By: Ryan Kelly
Fans of Savvy Pre-med might be familiar with our numerous past guides to secondary essay writing. If not, check them out, post-haste:
Why so much focus on secondaries? Well, we’ve seen students struggle with secondaries year after year, and we recognize their potential to undermine someone’s entire application.
Secondaries present the challenge of both a high volume of questions and a high variance in how they’re asked by different schools. Plus, they always raise a pre-med’s favorite question: “What are schools looking for?”
We’re back this cycle to continue clearing the air and making sense of these often cryptic prompts. Why Boston University? We say, why not? It’s consistently chosen by our students and presents some of the secondary “Greatest Hits” that you’ll encounter throughout your school list.
Since schools rarely change their prompts, let’s examine each of BU’s prompts from last cycle, discuss some tips, and frame each in the larger picture of secondaries:
Boston University School of Medicine Secondary Essay Topics ('17-'18)
Prompt #1: Did you go on to college directly after high school? If no, explain (1400 char)
For the vast majority of candidates, this question won’t apply and they can leave it blank. If you’re one of the few who didn’t attend college right after high school, take a few sentences (or a paragraph at the most) to explain your reasons.
Most of the time, these candidates have a valid reason, like financial or family struggles, or some rare opportunity extended to them after high school graduation.
If you don’t have any “legitimate” justification, then you’re not left with much choice here; you’ll just have to attribute the time off to a lack of goals, perspective, maturity, or a clear vision, and then discuss your transformation over time. If your excuse is less “legitimate,” keep things brief and try not to overcompensate, which could run the risk of sounding neurotic about a relatively small issue.
NEVER feel obligated to fill up all the available space in a secondary prompt, since many don’t merit the extra fluff you would tack on.
Thankfully, this question isn’t asked too frequently, so you won’t have to continuously revisit it.
Prompt #2: Are you expecting to go on to medical school directly after completing your undergraduate degree? If no, explain (1400 char)
This is a very common secondary prompt, and it’s not too complex or challenging. Medical schools simply want to know that you’re using the time before matriculation to enrich yourself and prepare for the path ahead.
If you’re stuck, here are some alternative ways to ask the question:
Give a one or two-sentence description of each thing you’re doing during your year off.
This is the last free year of your life. What are you doing with it?
Be honest about what you plan to do. It’s okay if it’s just a plan at this point. Personal relevance is key. Are you building off your past work on a significant project? Are you seeking further exposure that aligns with your past experience? Are you participating in a novel experience that will offer you insights into a new facet of healthcare? Are you pursuing travel or stimulating hobbies that you didn’t have as much time for as an undergrad?
If you have several part-time experiences during the gap year, then present them as a catalogue to show your wide exposure in a short amount of time. If you’re putting most of your energy into one activity or experience, then dive deep into the responsibility and commitment required. It’s smart to briefly mention the skills, insights, or exposure you’ll be gaining that will be valuable as a medical student and future doctor.
Quick note: the word “optional” is not as straightforward as it seems in the world of secondary essays. In many cases, you can forego optional essays, but there are times when it will behoove you to respond, or otherwise run the risk of being overshadowed by those who choose to answer.
Prompt #3: If you have spent more than 4 years as an undergraduate, please explain below. (1400 char)
Our advice for prompt #1 applies to this question as well, almost impeccably. Most people will leave it blank, and many responders will have legitimate reasons. If not, you just have to do your best to explain the “blip” in your educational path.
Prompt #4: Please provide a narrative or timeline to describe any features of your educational history that you think may be of particular interest to us. (2000 char)
This is by far the most interesting and noteworthy secondary for BU. No other school has a question phrased in this precise way (i.e. “educational history”). But when it comes down to it, it’s just the school’s nuanced way of asking a “diversity” prompt.
At Savvy Pre-med, we encourage students to focus on their “intellectual diversity” as opposed to “traditional” forms of diversity like ethnicity, culture, etc (with some exceptions, like Hispanic or African-American candidates who are underrepresented and sought after). And clearly, BU has a similar mindset; otherwise they wouldn’t bother with qualifying the question in this way.
This prompt used to be longer and more detailed in past cycles, providing students with examples of what the school might be looking for. Even though BU has omitted this information, it could still help inspire your choice of response:
“For example, have you lived in another country or experienced a culture unlike your own, or worked in a field that contributed to your understanding of people unlike yourself? Or, have you experienced advanced training in any area, including the fields of art, music, or sports?”
It seems that BU is looking for your “mini-expertise” or niche involvements that give you particular depth in areas that are atypical (or at least less common) for other candidates. Don’t limit yourself to academia just because the prompt uses the word “educational.”
If you’re stuck, here are some other ways to ask the question:
How are you going to make their campus a more interesting place?
Have you ever had an unusual job? Did you major in something unique? What makes you different from other pre-meds?
Pretend you’re in a conversation with your future medical school classmates about the state of healthcare in the United States. What point of view could you contribute to that conversation?
Whatever you decide for your “educational history,” be sure to indicate how your experiences have influenced your worldview and goals as a physician. Based on your experiences, what are your personal strengths that will make you a good physician and how will that contribute to the lives of your classmates?
