Hello my lovely readers. Welcome to another entry in the "Becoming Dr. Laurence" series where I'm sharing the process of applying to medical school. Having applied to medical school this past cycle, I can share that applying requires preparation, strategy, organization, careful writing and planning and above all understanding the application process.
This is why I'm writing this series! In this blog I'll be sharing the tea on medical school secondaries.
Previous Blogs in the Medical Application Series
Guide to the AMCAS Activity Descriptions
Applying to Medical School
All About Gap Years
Guide to the Personal Statement
10 Things I Learned About Medical School Interviews
What are secondaries?
In a previous blog post, I shared about some of the steps to prepare to apply to medical school including taking the MCAT, preparing the committee packet, getting letters of recommendation, and the personal statement. All of these are needed for the primary application.
As the name hints to, the primary application is the first application you submit. You can read more about the primary application on this blog.
So after you send in your primary application, each school that you applied to will send you an email with information on how to access their secondary application.
This application is a supplemental application that allows each medical school to ask you to fill out to provide the school with information and answer the school-specific questions. This allows the school to gain more information about you and gauge your fit for their medical school.
In this blog post, I will share everything I wish I knew about secondaries, how I was able to prepare and submit them in a timely fashion, and how to stay organized while completing them. So let's get into it!
Secondaries are STRESSFUL
I have to start this blog by pre-facing, not including the MCAT, secondaries were the hardest part of the application process for me. It was harder than perfecting my personal statement. Harder than writing the activity descriptions.
By this point in the application cycle, after doing everything needed to apply, taking the MCAT, and submitting your application secondaries felt like such a mountain to get over in order to finally be done with my medical school applications. But what makes secondaries so stressful is the volume of essays and applications that you know have to submit.
As mentioned, every single school you apply to asks you to submit a secondary. And each school may ask multiple essay questions. Duke in particular stands out in my memory because I had to write 7 essays for their application. And then here is the kicker - schools want your application back within 2 weeks.
Your application is not complete until your secondary application is turned in. Since many medical schools have rolling admissions and all medical schools have a finite number of interview slots, it is to your advantage to turn in your secondaries in a timely manner.
So when I received my secondaries I was stressssssed out. I remember the immense stress I felt. Since I had just started my job at the NIH I would be up at 7am, get to work by 9 and work until 5 and then drive directly from work to a panera bread and do secondaries there until 9pm, drive home to shower and change and keep working on my secondaries until I fell asleep. The weekends I would wake up and head to Starbucks to work on secondaries again. And so this continued until I was able to finish all 26 secondaries within 2.5 weeks of receiving them.
It was hard. As is most of this process to get to medical school. But being on the other side now I can say that is it so worth it. So if you are reading this as a stressed applicant, I see you and I feel you. I'm here to say I was there just a few months ago and I hope the insight I can give in this blog can help make your secondaries just a little bit less stressful than they were for me.
Prepare and Stay Organized
So with everything I explained above, how do you tackle secondaries to successfully submit your applications? Here are some tips I would suggest.
1. Prewriting Secondaries
You should try to pre-write your secondary essays. This way you can get a headstart on your essays and not have to write that many essays from scratch. You don't have to wait for the school to send you the prompt to start writing.
You can pre-write by searching for the schools on your list on Student Doctor Network or blogs that post school's secondary questions. I would suggest writing out the question prompts for each school and determine which question types were the most common and start writing those essays first.
I did this and created a document called Common Prompts within a folder for my secondaries and started writing answers for my common essays. I looked for which secondary had the largest character count and wrote those ones first this way I can simply cut down my essay instead of trying to expand on the essay.
Here are the common prompts I pre-wrote:
Gap Year - explaining what I was doing in my gap year
COVID-19 - use this section to explain any impact that COVID-19 may have had on your educational/research/volunteering or employment plans
Why This School - for this one I couldn't rewrite because the essay would change for each school, however I did brainstorm some of the key things that I was looking for in all the schools I applied to
Diversity - explain what diversity you will bring to the school
2. Stay Organized
My next tip is be very organized throughout the process. I did this by using an excel sheet as seen below. On the excel sheet, I had every medical school I applied to, the link to the secondary application for easy access. The date I received it and the date I needed to submit by (2 weeks after). I also color coded it by where in the process I was with the secondary. To the right I had my essay types for each school. This helped me to keep track of which/how many essays I had to write.
Feel free to use a copy of this secondary organizer, linked below!
