The Five Most Common Medical School Secondary Essay Prompts for 2018


By: Ryan Kelly

Remember Valentine’s Day when you were a kid? If your grade school was anything like mine, we had to give Valentines to every other kid in the class. The night before, I often ran into my classmates at the Hallmark store, buying packs of the Muppets/Harry Potter/My Little Pony collection, all with the same puns on them. “I’m ready to Kermit to you,” or “I Adumbledore you,” or “Valentine, you are Twilightlicious.

After school the next day, you’d come home with a bag full of Valentines, all purchased from the same place. You didn’t know exactly which terrible pun would be scrawled on the card, but you knew roughly what was coming your way.

Secondary essays are the same. Each med school may strive to be unique, but they’re all shopping for the same information.

We analyzed the secondary essays for all 145 US allopathic med schools and 40 US DO schools to see which candy-coated essays you can expect to receive this coming 2018-19 application cycle.

Just like Valentines, secondary essays don’t change much from year to year. If you follow our guide below to the five most commonly occurring secondary essays, then you’ll be ready to return your secondaries quickly and ease the writing process for the rest.

Just don’t send actual candy back with your secondaries.

Our Secondary Super System

*75 pages of secondaries*

That’s the highest total we found while collecting past student data for this article. By the way, that’s 12pt font single spaced. Well over 15,000 words.

If this scares you for your own secondary application cycle, that’s a good thing. Get started on pre-writing them right away by using our handy Secondaries Database:

Those 75 pages weren’t filled entirely with original essays. We encourage all of students to reuse material across schools. In fact, this recycling is the only way to survive the flood of secondary essays.


Even when repurposing essays, it can be incredibly time-consuming to backtrack and retrace your steps so many times. Not to mention the cutting, the tweaking, the shuffling around

While helping students with secondaries, we thought there had to be a better way. We designed a Secondary Super System, where we tracked 97 popular MD and DO schools and compiled all of their prompts and word counts. We like to think of secondaries as a puzzle that can be solved with enough research and strategizing.   

We can streamline the process by sharing the most commonly occurring secondaries and offering guidance for how to complete the most essays with the smallest amount of work.  


Medical School Secondary Question #1

Why our school?


Of schools ask this question

500 / 3,000

Maximum word/character count

75 / 1,000

Minimum word/character count

316 / 1,613

Average word/character count

How to approach the prompt:

Even though it asks “why our school,” you’ll stand out most by focusing on yourself first. Use an example or anecdote to show your major healthcare values/accomplishments/goals. Then you can connect those to the school’s mission and opportunities.

Don’t just list things you think are cool about the schools. Make sure they get to know you, so that they understand why their programs are personally relevant to you.

Starting with yourself will allow you to reuse the same essay across schools without it looking so transparently like a template. To tailor their responses to different schools, some students might have to write two different openings about themselves (EX: one about clinical research for UCSF and one about underserved primary care for UC Riverside).

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Good starter schools: Miami Miller (500 words), Penn State (75 words)

These two schools have pretty standard wording in their prompts, and they cover the maximum and minimum word count.

It’s a good exercise to write a long-form and a short-form version of any secondary essay, and then use them as the building blocks for other schools. In other words, don’t try to cut your 500 word essay down to 150. Build off the 75 word one instead.  

Curveballs: Yale, Michigan State, Georgetown

Some schools will include aspects of their mission into the question. Whether it’s the Yale System, Michigan State’s Shared Discovery, or Georgetown’s “cura personalis,” you’ll encounter certain “why our school” essays that need some customization. Usually the missions and curricula are broad, so it’s pretty feasible with a few tweaks.  


Medical School Secondary Question #2

How will you enhance our school’s diversity?


Of school ask this question

700 / 3,000

Maximum word/character count

75 / 800

Minimum word/character count

365 / 1,600

Average word/ character count

How to approach the prompt:

Pretend you’re in a conversation with your future medical school classmates about the state of healthcare in the United States. What unique experiences or point of view could you contribute to that conversation?

Race and culture are possible topics, but it’s wise to think beyond the traditional definition of diversity. Are you a dancer? An athlete? Had an unusual job? Did you major in something unique? What makes you different from other pre-meds?

Most schools will ask how your diversity will contribute to their incoming class, so you might as well include that part in your general templated answer. It’s also good if your answer shows you engaging with people different than yourself, since many schools focus their prompts around that idea. If you know all the ways the question is asked, you can kill as many birds as possible with the same stone. Save yourself a dozen rewrites by covering all bases from the get-go.



