4 Steps for Assembling UCSD's Autobiographical Secondary Essay

By TritonsRising (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By TritonsRising (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By: Ryan Kelly

“It’s alive!”

Pre-meds might find themselves repeating Dr. Frankenstein’s catchphrase as they work on UCSD Medical School’s secondary essay. There’s no doubt; it’s a bonafide monster.

The notorious UCSD autobiographical statement gives you 6,000 characters (yes, more than your personal statement) to answer the following prompt:

This should be a true autobiographical statement. Topics to be included are family, childhood, primary and secondary school years, undergraduate years, and, if applicable, what you’ve done since completing your bachelor’s degree. You should also discuss the motivational factors which led you to a career in medicine including any disadvantages or obstacles which might put your accomplishments into context. A repeat of your AMCAS statement will not be acceptable.

Students usually have one of two reactions: 1.) Writing this essay is going to destroy me, or 2.) There’s no point in writing such a long essay when I doubt I’ll get into UCSD anyway.

The pre-meds in group two may have a point. UCSD is competitive, with an acceptance rate of 3.4% compared to the average of 6.9%. It’s even more challenging for out-of-state students to get accepted.

But if you’re in group one, then it’s doubt that’s holding you back. Never fear! We’ll help you make your monster come to life.


Step 1 - Build up an inventory of reusable material

The best approach for UCSD’s autobiography is to wait until you’ve finished prewriting your secondaries for a handful of other schools. The more, the better. You want as much material to pull from as possible. Schools like UCLA, UC Riverside, Miami Miller, and Duke are optimal since they ask upwards to 10 secondary questions each. USC is also a great school to pull from, since its answers are usually packed with flavor and personality.     


Step 2 - Choose the best pieces for your autobiography

Once you have an inventory of essays, start combing through them and making your selections. Here’s what you should be looking for:

One story about your family, growing up, or high school

If you’ve already written about a hardship, then you’ve got this covered. Same goes for any narratives about immigration or extensive childhood travels. But this could also be a story about your first exposure to health disparities, or any scenario that challenged your outlook and pushed you out of your comfort zone. Hopefully, this will help to establish certain themes or values that run throughout your statement.   

One story that captures your personality and values (preferably from your college years)

Any essays you’ve already written about hobbies, sports, extracurricular activities, creative endeavors, travels, etc. will work perfectly here. This can cover anything from kayak instructing, to improv comedy, to topiary sculptures. The more unusual, the better. Even though this information might seem tangential, it will go a long way in differentiating you from other candidates.  

One story that helps establish Why Medicine

Schools like UC Davis, Albany Medical College, and many others include prompts that ask you to share experiences that motivated and prepared you for a medical career. These are ideal fodder for this part of your autobiography. It’s okay if the experiences and ideas overlap with the primary application writing, as long as you don’t repeat things verbatim.   

One story that reveals your leadership or initiative

Any former prompts that have asked you about leadership or entrepreneurship will be useful here. If you have any activity that might qualify as a “capstone experience,” this is the perfect place for it in the autobiography. Perhaps you created a useful phone app for patients, or maybe you organized a science camp for disadvantaged youth, or maybe you created a ride-along program with the local ER. Whatever it happens to be, your goal will be to exhibit your initiative, problem-solving, and preparation to serve as a community leader.    

One story that shows you working with the underserved

Previous prompts about volunteering, community service, or diversity could all apply here. The goal is to show your exposure to people who are different than you, as well as the skills and insights you have that will allow you to advocate for disadvantaged populations in the future.


Step 3 - Patch the pieces together

This step isn’t as hard as it seems. Look at your separate chunks of writing and find thematic connections. This could be something as specific as “cultural sensitivity” or as vague as “perseverance.” It’s convenient if you can identify one or two themes to focus on. This will help give more cohesion to what can potentially be a clunky essay.

Don’t feel as if you need to tell your story in chronological order. It’s easy to conceive an autobiography that opens with your Why Medicine story and then flashes back to your childhood to show where your qualities originated. Choose your order based on your strengths. If you experienced hardships and unusual circumstances growing up, then those details are probably the most attention-grabbing for an introduction. But if you’ve had an “average” life, then opening with your recent experiences would make more sense.   


Step 4 - Add a “why our school” conclusion

Even though the prompt does not ask you to answer “why our school,” we believe it’s in your best interest to do so. With 6,000 characters, there is plenty of space for it. And since you’ll share about four or five different experiences in the autobiography, you’ll have several options for how you can connect yourself to UCSD.

We recommend establishing both abstract and concrete connections to the school. An abstract connection shows a bridge between your experiences and the school’s mission or values. Once you’ve aligned yourself with their academic culture and spirit, you can share concrete ways that you hope to enhance the community and pay those values forward as a medical student. If you have locational ties to San Diego or Southern California, those are definitely worth mentioning.

Remember: this paragraph shouldn’t simply communicate “Why UCSD is awesome.” It should communicate why UCSD is a personally relevant choice for you based on your experiences and future goals.   

Why our school? How to knock out a dozen medical school secondaries with one essay.


We hope these steps will help you assemble your Frankenstein’s monster essay and bring it to life for the admissions committee. Good luck!