Have you ever thought about the life of a politician? I know we prefer to avoid talking about politicians whenever possible, but if you'll humor me for a minute, there is a valuable lesson as it regards your medical school application.
A full 657 days before he was elected in November 2008, Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President. He regularly gave several speeches a day, all with the same message. In the last days before the election, he was hitting as many as 4 states in a single day. That means the President gave in the ballpark of 2000 speeches in a little less than 2 years.
Can you imagine how boring this must have seemed to him? How hard it must have been to stay on message, to give essentially the same speech (HOPE!) several times a day? Sure, he may have changed the wording slightly from town to town, but the gist of the story stayed the same.
But of course, his audience didn't get tired of the message. The audience was made of different people every time, so they probably only saw him once or twice in person and for a handful of 30-second cable tv clips. But the bigger point relates to our brains. As advertisers know, it takes much more than one exposure to a given message to make someone purchase your brand. And it takes more than one exposure to a politician's ideas to remember the main idea. Repeated exposure to a speech, especially in different contexts and different formats just makes it more memorable.
Applying to medical school is like being on the campaign trail. If you want to be memorable, you SHOULD repeat yourself in your application. You should talk about the same experiences in your personal statement and in your most meaningful essays. You should talk about the same experiences again in your secondary essays. And you should talk about the same experiences AGAIN when you go in for your interview.
Don't get me wrong. You can't copy and paste the same verbiage from one essay to the next. That's lazy, and the reader will notice it. But you can (and should) talk about the same experiences in different ways. Let's say you've spent over 300 hours volunteering at a hospital, shadowing doctors there, and even going on to become a member of the leadership team at the volunteer program.
In your personal statement, you should tell a story from that experience that shows why you want to be a doctor.
In your "most meaningful" essay, you should tell a story about why the experience was meaningful (a different story from the one you told in your personal statement).
And in your secondary essay about, say, a dilemma you've faced, maybe you could tell a different story from that same experience.
You're using different stories, but they are all from the same, memorable experience. When the reader is finished with your application, she will remember this one experience more than anything else in your application, which will make you memorable.
Many pre-meds think, "they've already read my personal statement, so I can't mention the same thing in other parts of my application, or the admissions committee will think I don't have sufficient depth." That's wrong. For one, the admissions committee is reading quickly and trying to get the gist of who you are and what you've done. By repeating experiences in your essays, you're making it easier for the reader to get the gist.
By trying to cram too many experiences into different essays, the reader won't remember the important experiences, the ones that make you stand out. There's a reason Obama stayed on message: it works.