How to Build Powerful Med School Secondaries

A four-panel cartoon illustrating the journey of a medical school applicant. In the first panel, a weary student stands at the start of a long, winding path carrying a heavy backpack filled with books, a laptop, and papers. In the second panel, the student, looking even more exhausted, reaches a point where the path splits into multiple smaller paths. In the third panel, the student sits on a rock, looking at a map while a mentor figure offers a bottle and smiles encouragingly. In the fourth panel, the student appears confident and focused, writing on a laptop with papers spread out around them.
The journey of a medical school applicant: From initial preparations to mastering secondary essays, with guidance and perseverance leading to success.

Here at Gurufi, we spend much of the late summer and early fall working with hundreds of clients to perfect their medical school secondaries. In my experience, at this point, applicants are quite exhausted by the immense work it takes to get to this point: studying for and taking the MCAT, getting letters of rec, completing your prerequisite courses, supplementing your clinical experience, completing the AMCAS, and ironing out your personal statement and Word & Activities sections. Now, you must complete a dozen or more additional school-specific essays. This naturally leads people to wonder how they can complement their existing materials in ways that maximize the value and impact of their secondaries. This post seeks to help you craft powerful secondary essays.

Secondary essays provide an opportunity to showcase your unique qualities, experiences, and motivations that make you a suitable candidate a specific medical school. Crafting effective secondary essays requires thoughtful reflection and a strategic approach. Here’s how to respond to common secondary essay prompts and tailor your responses for different schools:

1. Understand the Purpose of Secondary Essays

Secondary essays allow admissions committees to learn more about you beyond your primary application. Moreover, because the admission committees of particular schools craft these essays, they reflect questions that the AdCom obviously cares about. They are designed to assess your fit for the specific program, your alignment with the school’s values, and your readiness for the challenges of medical school. Understanding this purpose will help you craft essays that effectively convey your qualifications and aspirations.

2. Research Each School Thoroughly

Before writing your secondary essays, conduct thorough research on each medical school you are applying to. Understand their mission, values, curriculum, and unique features. Familiarize yourself with their specific programs, faculty, research opportunities, and community involvement. Talk to people at the school, including both faculty and staff if you can. This research will enable you to tailor your responses to align with the school’s specific expectations and culture.

3. Address Common Secondary Essay Prompts

While each school may have unique prompts, some common themes often appear in secondary essays. Here are strategies for responding to these common prompts:

a. Why This School?

This prompt asks you to explain why you are interested in attending that particular medical school. Be specific and detailed in your response. Highlight aspects of the program that resonate with your career goals and interests. Mention unique opportunities, such as specific research programs, clinical experiences, or community service initiatives, that make the school a good fit for you. Demonstrating a genuine interest and thorough knowledge of the school will strengthen your response.

One thing to beware of is writing a “school brochure” where you simply list a series of things that you like about the school. This doesn’t show much more than that you have access to Google. If you can explain in depth, using examples from your past, a few things really well, that is much better than mentioning a bunch of things. As with personal statements, saying one or two things really well is better than saying a bunch of things poorly.

b. Describe a Challenge You’ve Overcome

This prompt seeks to understand your resilience and problem-solving abilities. Choose a significant challenge you have faced, either personally or professionally. Describe the context, the actions you took to address the challenge, and the lessons you learned from the experience. Focus on how the experience has prepared you for the rigors of medical school and a career in medicine.

c. Diversity and Inclusion

Many medical schools value diversity and seek to understand how you will contribute to a diverse and inclusive community. Reflect on your background, experiences, and perspectives that contribute to your unique identity. Discuss how your experiences with diversity have shaped your worldview and how you plan to promote inclusivity in medical school and your future career.

d. Significant Research Experience

If you have significant research experience, this prompt allows you to highlight your contributions to scientific knowledge. Describe your research project, your role, and the impact of your findings. Explain how this experience has influenced your interest in medicine and your future career goals. Emphasize any skills you developed, such as critical thinking, data analysis, or teamwork.

There are three additional points that I’d make with this prompt. First, writing about science can be hard. It’s difficult to balance accuracy, clarity, and complexity. As such, this is among the most difficult kinds of admissions writing and you may want to think about getting help with someone experienced and adept with this. (like Gurufi! ) Second, think about how you view the role of science and research as you move forward. Do you (be honest) intend to continue doing research in and beyond medical school? If so, think about including this, even if briefly, in your essay. Lastly, also think about your research experience in the same way that you wrote about an important job in your Work & Activities section: did you grow, improve, receive additional responsibilities, or earn a promotion?