Good starter schools: Toledo (700 words), Rosalind Franklin (100 words)

Curveballs: Boston, Albany, Loyola Stritch

Boston University puts its own spin on the diversity question by asking students about their “educational history” (time spent living abroad, lingual abilities, any specialized training, niche areas of expertise, etc.). Loyola Stritch steers your diversity answer towards its Jesuit value of “social justice for the underserved.” Albany drives students crazy with its “Describe yourself in 1000 characters” prompt, but don’t worry, we’ve got you covered



Medical School Secondary Question #3

How will you spend your gap year?


Of schools ask this question

500 / 10,000

Maximum word/character count

100 / 300

Minimum word/character count

300 / 2,176

Average word/character count

How to approach the prompt:

Be honest about what you plan to do. It’s okay if it’s just a plan at this point.

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.  



Good starter schools: Stony Brook (500 words), UCLA Geffen (300 characters)

Curveballs: St. Louis (10,000 characters)

Most gap year questions are pretty straightforward, but when it’s a school’s only question and it’s 10,000 characters long, things get more complicated.

There’s a lot of hearsay about whether or not schools want students to use “gap year” and “additional info” prompts to discuss their interest in the school. Even if they don’t include a “why our school” question or specifically ask why you’re a match, it will only help your chances by drawing these connections in your answer.

Think of it this way: what if the information you share shows you as being just as qualified and distinct as someone else, but that other candidate has taken the time to create a clear, strong connection with the school in question? If you’re the admissions officer, which applicant would you choose?


Medical School Secondary Question #4

Describe a significant challenge.


Of schools ask this question

600 / 3,500

Maximum word/character count

100 / 500

Minimum word/character count

334 / 1,883

Average word/character count

How to approach the prompt:

Tact and honesty. On the one hand, there are certain challenges you should not admit to medical schools (psychiatric conditions such as depression come to mind). On the other hand, as long as it’s not something that raises a red flag, you should open up about something seemingly simple that was really hard for you.

Have you ever mediated a conflict between two friends? Helped a friend or family member through a serious issue? Try to choose situations which tempted you to give up, or scenarios that tested your ethics through a conflict of interest. Also, choosing times that you stepped out of your comfort zone or dealt with a learning curve can be a good approach for these prompts, since your shortcomings will be more forgivable.

Since many schools ask for a “failure” rather than a “challenge” or “problem,” it’s smart to work some kind of failure into your essay (just to save you time in the long-run when reusing material). Remember that a “failure” can be something abstract (like a misguided attitude, an oversight, or a missed opportunity).

Good starter schools: Duke (600 words), Rosalind Franklin (100 words)

Curveballs: Rush, MCW, NYU

Certain schools will make it intentionally difficult to reuse your general “challenge” answer. For example, Rush asks about a time when you didn’t agree with a directive/rule and how you responded. MCW asks for a creative solution to an unfamiliar situation. NYU asks you to define respect and describe a time when it was difficult to remain respectful while facing differences.

If you really plan ahead with your pre-writing, you can account for these curveballs and try to include these factors in your templated answer. But sometimes it just won’t be possible and you’ll be forced to write an original essay for a school’s prompt. If nothing else, these prompts will be good practice for interviews, where you’ll be asked many specific questions about conflicts, disagreements, and ethical decision-making.


Medical School Secondary Question #5

Is there anything else you’d like us to know?


Of schools ask this question

500 / 10,000

Maximum word/character count

150 / 1000

Minimum word/character count

296 / 2,585

Average word/ character count

How to approach the prompt:

Medical schools want to make sure they give you a chance to explain any problems in your application - poor grades, holes in your application, withdrawals from school, etc.

This is mostly for students with major weaknesses in their application that have not already been addressed adequately in the personal statement. It’s probably in your best interest to leave this section blank unless you have a glaring issue that wasn’t addressed elsewhere.

Other times, this prompt’s wording might blur the lines of a “disadvantaged” prompt, and if the school doesn’t ask for personal hardships elsewhere, this prompt can be a good opportunity to cover that topic.

Good starter schools: UCSF (500 words), Quinnipiac (150 words)

Curveballs: Harvard

Not everyone applies to Harvard, but it’s a good example of an “additional info” prompt that boggles the mind. It’s Harvard’s only secondary other than a “gap year” question, which makes students feel inclined to answer it. It includes many potential different factors to discuss, but its language seems to imply that it wants students to focus on hardships and disadvantages.

The killer: it has a line that says, “Many applicants will not need to answer this question.” Some students are unsure which group they fall into. Others wonder if this question is a test of whether you care enough to answer it. Our advice: only answer this prompt if you wrote a disadvantaged essay for your AMCAS or covered personal hardships in your AACOMAS personal statement.

Secondaries manage to be extremely redundant and highly variant at the same time (don’t ask us how, but it’s true). We can’t account for every detail, but we believe our Secondary Super System can help you streamline the process.

Remember: the system is most useful when you have enough time to pre-write, so get started on secondaries as soon as possible! You might not amass 75 pages, but you’d be surprised…