Examples Of Medical School Secondary Application Essays

By the time admissions people start reading the secondaries they already know a little bit about you. They have seen your transcript, GPA, and MCAT score. They have also reviewed your AMCAS essay so they should know what you think is most important for them to know. But of course pieces are still missing from this picture of you.

The Role of Secondary Essays

The secondaries must fill in the missing pieces of your profile. They must be combined with the rest of your application to present a clear and holistic picture of you. The secondary essays should not only flesh out the school's image of you, but should seamlessly complement the other parts of the application without overlap, like the various pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

How do you write secondary essays that will accomplish all that? You provide supplemental information that ties into the themes and activities discussed in the other material. If you emphasized your impressive research experience in your AMCAS essay, either discuss research experiences you didn't have space to bring out there, or go into more depth about the experiences you already dealt with. Perhaps you can give different examples from your independent research project or honors thesis. Maybe you can examine the laboratory experience you had as opposed to the clinical research experience you already wrote about. Use secondaries to fill in the gaps.

Structuring Your Secondaries

If the secondary application questions give you enough room, you can use the same structure you used for your personal statement – lead, thesis, body, conclusion. This framework, used by journalists everywhere to sell their articles and persuade their readers, provides an engaging, compelling structure for your essays. If, however, you only have a third of a page or less to respond to a question, you probably won't have enough room, and you should get right to the point.

Following the suggestions in Ten Do's and Don'ts for Your Personal Statement will help you write effective secondaries. A few important tips to remember:

  • Unite your essay with a theme and only include information that supports it.
  • Use specifics to strengthen and distinguish your writing and be sure to both describe and analyze the important events, people, and experiences in your life.
  • Let the reader know what is important to you and why. Anecdotes and specifics without reflection will read like a disconnected list. Reflection without specifics will result in a collection of generic statements and platitudes.
  • Make sure your essays are written well and are professional in appearance.

Unlike the AMCAS application, secondary applications will have specific questions. Be certain your essays answer the questions they are addressing. Don't use canned answers. While you can cut and paste, it's always better to take the time to answer each question – not just the questions asked on the first application you worked on.

Approaches to Common Secondary Questions

Here are some questions you can expect to see on secondary applications:

Why do you want to attend this school?
When answering this question, show that you have researched the school and its programs. Discuss the program's distinctive attraction for you. If you are interested in a particular specialty and this school is especially strong in that area, discuss your interest in that field and the special opportunities the school provides. Perhaps mention the work of a particular professor whom you admire. Briefly write about the advantages of the school's location and its appeal, but don't make the accidents of geography the main focus of this essay.

Where do you hope to be in ten years?
Tie your past and future together by showing how your aspirations stem from past experience and how the school's program will enable you to achieve your goals. Use your secondary essay to demonstrate your knowledge of the medical profession and to show that you have given some thought about your future. Show that you have realistic goals while discussing your anticipated career path.

What clinical experiences influenced your decision to go into medicine?
View this question as a great opportunity to fill in some gaps in that picture you are creating. If you discussed the most important aspect of your clinical experience in your AMCAS essay, for this question you can discuss some other aspects of that experience  while reminding your reader briefly of the points made in the AMCAS essay. Alternatively, you can discuss a volunteer experience that you didn't have room to mention in the AMCAS essay and reinforce some of the points you made there using different anecdotes and examples. As always use specifics, but remember to reflect on those incidents so the reader will know why you considered them important enough to include.

We can help you put together the individual pieces of your unique application jigsaw puzzle! Work with an expert consultant to examine your experiences and uncover your powerful competitive advantage, using it in each of your application elements to get ACCEPTED. Let’s get started. 


By: Ryan Kelly

Who wouldn’t want to go to medical school at UCLA? Top-ranked, exceptional match list, nearby beaches (not that you’ll have time to frequent them during medical school). There’s a reason UCLA gets nearly 10,000 applicants each year.

A big part of whether you get selected for an interview, however, is the UCLA secondary essay. There are 10 (count ‘em) essays just for UCLA. The good news? They’re short: a mere 800 characters.

It can be useful (and fun?) to see your frame before getting started.

