Thinking Outside the Trojan Horse: A Creative Guide to Writing USC’s (Keck) Medical School Secondaries


By: Ryan Kelly

Most of the time, the secondary process feels endlessly redundant. Reiterating your volunteering and work experiences. Listing your honors and awards. Writing yet another buzzword essay about diversity or leadership.

But sometimes a school will throw you a curveball, and if you’ve been lulled into complacency, it can be tough to nail such a tricky pitch. But never fear. The Savvy Pre-Med is here to coach you back into hitting form.

USC’s prompts are designed to paint a full picture of you. The first two prompts gauge your personality to determine whether you’re an interesting and worthwhile person. The second two focus more on values and goals to pinpoint your priorities and commitments. The final question forces you to think hypothetically, as a way to test your insight, maturity, and self-awareness.

Since USC has no “Why our school” prompt, you should consider weaving the qualities of an ideal Trojan into your essays, such as “faithful, scholarly, skillful, courageous, ambitious.” If you show yourself exhibiting these characteristics, you will subtly align yourself with USC’s values.

More on how to cater your application essay to specific schools.


University of Southern California (Keck School of Medicine) Essay Topics


What is the most fun you’ve had in the last year? (3-5 sentences)

Fun? Who’s got time for that?

First consider whether you have an unusual hobby that deviates from the pre-med norm. Many of these 10 Unique Activities that Got People Into Medical School would qualify.

The primary goal is to be interesting, so choose an unexpected version of fun. For example, if you like to forage for rare mushrooms (yes, it’s a thing: mushroom hunting), then explain the strange joys of roaming around the damp moss for hours on end. If you have any hobbies that seem beyond your years (calligraphy, stamp collecting, knitting), then explain why you cherish these dying pastimes so much.

If your ‘most fun’ experience falls into expected categories like travel, volunteering, family gatherings, or exercise, you should focus on distinguishing it through memorable details. Get as specific and personal as possible with your limited available space.    


If you could give yourself a nickname, what would it be? (3-5 sentences)

Occasionally students already have nicknames that are indicative of their personalities. If you’re one of these rare people, then run with that nickname. Explain its origin and why you’re proud to carry it around with you.

If not, the best strategy is to choose an extended metaphor. For example, you might call yourself “The Vault” because you’re good at keeping people’s secrets. Or maybe you’re “The Sharpshooter” because of your talent for pinpointing and eliminating problems, both analytically and interpersonally.

Stretch your creative muscles to make this nickname both meaningful and entertaining.


If you had enormous wealth, how would you allocate your charitable donations? (3-5 sentences)

Probably toward your medical school tuition, right? Ha ha just kidding.

If you’re already connected to a certain organization or charity, like Habitat for Humanity, then feel free to use that. But make sure to establish your past work with them, mentioning specific people and places that have benefitted from the efforts. Then you can position your ‘charitable donations’ as extensions of this legacy.

If you’re not currently associated with any particular groups of movements, you should still base your charity on something personal. For example, if you lost a family member to a certain disease, then use 1-3 sentences to create the emotional appeal and then 1-3 more to connect your donations to a health foundation. If you grew up in a rough neighborhood, spend 1-3 sentences illustrating its obstacles (drugs, gangs, etc) and then 1-3 more connecting your donations to a youth protection program.

Pick a charitable cause or issue that resonates with you personally, and then expand the ideas to encompass something bigger than yourself.  


What aspect of the future of medicine causes you the most concern? (3-5 sentences)

Your own admittance into medical school?  

But seriously, this question requires tact--a balance between playing it safe and being brutally honest. You don’t want your ‘concern’ to also cause them concern about you. So try to avoid discussing fears, aversions, or doubts that reflect deficiencies in your character or preparation. There are more compelling answers that don’t raise these red flags.

For example, you might discuss the growing role of technology in the healthcare process, questioning whether it might lead to fewer personal interactions or less individualized care. Perhaps you could base this on something you’ve witnessed or experienced yourself. It’s good to provide disclaimers that show your awareness of the issue’s complexity. In this case, you’d make it clear that you value technology’s role and recognize its inevitable rise, but that you also want to strike some healthy balance between human compassion and machine-like efficiency.        


Write a sentence that is not true, then tell us why you wish it were true. (200 words)

Stop and think: is there an essay you’ve already written that could be spun to satisfy this prompt?

For example, if you’ve written an essay about healthcare discrepancies you witnessed while volunteering, then you could compose an untrue sentence like “Everyone has the same potential for healthy living.” Then you’d share the old essay’s story and details, concluding with a new sentence or two about ‘why you wish it were true.’  

If you’ve written about failures in research or leadership, you might use a sentence like “Hard work always pays off.”

If you’ve written about dealing with terminal patients or losing a loved one, then perhaps use a sentence like “It’s never too late.”

If all of your recycling options seem cliche, then forego them for something new, even if that’s more work. Strive for the most personal and/or unexpected angle as a way to stand out, but also try to steer away from unneeded controversy.  

Avoid long, dense sentences in favor of the shorter, snappier variety. The easiest way to lose your readers is to open with something extremely theoretical or heady. The prompt is already a bit confusing (with its truths and untruths), so save your complexity for the body of the essay, not the introduction.

We wish you the best of luck with USC and the rest of your secondaries. Remember that you can find all of last year’s prompts in our handy database.