The Hardest Secondary? How to Conquer the 10 Secondary Essays for UCLA (Geffen) School of Medicine


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!