Here is 800 characters as a block of text. With limited space, you should immediately grab the reader’s attention with a problem or surprising angle. The next few sentences should illustrate the angle or show the steps toward conflict resolution. Let the type of essay dictate the focus. For leadership, show a compounding of multiple responsibilities to convey your balance and poise. For clinical interactions, paint a before-and-after picture of patients to reveal your positive influence on them. Present yourself as someone who actively contributes to situations while also learning from them. Make sure that your final takeaway sentences address the prompt, and don’t force a connection to medicine unless it feels natural or appropriate. Be as specific as possible or you’ll run out of spac...                

Here’s a good example, which could work for several UCLA prompts (problem, leadership, honor, or non-academic experience):

I was a sophomore Resident Assistant, and ResLife expected me to monitor a rowdy bunch of junior football players in the basement of Bernet Hall. Most were on the cusp of legal drinking, and they often took advantage of that grey area. When addressing noise complaints, I struggled to gain cooperation from manchildren who viewed me as a mascot. Things turned sour when I wrote up their teammate while on duty in another building. But I finally earned their respect when I escorted a different teammate to the hospital at 3am after a near overdose. I coached him through the unpleasant process of drinking liquid charcoal, and he assured the team that I had their back. I wasn’t intending to impress my residents, but I felt proud that my actions broke down barriers and strengthened our community.        

798 characters

What are UCLA's 10 secondary essay prompts?

PROMPT 1 - Describe your involvement in the ONE most important non-academic activity that has been important in your life.

Sorry, brainiacs, but we’ll need to avoid classroom and lab experiences here.

But the vagueness of ‘involvement’ and ‘important’ is intentional. This broad-sweeping quality gives you tons of leeway. Try to choose an activity that doesn’t fit into UCLA’s other categorical prompts (such as leadership and volunteering below).  

Since your motivations and preparation for medical school are objectively ‘important,’ it might be smart to choose an activity that was pivotal for your decision to become a doctor.

Another good option is focusing on your “X factor” activity, or the one that most clearly separates you from other candidates.

Click here to see 10 Unique Activities that Got People into Medical School.

PROMPT 2 - What has been the ONE most unique leadership, entrepreneurial or creative activity in which participated?

There will be more opportunities to show leadership (the volunteering or important honor prompt), so if you have an entrepreneurial or creative experience, focus on that. Nearly all pre-meds are leaders in some form, but it’s unusual for them to dabble in business and the arts.

The most suggestive word here is ‘unique,’ which isn’t super helpful, but it’s enough to steer your response. Focus on the especially challenging moments, the unusual circumstances, the nuanced roles you played.

There’s no follow-up question, so the essay’s success hinges on the the specific and convincing details you share. Everyone loves a great success story (profitable startup, published paper, etc) but failures can also work well if they’re spun into a positive new perspective.

PROMPT 3 - What has been the ONE most important volunteer work you have done and why was it meaningful?

There’s that ‘meaningful’ word again. Hopefully there’s some unused material from your primary application (a discarded most meaningful, a core story you cut from the personal statement) that would suit this prompt.

If not, it’s still pretty straightforward. Focus on creating emotional appeal, if possible, but make sure to avoid sentimentality or cliches. Ideally, your essay will reveal your passion for medicine or show positive qualities that can translate to your role as a medical student and doctor.

Think about times you stepped out of comfort zones, encountered new types of people, or gained unusual insight or access. Hopefully one situation can capture your overall growth.

PROMPT 4 - Has there been or will there be a gap between achieving your last degree (baccalaureate or other degrees post baccalaureate) and the expected time of medical school matriculation? (yes or no) If yes, please explain.

This prompt is merely looking for an explanation as to why you didn’t apply during your final year of undergrad. If that’s the case for you, just give a quick report of how you’ve spent this gap year. Without overstating your weaknesses, take a moment to justify your decision to wait and then highlight all the valuable experience you’ve gained as a result.

If you have a lot of small experiences during the gap, then present them as a catalogue to show your wide exposure in a short amount of time. If you’ve put most of your energy into one activity or experience, then dive deep into all the responsibility and commitment it required.     

PROMPT 5 - What is the ONE most important honor you have received? Why do you view this as important?

Everyone is on the Dean’s or Provost’s List, so don’t choose that. But if you have an academic or collegiate award that truly represents your personality or individual qualities, then focus on describing why you’re proud of this specific recognition.