Now I want to share a few examples of the secondaries I wrote. As always, please remember these examples are just to help give some ideas as to how I chose to answer my secondaries and should not be used as a template or to be copied in any way shape or form. As stated before and as you will see with these examples, the secondaries are like mini personal statements and are all about YOU.
Being on the other end now and looking back, I really enjoy reading over my secondary essays now. They were a great opportunity to reflect and I think I would have enjoyed it much more without all the volume and the stress while I was going through it.
All of the examples before are from schools that I was accepted to.
Example 1: The Diversity Question
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 limit)
As a first-generation college student, a Caribbean immigrant, and a Black woman, I believe my life experiences have given me a diverse perspective to contribute to Yale School of Medicine. Growing up on Saint Martin taught me the importance of a tight-knit community where family values were of the utmost importance. From baking Johnny Cakes with my great-grandmother, to climbing up the Guinep tree with my cousins, to running between the parked cars of our family-owned car rental at the end of each day, I was raised to appreciate the simple moments in life. I lived in a small apartment on the French side of Saint Martin with my mother, father, and three younger brothers. This changed when at the age of fourteen, we immigrated to the United States.
Immigrating was one of the most challenging experiences in my life, but it has also been one of the most enlightening as I learned to connect with people of various backgrounds different from my own. I found myself often being the only person in the room raised outside of the United States, a position that allowed me to bring a fresh perspective to the conversations at hand. Through my experience as an immigrant, I recognize the importance of cultural relativism and competence in others.
Diversity in healthcare is crucial because we serve a diverse patient population of various races, ages, socio-economic backgrounds, costumes, and cultures. Having the diversity of the patients reflected in health care providers helps us to identify, relate to, and ultimately better serve each patient. As only about 5% of physicians identify as Black/African-American, an even smaller percentage represent Caribbean-American physicians. As a physician, I would be able to add to statistics and relate to the unique cultural practices of the Caribbean with my patients. My own experiences of feeling under-represented or misunderstood due to my identity make me passionate about providing excellent care to all patients. I understand from personal experience that each patient’s relationship with medicine stems from the culture they are raised in. These experiences will help me to approach each patient with the aim to gain their trust and help build their understanding of their own care so that they can feel confident in our physician-patient relationship as we work together to improve their health.
How I tackled this diversity question:
First, it was important for me to note that not all diversity questions are the same. While they might have the same premise, schools will ask you to explain diversity in different ways. Some want you to discuss directly why diversity is important in medicine. To prepare for this essay I asked myself the following:
Think about your life experiences that have gave me a diverse perspective. What perspective will I bring to the class?
What qualities or talents do I bring to a medical school class?
Why is diversity important to me? Why is it important to healthcare?
As you see in my answer, my upbringing in St. Maarten is really important to me and I wanted to paint a picture of what it was like and explain why this gives me the perspective that I have today.
Example 2: Leadership
Duke School of Medicine: Leadership, teamwork, and communication flow synergistically. What do you value most as a leader and as a contributor? What attributes do you possess as a leader and as a team member and how do you apply them on a daily basis? 400 words.
I believe the best kind of leader is the person who inspires, uplifts, and advocates for others. I value a leader who helps each of their team members reach their potential, and I have strived to accomplish this in all of my leadership roles and in my daily roles. My leadership roles have strengthened my ability to be innovative and push boundaries; to advocate and be a voice for others; to inspire others, create new leadership roles, and help more students get involved.
My Gemstone research team gave me the experience of working on an interdisciplinary team with ten other students for three and a half years. As a team member, I am always willing to step in where I can to help our project move forward. I have also seen the importance of making sure every person's voice is heard, as I am cognizant that some team members may be more passive than others. I try not to make any significant decisions without consulting the group, and I would rather check in with my peers multiple times than over-step and not consider their opinions. I suggested the idea of a rotating "team leader" position which would give each person on the team an opportunity to lead one of our research meetings. I believe starting initiates, such as this, really exemplifies my leadership philosophy.
I consider myself an optimist and problem solver. These attributes have been helpful in my leadership roles. From experience, I have seen that, nine times out of ten, things do not go as planned. I have found it necessary to be quick-thinking while staying positive to encourage my team to work through whatever challenges we face. This was especially important as I led the Charles R. Drew Pre-Health Society in our first virtual year. During my presidency, I strongly upheld the belief that the organization's success was not up to me. It was dependent on the dedication and contributions of each executive board member and general member. My role as president was to support them, encourage their ideas, and recognize their strengths to allow them to flourish.
Finally, being a leader is a selfless act, as I believe to lead is to serve others. Motivated by the impact I may have on my communities, I sought out my leadership roles from a strong desire to help others. I express this passion every day.