  1. Professional Goals and Aspirations

    This prompt asks you to articulate your career goals and how the medical school will help you achieve them. Be clear and specific about your short-term and long-term goals. Explain how the school’s resources, faculty, and curriculum align with your aspirations. Demonstrating a clear vision for your future and how the school fits into that vision shows that you are focused and motivated.

    4. Tailor Your Responses

    Tailoring your responses for each school is essential to demonstrate your genuine interest and fit. Use the research you conducted to incorporate specific details about the school into your essays. Mention faculty members you are excited to work with, unique programs that align with your interests, and community initiatives that you want to be part of. Personalizing your essays shows that you have a sincere interest in the school and have thoughtfully considered how it aligns with your goals.

    5. Be Authentic and Reflective

    Authenticity is key to crafting compelling secondary essays. Be honest about your experiences, motivations, and aspirations. Reflect on your journey and share meaningful insights that provide a deeper understanding of who you are. Avoid generic statements and clichés. Instead, focus on specific examples and personal stories that illustrate your points.

    6. Show, Don’t Tell

I’m sure you’ve heard this before. I don’t love “show, don’t tell” as a piece of advice because it doesn’t feel actionable. You can get to the same idea by saying “tell a story and let the story demonstrate your traits.” Not as punchy, but more accurate. For example, instead of simply stating that you are passionate about medicine, provide examples that demonstrate your passion. Describe experiences that have solidified your commitment to the field and the actions you have taken to pursue your interest. This approach makes your essays more vivid and memorable.

If you need help with storytelling, check out this video. It was made for MBA applicants, but all of the core ideas apply to medical school applications. This other video also provides a useful way to attack the “show don’t tell” problem.

7. Edit and Revise

Writing effective secondary essays requires multiple drafts and revisions. After writing your initial draft, take a break and then revisit your essay with fresh eyes. Seek feedback from mentors, peers, or professional consultants to gain different perspectives. Revise your essays to improve clarity, coherence, and impact. Pay attention to grammar, spelling, and punctuation to ensure your essays are polished and professional.

BUT, do be judicious with who you send your essay to. Too many chefs spoil the broth.

Crafting effective secondary essays for medical school applications involves understanding the purpose of these essays, conducting thorough research, addressing common prompts thoughtfully, and tailoring your responses to each school. By being authentic, reflective, and detail-oriented, you can create compelling essays that resonate with admissions committees and enhance your chances of acceptance. Good luck with your applications!

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top medical schools. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email at service@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Mistakes to Avoid on Your AMCAS Work & Activities Section

Applicant preparing their Work &Activities section for their AMCAS medical school application
Be thoughtful about your Work & Activities section!

Every year, our editors at Gurufi help scores of candidates earn admission to their dream medical school. In the fifteen years I have been helping applicants, I have noticed that far too many applicants don’t put enough time or thought into their Work & Activities sections.

Crafting the Work & Activities (W&A) section of your AMCAS (American Medical College Application Service) application is a crucial task that requires careful thought and precision. Unfortunately, while many people spend weeks or ever months fine-tuning their personal statement, they treat this vital section almost as an afterthought. The W&A section allows you to showcase your experiences, learning, and growth in a succinct yet comprehensive manner and provides the reader with a clear overview of your overall strengths as a candidate. Here are some essential tips to help you make the most of this opportunity.

Focus on Your Actions, Learning, and Growth

When describing your experiences, it’s important to clearly articulate what you did, what you learned, and how you grew from each activity. Admissions committees are looking for evidence of your dedication, skills, and personal development. Applicants will sometimes get this wrong by spending too much time describing what the organization does or talking too much about things that don’t relate directly to their roles or tasks.

What You Did: Describe your specific responsibilities and actions. For instance, if you volunteered at a clinic, detail the tasks you handled, such as assisting with patient intake or organizing health education workshops.

What You Learned: Reflect on the skills and knowledge you gained. Did you develop better communication skills, learn about healthcare disparities, or gain insight into patient care?

How You Grew: Explain how these experiences influenced your personal and professional growth. Did they strengthen your commitment to medicine, enhance your empathy, or inspire you to pursue a particular medical specialty? If you struggle to nail this down, think about who you were before you started and who you were afterward. How are these different people?

