals as an academic physician, you can instead highlight how research allowed you to hone your work ethic and think about research questions methodically. Ultimately, think of optional prompts as an opportunity to show medical schools another aspect of you

Cracking Med High Yield Tip: ALWAYS answer optional medical school secondary essays!

7 Medical School Essay Tips

Secondary Essay Tip #1: Organize your secondaries

It is extremely important to create an excel spreadsheet or a google sheet to stay organized! Medical school secondary essays are sent in quick succession after your primary application is received. You will literally get a floor of emails from medical schools you applied to with several essays to complete. Don’t panic! Amidst a growing number of essays to complete, it can be extremely helpful to have a system to organize secondary essays by school and date. We recommend making a spreadsheet or similar system to keep track of secondaries.

This same system can be used to keep track of interview invitations and application decisions. Ultimately, what you choose to include in this system is up to you!

A sample secondary organizer is below:

Medical School Secondary Essays Excel Organizer
Secondary Essay Tip #2: Include your application themes

While your secondary application should not repeat elements included in your primary, it should be thematically consistent with common threads you highlighted in your work & activities and personal statement. Think of your application as a cohesive narrative—your secondary application should enrich and substantiate that narrative rather than deviating from it.

In doing so, ask yourself what you have not already covered in your primary? Are there any areas where you could expand on what you have written? Or look at an experience from a different perspective? Are there any areas where you feel additional explanation is required? For example, if your personal statement focused more on your volunteering experiences, you may choose to talk more about your research experiences in your secondaries. Your goal should be to cover new ground in a consistent manner with what you have already written.

Secondary Essay Tip #3: Be creative

With such a wide range of medical school secondary essay topics, most applicants will inevitably feel like they have run out of topics to write about. Many medical schools have several secondary essays. The first important things is to make sure you include Tip #2: the main threads and application themes conveyed in your primary application.

Then, our advice is to think creatively about each prompt and outside of the box. For example, one of our students wrote about instructor evaluations they received as a teaching assistant in response to a prompt asking about a significant honor or award. Other premeds we advise have written short stories or poems as part of their secondary essay responses. Your essay will make a positive impression if you can still answer the prompt while being more creative with your topic choice. 

Secondary Essay Tip #4: Re-purpose the same essays for multiple schools

Medical schools will commonly ask the same types of secondary essay prompts. As a result, something that most pre-meds do not realize until they apply is that you can re-purpose many your already written essays for other schools. Look out for wording that suggests you are dealing with the same “type” of secondary. For example, “diversity” essays commonly include phrasing such as “contribute to the coming class”, “unique background or life experiences”, and/or “differences”. Recognize that these all fundamentally fall within the same category of secondaries.


When re-purposing essays, we recommend going through all of your secondaries and grouping essays by type. From there, you can start with one prompt for each category that has the highest word/character limit for your first version of the essay. Then, you can shorten that first draft in order to fit the length limitations of subsequent schools.

For a full list of different types of medical school secondary essays, check out our other blog post: Complete List: Medical School Secondary Essay Prompts 2020 – 2021

Secondary Essay Tip #5: Tailor your response to each school

Even if you re-purpose your secondary essays or use a template for a common essay, make sure you do not write generic responses for different schools! Even essays like your diversity/activity essays, which may be largely similar because your background/extracurriculars have not changed, can be specified for each school by relating elements of your response to opportunities/characteristics of that school. For example, if a school has a primary-care focus, you can tie in your background coming from a medically underserved region with your future career goal to serve your community.

Secondary Essay Tip #6: Carefully read over and edit your medical school secondary essays

While you will not have the same amount of time to work on your secondaries as your primary application, you still need to deliver a product of similar quality in writing, content, and insightfulness. As such, it is recommended that you get a few trusted readers to review your secondaries before submitting them. If you have other friends applying, it can be useful to form secondary reviewing groups so that you can share essays with one another and receive timely feedback. When having your secondaries reviewed, focus on grammar, clarity of writing, and content.

Secondary Essay Tip #7: Pre-write your medical school secondary application essays

At this point in the application cycle, with AMCAS yet to open and no secondaries sent out, the number one tip we have is for you to pre-write your secondary essays! This will give you a strong list of essays to work with once secondaries begin to come in, which can make a huge difference for the quality of your essays and their turnaround time. Secondary prompts rarely change from year to year and can be found online. Check out our blog post of secondary prompts from 2020-2021!

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Medical School Secondary Application Resources

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FAQs - Med School Secondary Applications

When you submit your AMCAS application, the application fee is $170 for one medical school and then $41 for each additional medical school. Additionally, each medical school also has a secondary application fee. On average, each medical school application is $100.

When your AMCAS application officially transmitted to medical schools, then medical schools start sending their applicants an invitation for a medical school secondary application. It’s important to note that some medical schools send all applicants a secondary application, whereas other medical schools are selective with who they send secondary applications to.

Our Cracking Med School Admissions team tell our student advisees that medical school secondary essays are extremely important. We highly recommend submitting only “A” quality secondary applications. This is the standard we hold ourselves to and the standard we hold our students to. If you would like help with your medical school secondary essays, look at our secondary essay editing services here.

Medical schools look for different things:

  • Your commitment to medicine
  • Experiences that make you unique
  • Specific interests or passions in healthcare
  • Leadership
  • Intellectual interests
  • Unique talents

Medical school secondary applications vary greatly. On one extreme, there are still a handful of schools that have 0 additional required essays. On the other extreme, there are medical schools that have 10-12 secondary essays, including optional essays.

No. Some medical schools will read your primary application first and decide whether to send you its medical school secondary application. Other medical schools screen out students based on its GPA or MCAT cut-off.

We recommend using the full character or word limit on most of your secondaries. Why not take full advantage to increase your chances of success? If you have essays pre-written, you can even reduce this time to a couple of days! Remember, medical school admissions is a rolling process, so the earlier your application is marked complete the higher your chances of interview invitation and acceptance. But remember, you have to have “A” quality secondary essays so that you stand out!

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