Example 3: A Challenging Time
University of Chicago, Pritzker School of Medicine: 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.
On September 6th, 2017, a few weeks into my freshman year of college, Hurricane Irma made landfall on Saint Martin as a category five hurricane. It was the strongest hurricane ever to hit Saint Martin and left immense destruction. Over 90% of buildings were destroyed or damaged, and it was as if the island I had cherished my whole life was wiped out overnight.
By far, the most traumatic part of the experience was the silence after the storm. About 48 hours had passed, and my family was accounted for except for my father and grandmother. I posted their information on Facebook pages trying to find out when last they were seen - all the while imagining the worst scenarios in my head. Tears streamed down my face when I finally learned they were alive. Our house on the northern part of the island, where they sheltered out the storm, had been hit the hardest by the hurricane, lost its roof in the midst of the storm, and my dad had to carry my grandmother out in the eye of the storm to safety. Every time I think about it, I know how easily I could have lost them both.
As people regained access to the internet, I was able to see what was left of my island. Cars and roofs had flown neighborhoods away, roads were flooded, whole buildings that once stood strong for decades were now gone. Seeing the aftermath of the hurricane, I felt immense gratitude that all of my family and friends had made it out alive.
As I went through this difficult time, I reached out to the staff of my Gemstone living and learning research program to seek support. I was so fortunate to have this community to lean on, the staff not only supported me emotionally but also asked how the program could help me during this time. All I wanted to do was help my island and so with the support of my program, I led an international clothing and item drive on campus where I collected and shipped over 500 items to Saint Martin. I was most appreciative of all my peers who donated and supported me. Being in this vulnerable position taught me that you truly never know what other people are going through, and so we must be kind and empathetic to others and show them support when it is needed.
Hurricane Irma was the most immense challenge I have faced, and its aftermath exemplified the tremendous sacrifice of living away from home. It strengthened my internal motivation to succeed in college, not just for me but for my family and my island. I stayed determined to do well in my classes, balancing the adjustment to college along with organizing the drive and spending weekends at home to help my mom care for my three younger brothers and six little cousins. Through this experience, I learned that I was more resilient than I had even thought I was before. When faced with adversity, I think back on the strength that my island showed and how my people came together to rebuild, and I know that I can handle whatever challenge is thrown my way
Example 4: Why This School
Northwestern: 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.
I want to train at Feinberg School of Medicine, a research-rich institution committed to inclusion and diversity, to prepare me to be a clinically excellent physician leader. The curriculum fits my learning style and goals in many ways. My passion for research and inquiry makes me an ideal fit for the Area of Scholarly Concentration Program. In the Gemstone Honors Program, I pursued a research project with eleven of my peers for four years. This longitudinal research experience makes me appreciative of the time and dedication needed to address the pressing questions of our time. Passionate about collaborative learning, I was often the student to organize study groups with my peers and share study resources. I believe that we learn best when we put diverse perspectives together; for this reason, I will flourish in the collaborative environment at FSM. When learning, I take to a whiteboard and love to map out concepts and connect ideas. For this reason, I am very drawn to the synthesis and application modules in the FSM curriculum, which will allow me to integrate concepts into a case-based module.
I approached the why this school question by trying to do research into the school and pulling out some key and specific things about that school that made it a good fit for me and tying that reason back to experience that I have had already. This one was a shorter word count so I thought it would be a good example of how to write a concise answer.
Example 5: The Research Question
Research is essential to patient care, and all students at Yale School of Medicine complete a research thesis. Tell us how your research interests, skills and experiences would contribute to scholarship at Yale School of Medicine. (500 words limit)
My research experiences have shown me how intertwined research and medicine are and furthered my desire to use research in my future medical career. During my undergraduate career, I participated in the Gemstone Honors Program, a rigorous four-year research program. Our research focused on finding a novel therapeutic to treat allergies by inhibiting the mast cell degranulation pathway. Currently, the most common therapeutics can be characterized in three ways: avoidance of the allergen, medication to treat symptoms, and immunotherapy. These options involve significant lifestyle changes and treatment upkeep for the patients. This is where our research comes in. We wanted to investigate if it was possible to stop the mast cell from releasing cytotoxic molecules and other inflammatory mediator molecules. Initially, our methods were to test available inhibitors in a mast cell culture line. We began culturing this cell line; however, all of our progress ceased with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. To complete our thesis, our team decided to switch our methodology to a computational modeling approach. We used PyRx to model our protein-inhibitor interactions and reported inhibitors with the lowest binding energies. Our research demonstrated a proof of concept of the modeling procedure to identify effective inhibitors against biological signaling molecules, which can be refined and utilized in future drug screening procedures.