Highlight Promotions and Expanded Responsibilities
If you received promotions or were given additional responsibilities, make sure to mention these. They demonstrate your competence, reliability, and the trust others have placed in you. For example, if you started as a volunteer and later became a team leader, highlight this progression to show your leadership and ability to take on more significant roles.

Avoid Jargon
Medical and scientific jargon can be confusing and may not convey your experiences effectively. Moreover, individual organizations often use idiosyncratic title names or other descriptors that don’t mean anything to people outside the organization. Use clear and straightforward language to ensure your descriptions are easily understood by all readers. Instead of using technical terms, explain your activities in a way that highlights your contributions and impact and think about how you might describe what you did to a loved one who isn’t in the medical world.

Choose Strong Verbs
The verbs you use can significantly influence how your actions are perceived. Strong, active verbs convey confidence and decisiveness. For example, instead of saying you “helped with patient care,” say you “provided patient care” or “coordinated patient services.” This subtle change makes your role sound more impactful and direct.

Be Succinct but Complete
You have only 700 characters for each entry, so brevity is essential. However, being succinct doesn’t mean using incomplete sentences or resorting to “CV speak.” Write in complete sentences to ensure clarity and coherence. Focus on the most critical aspects of each experience and eliminate any unnecessary details.

Plan Your “Most Significant” Experiences Thoughtfully
Deciding which experiences to designate as “most significant” should be done in conjunction with planning your personal statement. Because you get an extra 1325 characters, you can obviously cover a lot more ground, which is a huge benefit. Taking a strategic approach ensures you provide comprehensive coverage of your strengths and avoid redundancy. Your personal statement will delve deeply into your motivations and key experiences, while the Work & Activities section can highlight a broader range of accomplishments.

Review Last Year’s Secondary Essays

Looking at the secondary essay prompts from the schools you’re applying to can provide valuable insights. Most schools reuse essay topics for multiple years before changing, so understanding what they’ve asked in the past can help you align your “most significant” selections with potential secondary essay themes. This foresight can save you time and ensure your application remains focused and relevant.

Emphasize Breadth in Your Work & Activities
While your personal statement focuses on the depth of your decision to pursue medicine, the Work & Activities section should emphasize breadth. This is your chance to demonstrate the variety of your experiences and how they collectively prepare you for a career in medicine. Highlight diverse activities such as clinical work, research, volunteering, leadership roles, and extracurricular pursuits to present a well-rounded picture of your qualifications.

Apply the Same Care as Your Personal Statement
The Work & Activities section is just as important as your personal statement, so it deserves the same level of care and attention. Meticulously proofread your entries, ensuring they are free of errors and clearly communicate your achievements. A well-crafted Work & Activities section can significantly enhance your application and leave a lasting impression on admissions committees.

Example Entry
Here is an example of how to succinctly and effectively describe an experience:

Volunteer at Community Health Clinic (June 2020 – Present): Coordinated patient intake, assisted with health screenings, and organized educational workshops on nutrition and wellness. Developed strong communication skills and a deep understanding of healthcare disparities. Promoted to team leader, overseeing a group of 10 volunteers and managing clinic operations during weekend shifts.

This entry clearly outlines the responsibilities, learning outcomes, and growth experienced, all within the character limit. Note that the above provides a 388-character breakdown of the job. From there, you could add another 312 characters where you could briefly mention something like the most important task you accomplished, how this informs your thoughts on medical school, where this fits within your journey to medicine, or where you hope to go from here.

Conclusion

 

Writing the Work & Activities section of your AMCAS application requires careful planning and thoughtful execution. By focusing on your actions, learning, and growth, using clear language and strong verbs, and strategically selecting your most significant experiences, you can create a compelling and comprehensive account of your qualifications. Remember, this section is a vital component of your application, so give it the attention it deserves to ensure you stand out in the competitive field of medical school admissions.

Our editors at Gurufi have years of experience helping people put together their W&A sections. You can check us out here if you need help revising them, including making them fit within the tight character caps!

Do *NOT* Write Your Medical School Personal Statement About This…

The death of a grandparent is the most overused cliche on personal statements

“As I looked into my grandma’s eyes, a single tear rolled down my cheek. I wished that I could save her life, but I felt so powerless. In that moment, I knew that I had to become a doctor so that I could save the lives of people like Grammy. I was only six years old, but that moment changed my life!”

