How to Answer UC Riverside School of Medicine’s Secondary Essays

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“They all sound the same!”

When you’re researching different medical schools on your list, in search of those “Why Our School” reasons for your secondaries, the schools can easily blend together.

Nearly identical mission statements and opportunities, all the same buzzwords in their curricula. Not many distinguishing factors to use as focal points in your secondary essays.

But UC Riverside School of Medicine (UCR SOM) is easier to pin down and target, since the school is clearly looking for a specific type of candidate.

What is UC Riverside School of Medicine looking for?

Before even looking at its mission, I can tell you the gist of what UCR SOM is seeking:

  • dedication to the underserved

  • outreachers with cultural competence

  • experience/exposure in rural medicine

  • advocates for equal access and systemic improvements

  • a connection to the Inland Empire, or a comparable area at least

Now, let’s look at the actual mission statement from UCR SOM’s website:


The mission of the UCR School of Medicine is to improve the health of the people of California and, especially, to serve Inland Southern California by training a diverse workforce of physicians and by developing innovative research and health care delivery programs that will improve the health of the medically underserved in the region and become models to be emulated throughout the state and nation.

Yep, I was pretty close. That’s because the school has a clear reputation.

It’s usually pretty obvious to candidates whether they’re a “fit” for UCR SOM (research-heavy city slickers need not apply haha). However, UCR inevitably works its way into the school lists for many California-based applicants.

Whether you’re a great fit for UCR or just a so-so one, I’m here to help you navigate the school’s secondary essay prompts.

If UCR SOM is on your list, it has the added bonus of being a great school for generating “core” secondary content that you can reuse from school to school. Its prompts cover a lot of ground, and the 250-word limit is right in the wheelhouse of most limits you’ll see. It takes some effort to get through this secondary, but once you do, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. TRUST.

Let’s breakdown each secondary essay prompt from last year’s cycle:

UC Riverside School of Medicine Secondary Essay Topics ('18-'19)

250 words max for each.

1. Describe the single MOST important event or non-academic activity in your life and explain why it’s significant.

Sorry, brainiacs, but we’ll need to avoid classroom and lab experiences here. Don’t worry, there’s a “scholastic activities” prompt coming up later.

The broad-sweeping quality of this prompt gives you a TON of leeway. The superlative word ‘most’ can be frustrating too. Do you pick a clinical experience? An autobiographical event?

It’s smart to consider the many other prompts you’ll have to answer for UCR: accomplishment, service, career goals, challenge, etc. The only common prompt missing is diversity, so you could consider choosing an activity here that reveals your intellectual or experiential diversity.

In other words, choose your “X factor” activity, or the one that most clearly separates you from other candidates. If you’ve completed any project that you’d consider a “capstone,” that can also be a great choice.

If all else fails, choose the activity that most clearly influenced your goals in medicine (although that’s probably better for the career goals prompt).

2. What activity or accomplishment are you MOST proud of?

Show, don’t tell. Talk is cheap. An image is worth a thousand words.

You get the idea. You need to exhibit concrete proof. So start by brainstorming the moments and events in which you had the most impact on others, whether that be your team, your classmates, your local community, etc. It can be anything from solving a complex research problem, to organizing a new club at your school, to helping a friend get through a very rough day. The key will be telling your detailed, individualized story in a way that’s memorable.

The majority of your essay should narrate the example, with only a few sentences being saved for the concluding thoughts. Let your impact in the anecdote speak for itself. The last few sentences should express how your accomplishment encompasses your personality and speaks to your future goals.

Big bonus points if this activity or accomplishment correlates with one of two major emphases at UCR: empowering the underserved and alleviating systemic barriers for others.

3. What experiences or activities have prepared you to work with medically underserved communities?

It’s possible that you have 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. Maybe some volunteer work with veterans or HIV patients, or a write-up about your master’s in public health, or tutoring inner-city refugee youth.

If not, you’ll need to write something new. Focus on creating emotional appeal, if possible, but make sure to avoid sentimentality or cliches. Ideally, your essay will reveal your passion for underserved medicine or show positive qualities that can translate to your role as a conscientious medical student and doctor.