I also interned at the Center of Vaccine Development at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine. My research project was to investigate vaccine targets for placental malaria. 125 million women are at risk each year for placental malaria, an infection within the placenta caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite. We hypothesized that an antigen recognized significantly more by sera from parous women than sera from nulliparous women may be a promising target for a placental malaria vaccine. Using a custom protein microarray, we identified serologic responses from Malian subjects to determine which antigens had higher serologic responses in parous women. Our results identified a protein fragment with the greatest promise as a placental malaria vaccine target.
My prior research experiences have helped me develop many personal skills such as resiliency, critical thinking, and adaptability. Research is filled with ups and downs, thus these experiences have helped me strengthen problem-solving tactics in order to push through even when obstacles are in my way. In my research experiences, I learned to always dive deeper than the results that are in front of me, to ask further questions, and examine all possible explanations for the data. This critical thinking is important not only in research but in medicine. As a physician once told me during a shadowing session, “Medicine is like a puzzle, you put all the pieces together by what is presented, not by what you want it to be”. To make effective clinical decisions and come to appropriate medical conclusions, I need to question my data, evaluate different outcomes and look at the situation from various points of view.
Currently a post-baccalaureate researcher at the National Institute of Health, I am witnessing every day how we use research to improve health and advance medicine. I am particularly interested in using research to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in health and improve the health of the underserved and underinsured populations across the county.
Example 6: Dual Degree
If you are applying to dual degree programs be ready to write essays about why you want that additional degree.
Emory School of Medicine. Please describe your interest in public health and how you wish to combine this interest with a career in medicine (500 words or less).
“Black women in the U.S. are 50% more likely to have a premature baby than white women.” I was in my first semester of college when I came across the statistic. At first, I couldn’t understand why one’s race would have such an impact on maternal and child outcomes. I later discovered that race was not the cause, but racism and social determinants of health were the true reasons behind the staggering disparities. This moment sparked my desire to research health disparities and dedicate my life to improving health outcomes for minority and underserved communities through public health and medicine.
My interest in approaching health as a population-based issue stems from my upbringing in Sint Maarten. On the island with such a small and tightly knit community, I saw how influential the community leaders were in promoting health and advocating for the wellbeing of our communities. Wanting to address the health disparities in my local community, I became a weekly clinical volunteer at a pregnancy aid center that provides vital services to underserved and uninsured women in the College Park community, many of whom are Latina, Black, or immigrants. Volunteering weekly at the clinic, I saw how disparities in access to care and insurance affected the health of the individual patients I interacted with. Often uninsured and of low socioeconomic status, I saw the barriers to health that these women faced. I grew a desire to do more to break down these barriers and combat inequities in the community.
A degree in public health will help me to be a leader in implementing and sustaining changes to improve health outcomes. Throughout my undergraduate career, I have seen how crucial leadership and advocacy are to bettering our communities. As a student-leader, I strategized with administrators at the university, college, and program-wide levels to implement new strategies to improve diversity and inclusion at the University of Maryland, College Park. My involvement with the Student National Medical Association (SNMA) through my pre-medical chapter and now as a National Leadership Fellow strengthened my passion to use my voice to advocate on behalf of my community. As a physician, I aim to be a leader who will help implement new policies, programs, and initiatives to combat health disparities.
The cumulation of my experiences and my upbringing has inspired me to be a physician who will care for my patient’s needs while addressing the systemic and social issues impacting their health. When I picture myself in the future, I see myself as a compassionate physician, a clinical researcher investigating health disparities, a leader in my institution and in national organizations, a mentor to underrepresented students in the pipeline to medicine, and an advocate for low-income and minority communities. Combining my medical school education with a degree in public health will prepare me to become this doctor.
My Overall Advice
I really do hope this blog has been helpful! As with everything the application, my advice remained the same: stay true to yourself and tell your story. Secondary prompts are a great opportunity to share even more about yourself to the admissions committee, so reflect and tell your story! Yes, it is important to get these secondary applications in fairly quickly, however this doesn't mean you should lower the quality of your essays. Give yourself hours block of time to write, review, and submit your secondaries. Many secondaries require you to resubmit information about your pre-requistive courses as well which takes additional time to complete.
And if you're feeling stressed while doing secondaries, know that you are not alone and that it is temporary. Knock each secondary out one by one and get ready for the interviews!