No good awards? Never fear. You can expand the definition of ‘honor’ to include any time you were acknowledged or specifically chosen from a group.

For example, has a professor ever asked you to work with them on research? Did you receive exceptionally high student evaluations as a TA? Has a patient ever requested your presence during your volunteering in hospice or clinics? All of these constitute an ‘honor.’   

PROMPT 6 - What has been your most scholarly project (thesis, research or field of study in basic or clinical science or in the humanities)? Describe one and give number of hours, dates and advisor.

If you like writing about complex scientific concepts, then this is the prompt for you. Since the only guidance they’ve given you is the word ‘scholarly,’ you should emphasize your independent research, theorizing, analytical problem solving, etc. But don’t waste too many characters with jargon--focus on the goals of the project and its practical applications.  

Make sure to highlight the challenges, both mentally and emotionally. End the essay with the culmination of your efforts--the desired research results, a published paper, the implementation of your data or proposal. If you failed or the project is ongoing, focus on what lessons you’ll take from it as you move forward.

If you’re one of the rare pre-meds with a humanities project, you should strongly consider choosing it as the topic of your response. It will likely be more memorable to the readers and set you apart from other candidates.      

PROMPT 7 - Describe a problem in your life. Include how you dealt with it and how it influenced your growth.

For this essay, avoid personal stories that could raise red flags about your lack of accountability or stability. Don’t go too deep into past struggles with addiction, depression, eating disorders, etc. Although these topics make for compelling essays, the risk outweighs the reward.

But this essay should still be personal, and its success relies on how convincingly you dramatize or illustrate the ‘problem.’ Since it closely reflects the language of the most meaningful prompt, you should steer the essay towards your overall growth and development.

Have you ever mediated a conflict between two friends? Helped a friend or family member through a serious issue? Have you ever encountered a giant hurdle on your path toward a goal? Try to choose situations which tempted you to give up, or scenarios that tested your ethics through a conflict of interest.    

PROMPT 8 - List major paid work experience during (or since) college. Give dates, description, approximate hours worked (list the most recent first).

Yes, they’re asking for paid work experience that you already explained in the primary application. But they’re giving you the chance to update them on any new work experiences since submitting the primary. Otherwise it’s just a reiteration. Make sure to highlight the responsibilities and takeaways in the experience descriptions.  

By the way, they mean it when they say ‘list.’ Write this as a resume, not an essay.    

PROMPT 9 - If there is any hardship to which you would like the committee to give special attention in evaluating your application, then check the box labeled "hardship" and briefly explain why you are indicating a hardship. Include any geographic, language, economic, academic, physical, or mental factors.

Did you answer the optional “disadvantaged” essay on the primary application? If you answered yes, then it’s in your best interest to answer this prompt. If not, then you should leave it blank or write “Not applicable.”

When answering, you should reiterate (but not verbatim) the same disadvantages you mentioned in that primary essay. Treat this as a factual report of your background and circumstances, indicating the extra obstacles you faced.   

PROMPT 10 - Where do you see yourself in 10 years? What experiences have led you to this goal?

Even if you have multiple interests within the medical field, don’t be too wishy washy. It’s better to choose one specialty and run with that for your answer. Try to base it in volunteering or shadowing experiences you’ve already had. Zoom in on specific moments or cases to illustrate your fascination with the discipline. However, make sure not to pigeonhole yourself. This is easily accomplished through one sentence which expresses excitement over the new possibilities and avenues offered in medical school.

Go ahead and mention the more supplemental roles you might play as a researcher, bioengineer, community leader, educator, etc. These inclinations should be motivated by your background or some concrete past experiences.  

Since UCLA does not have a “Why our school” prompt, this question is potentially useful in addressing that. It’s not a bad idea to mention the type of populations you’d like to serve, especially if those populations are prominent in the LA area. You could also mention initiatives, projects, or developments that you’d like to participate in as a Geffen alumnus/a in the future.  

Click this for more on how to cater to specific medical schools.

We hope this analysis helps you. UCLA’s secondary can be a bear to write (pun intended, because Bruin is a bear!), but if you follow our tips, you will build a nice library of essays for use with future medical schools.

Happy writing!

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