It’s more impressive to medical schools when you’ve helped people who are much different than yourself. Think about the 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 preparedness for underserved advocacy.

4. Please list any Scholastic Activities that you have been involved with (including honors and awards)

Any time you see the word ‘list’ in a secondary prompt, you can take that literally. It’s perfectly fine to make a resume-style list with brief descriptions for each entry. What counts as a scholastic activity besides honors and awards?

  • Research projects

  • Publications

  • Presentations and posters

  • Major academic projects (thesis papers, capstones, etc.)

  • Tutoring or teaching positions

If you can associate the word ‘scholarly’ with the activity, include it here. Rehashing descriptions from your AMCAS is acceptable. Don’t overthink this one too much. It’s most likely that UCR is giving candidates a chance to include anything they couldn’t fit on their AMCAS, or anything that has occured since submitting the primary application.

5. Describe a major problem you have had to deal with at some time 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.  

6. Is there any specific hardship to which you would like the committee to give special attention in evaluating your application? Please briefly explain below. (Include any geographic, language, economic, academic, physical, or mental factors.)

If you wrote a Disadvantaged Essay for your AMCAS, you could briefly 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.

If you faced any unusual challenges that affected your grades or MCAT score (personal injury/illness, death in the family, etc), it’s wise to use this space to briefly explain the compounding factors that led to the academic issues, as well as how you’ve improved since.

If neither of these applies to you, then you should leave this blank or write “Not applicable.”

7. What kind of health care setting do you envision yourself working in?

Normally, I’d tell you to just be honest about your future goals, as long as you can back them up with actual experiences and exposure.

However, UCR has a pretty specific candidate in mind. You’re going to be most attractive to UCR if you indicate an interest in primary care and rural medicine, as well as a desire to improve healthcare systems/delivery.

For any “career goals” prompt, it’s better to focus mostly on your past, even though it’s asking about your future. The summary of your goals should only take up 3-4 sentences at the end of the answer. Use the majority of the space to explain how you arrived at those goals. Otherwise your goals will seem arbitrary or half-baked.

8. How do you see yourself contributing to the mission of the UCR School of Medicine?

Similar to prompt #7, you’ll need to cater to what UCR is looking for. But here’s my general advice about “Why Our School” essays:

“I am interested in attending UCR SOM due to its ___________, ___________, and ___________.”

**DON’T start your “Why Our School” essays this way** The schools will be used to hearing this narrative, and it will likely bore them to death.

Think about it this way: they know what they have to offer, and they know why it’s generally attractive, but they don’t know why it’s so personally relevant to you. You’re the interesting X-factor in the whole equation, so even though it might seem counterintuitive, you should start your “Why Our School” essays with something about yourself.


Para 1 - An example, story, or anecdote that serves as a hook and establishes your major healthcare involvements and values up to this point.

Para 2 - Based on what you’ve shared about yourself, build a “value connection” with the school that incorporates some element of its mission, emphases, culture, etc.

Para 3 - Remember those _________ spaces from above, those XYZ things you want to mention about the school? Mention those “concrete connections” towards the end and position them as ways that you’ll embody the value connection you’ve established earlier.

Para 4 (Optional) - Bring up any locational or personal ties to the school (grew up nearby, have family in the area, relationships with alumni or current students, etc.). These should be sprinkles on top of your answer, rather than the focal point.    

If you follow this formula, you can reuse the part about yourself across your secondaries and find new connections to the other schools. If you start these “Why Our School” essays by establishing yourself first, then you’ll sound more personalized and less like a template (even though it’s indeed a useful template for you!).

5 Reasons to Apply to UCR (from past students):

The Longitudinal Ambulatory Care Experience (LACE)

The Designated Emphasis (DE) in Medical and Health Humanities

Selectives Program

The Big Sib/Little Sib Student Mentoring Program

Community Project in Year Four

9. PERSONAL STATEMENT: Your personal statement from the AMCAS application will be used in our admissions process. You do not need to duplicate it here. At your option, you may use this space to provide any further information you may want us to consider in addition to the AMCAS personal statement. THIS IS NOT MANDATORY.