In general, we’d recommend using this same essay (more or less) for the majority of the diversity prompts you encounter.
Prompt #5: Use the space below to provide additional information you feel will provide us with a comprehensive understanding of your strengths as a candidate for a career in medicine. (3000 char)
This is what most “Optional” prompts look like. Just a blank canvas with seemingly limitless possibilities. We will do our best to provide you with an “order of operations” in how to approach these “additional info” prompts:
Does the prompt have any language that implies the ideas of hardship, adversity, or disadvantages (BU doesn’t)? If yes, then only answer it if you answered the optional disadvantaged essay in the primary application. Disadvantaged students are encouraged to elaborate on that aspect of their applications here, if necessary. If not, proceed to the next choice.
Do you have an issue with scores or grades that you want to clear up? If yes, and if the school doesn’t have another opportunity to explain that (BU doesn’t), then focus on that in your response here. If not, proceed to the next choice.
Does the school already have a “Why Our School” essay (BU doesn’t)? If not, it might be wise to address your strongest connections to the school, its mission, and its offerings. The thought process behind this: other candidates might take the time to do this, and if they do it compellingly, you’ll be at a disadvantage by not doing so. There are some schools that have publicly stated that they don’t want students to discuss the school itself in their optional question. But schools like this are few and far between.
Does the school already have a “diversity” essay (BU does)? If not, then perhaps just reuse a diversity essay you have from another school. Other considerations would be essays about major accomplishments or leadership experiences.
If a school has several other prompts, then there is less pressure to answer the “additional info” question, since you’ve already given them a pretty comprehensive view of your candidacy. However, if the “additional info” prompt is one of the only questions for a school, there’s much more justification for including some content.
In the case of BU, choice #3 seems to be wisest unless you qualify for choice #1 or #2.
Prompt #6: This section may be used by re-applicants who wish to highlight specific areas of their application or to outline specific changes since their last application. (3000 char)
Admissions committees are asking you to do the work for them: what have you changed from last time? They’re operating under the (possibly false) assumption that they had a good reason to reject you last time, so they’re trying to see whether, a) you know why you got rejected, and b) what you’ve done to improve.
If you’re stuck, here are some other ways to ask this question:
Why should we give you a second chance?
What realizations did you have after your rejection? What did you do about them?
How have you grown since your rejection?
The previous application will be the elephant in the room, and you’ll need to broach the topic with tact and confidence.
Support your transformation with proof of your improvement. This might mean better grades, a higher MCAT score, a Master’s degree, or substantial new involvement in medically-related activities. This quantifiable, trackable progress will show your determination and help legitimize your candidacy.
If you think your lack of clinical experience made you sound naive the first time you applied, make sure to include stories and insights from your recent hospital volunteering. If you failed to show your capabilities as a leader and problem solver, then highlight some of your newer activities that exhibit your initiative, adaptability, and follow-through. Besides clarifying your motivations towards medicine, you should showcase your broadened perspective and sharpened skills.
Prompt #7: There are boxes to explain lack of committee letter or substitute letters. (2000 char each)
Overall, medical schools like committee letters, since they put you in context with everyone else applying from your college.
About 50% of colleges offer committee letters. If you have a committee letter, hurray, you can leave this blank. If yours doesn’t offer them, then you’re in the clear and just need to quickly explain that fact.
The most unfortunate circumstance would be if your school offers committee letters but you never received one. Colleges have different rules about who gets one. Some only write letters for people with a 3.5 or alumni who have been out of school for a year. In rare cases, schools might interview you and decide you don’t deserve one (ouch).
Even if you fall into this group, it’s not the end of the world. It’s indeed a red flag to medical schools, but not the big, waving kind of red flag. It can be overcome if you have a legitimate reason why you didn’t qualify for a committee letter.
Like with other prompts, don’t overcompensate in your explanation; make sure to clear the air, but it shouldn’t sound like an apology.
What should you know about Boston University?
Potential “Value Connections” with the school:
The school has a mantra of “Frontline Medicine” (pulled from their website):
“This is no ordinary medical school. Here you’ll find students, researchers, and faculty with a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude, fierce empathy, and a global drive. We not only pay special attention to the underserved, but work tirelessly at the edges of modern medicine. Whether it’s tackling the resurgence of an infectious disease, uncovering brain disease in a retired linebacker, or analyzing health care patterns in rural Zambia, we’ve built our classrooms at the very front lines of the human condition.”
We recommend watching the 1:30 video featured on the website link.
Potential “Concrete Connections” with the school:
Serious and ongoing commitment to the nearby homeless communities
Research into CTE, head trauma, and concussion protocols
The world-renowned Framingham Heart Study
Emphasis on “Service Learning” groups that supplement the curriculum
Although we advise you to reuse your secondary essays as much as possible, it’s still wise to understand your audience and cater to specific schools.
Hopefully these aspects of BU’s mission and offerings will help guide you, but make sure to do your own research to see how else you might mesh with BU’s culture.
Stay tuned for more secondary essay guides in the near future! Happy writing!