Does your personal statement begin like this? In my 17 years of helping aspiring physicians earn admission into their dream medical school, I have seen some version of this essay hundreds of times. The dying grandma (or aunt, uncle, or grandpa…), the bedside revelation, the moment of irrevocable inspiration.

I don’t doubt that such moments occur nor that they are deeply meaningful, but I do worry that after reading the 25th such story in a week, the Admissions Committee will find it hard to differentiate your application from the scores of other people whose essays feature a med school origin story that requires the sacrifice poor ol’Granny.

Of course, I’m being a bit facetious (okay, a LOT facetious), but depending on the year, I would guess that between 15% and 30% of medical school essays lean heavily on this trope. The personal statement is just too valuable to waste on a story that the AdCom has read hundreds of times before. Applicants have one opportunity to frame their experiences, accomplishments, and goals, and selecting a cliché subject for your personal statements instantly puts you in the JAG (“just another guy” / “just another gal”) pile. Although the applicant may consider these subjects to be significant, they are overused and do not help the candidate stand out.

Cliches are shallow and don’t give a complete picture of the applicant’s motives and objectives. An applicant’s experiences should be discussed in their personal statement, along with how those experiences affected their decision to pursue a career in medicine. It’s this second part that too often gets overlooked. Obviously, experiences and stories are central to your personal statement and application, BUT you need to build out these stories by linking them to bigger themes, making clear how and why they motivated you (as manifested in actions and decisions), and then projecting that motivation into a vision of the future you aspire to build. The superficial facts of an encounter are frequently highlighted in cliches, leaving out the applicant’s internal dialogue or feelings. The admissions committee could find it difficult to comprehend the applicant’s motivations for applying to medical school without this extra information.

Cliches can sometimes be deceptive and fail to accurately represent an applicant’s experiences. For instance, a candidate who writes about their time spent volunteering at a hospital can say that it confirmed their decision to pursue a career in medicine. The reader can’t know how profound an experience was, though, until the author describes it in detail and reflects on their feelings and ideas when they were having it. Cliches can thereby produce a fictitious narrative that is unrepresentative of the applicant’s experiences and motives. This is why I often urge applicants whose personal statements look flat or cliché to do a journaling or brainstorming exercise where they explore their feelings on the topic, how they worked through an experience or challenge, how it transformed them, and why it informs the kind of doctor they will become.

A useful tip for moving beyond cliché is to provide specifics and engage in deeper storytelling. For instance, many applicants will discuss their time doing volunteer work at a hospital. Does this mean you should avoid that experience altogether in your personal statement? NO! Instead, highlight specific instances and give depth, detail, and personality to that story. Describing your duties in a broad way won’t have nearly the impact that telling a single story of a meaningful interaction with a patient or a hard conversation with a doctor. Tell me about how you assisted a patient with navigating the healthcare system AND HOW THAT INFORMED YOUR VISION OF MEDICINE, or tell me why a particular medical procedure was exciting for you to witness.

You might also talk about how their experiences outside of medicine, such working in another industry or engaging in creative hobbies, have inspired their choice to become a doctor. These subjects offer a more thorough and distinctive perspective of the candidate, highlighting their personality and capacity for critical thought.

Candidates should also think back on their experiences, take into account the lessons they acquired from them, and assess how those experiences have affected their aspirations. Instead of just recounting an incident, candidates should discuss how it affected them academically and emotionally and motivated them to seek a career in medicine. A candidate who had a personal health crisis, for instance, may talk about how that event motivated them to support others or engage in relevant research.

When talking with a colleague a few years back, we joked that May, when applicants begin working on their personal statements, was the “grandma culling season.” Beyond this dark joke, there is a deeper bit of actionable advice for you: cliches lack depth and complexity, can be deceptive, and fail to exhibit an applicant’s originality and critical thinking abilities. Candidates can write a personal statement that highlights their abilities and potential as healthcare professionals by emphasizing their unique experiences and thinking back on the lessons gained and how they have affected their aspirations.

A personal statement gives you 5300 characters to make your case, and it’s often the biggest differentiator between acceptance and denial. Therefore, it’s imperative for candidates to approach this crucial part of the application process with imagination and consideration.

For more help with your personal statement, check us out at Gurufi.com. Our personal statement editors and consultants have decades of experience helping clients get into top medical schools. Our specialty is helping you craft compelling personal statements that move the needle in your admissions process! For questions, shoot us an email atservice@gurufi.com. Check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.