It’s really hard to understand why this prompt even exists, considering how much ground the school’s prompts already cover. Normally this would be the place to discuss issues with grades, hardships, etc., but UCR already has available space for that.

I have written an Order of Operations for “Optional” secondary prompts when I covered Boston University’s secondaries. But alas, UCR’s prompts cover all those choices.

It seems like the vast majority candidates should just ignore this prompt. I know for a fact that candidates have been accepted to UCR without answering it.  

10. If you click Yes for ‘disadvantaged’ student: Describe the manner in which your experiences demonstrate your understanding of, and commitment to, underserved communities.

If you indicated ‘disadvantaged’ on the AMCAS, you should also indicate it here, even if that means writing yet another 250-word essay. If UCR bothered to include this prompt, then the school clearly cares about the potential perspective you’ll bring based on your background.

Hopefully, along your path, you’ve found some avenue that lets you support others who are in the same position as you. For example, if you’re from an immigrant family, you could write about your experience translating for non-English-speaking patients at the free clinic. Or perhaps you’re a self-funded candidate who now helps other low-income students and patients find affordable resources.

The goal is to show how your background will inform your ability to help others who face socioeconomic or cultural hardship. Again: show, don’t tell. Use specific characters, cases, settings, and situations to illustrate your impact on others.

Why Our School

I traveled from the depths of the Costa Rican rainforests to the heights of the Andes Mountains to provide healthcare to isolated villagers. South America illuminated that healthcare is not defined by complex jargon nor fancy equipment; instead, it’s the fact that healthcare caters to basic human needs that transcend borders, ethnicity, and socioeconomic standing.

Back home, I’ve advocated for my underserved community via scribing, preparing to become a licensed EMT, and volunteering at local free clinics and food banks. The Poverello House has helped deprived individuals from dire circumstances undergo miraculous transformations, giving me hope that the careful allocation of passion and resources can combat disparities.  

As a scribe, I encounter many patients without a regular doctor because they lack insurance. Their frequent ED usage as a primary care source leads to heavy impaction. Furthermore, without a PCP, they lack continuity of care that the ED doesn’t provide. Being a medical professional isn’t just a matter of treating patients, but also using your position to look for ways to improve the system as a whole. This is why I’ve chosen to obtain an MPA, to gain a more detailed understanding of legalities preventing marginalized populations from receiving adequate healthcare access.

I’ll strive to use integrity, advocacy, and compassion to advance UCR’s mission. UCR’s opportunities like the Designated Emphasis in Medical and Health Humanities curriculum (e.g. the Practice Improvement Project) will allow me to research healthcare discrepancies in more depth. The Riverside Free Clinic will also enable me to build off my passion for underserved healthcare service and administration by serving the marginalized populations of the Inland Empire.

Major Problem

“Why did my professor mark ‘a red beautiful dress’ as wrong?”

I knew the proper order, but couldn’t offer an informed response. Like many of my tutees, I became lost in the numerous intricacies of the English language.

“That’s a really good question,” I stammered. It was one of my first shifts as lead writing tutor, so I wanted to be a source of information. I scoured my mind for a clue. Nothing. Everyone expected me to know the answer, yet I didn’t. “Let me research the topic.” That was all I could offer.

I sought instruction from my English professor for insight and guidance from my boss to help cope. It’s comforting to discuss my troubles with others who can provide emotional support and advice. This story taught me a lesson. I will face situations where I’m expected to know, but simply don’t. The reality is that predicaments like these are inescapable. We must pursue knowledge with the understanding that we’ll never have it all. All I can do is contribute to advancing what we know and impart that knowledge to the future.

I’ll need to overcome much adversity in my medical journey. I’ll bring similar teachings and coping strategies into the stressful environment of medical school and a physician’s lifestyle. I’ll need to constantly seek the advice and support of my peers in the medical field, friends, and family to remain in a healthy state of mind so that I may continue to provide optimal care.

Was this guide helpful? Still have questions about UCR or its prompts? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll respond personally!

Good luck, and stay tuned for more school-specific secondary guides!