May 29, 2023

Should You Answer the Optional or Additional Information Secondary Essays for Medical School?

Ryan Kelly

I am approaching my 11th straight cycle of helping pre-meds with their medical school secondaries, and there's a question I've heard countless times:

"Should I write these optional or additional information secondaries?"

If you ask certain advisors, they will tell you not to write anything unless you REALLY need to. Or in other words, only write an answer if you need to explain some red flag in your application (low grades, poor MCAT, gaps in resume/education, or institutional action).

And I would say that I partially agree with this take, but I also don't think it's that simple. In some cases, I think there would be justification for answering these optional or additional information secondaries in another way.

After realizing that it wasn't so simple, I came up with an "Order of Operations" to help pre-meds decide whether it was worth answering these troubling secondary prompts:

Ryan's Order of Operations for “Additional Information” or “Optional” Secondary Prompts

  1. Does the prompt have any language that implies the ideas of hardship, adversity, or disadvantages? If yes, then only answer it if you answered the optional disadvantaged essay in the primary application. If not, proceed to #2 below.

  1. 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, then focus on that in your response here. If not, proceed to #3 below.

  1. Does the school already have a “Why Our School” essay? If not, it might be wise to address your strongest connections to the school, its mission, and its offerings. If other candidates do this compellingly, you’ll be at a disadvantage by not doing so. If yes, proceed to #3 below.

  1. Does the school already have a “diversity” essay? If not, then perhaps reuse a diversity essay from another school. Other considerations would be essays about major accomplishments or leadership experiences. 

If a school has several other secondary prompts, then there is less pressure to answer the additional information/optional question, since you’ve already given them a pretty comprehensive view of yourself as a candidate.

However, if the additional information/optional prompt is one of the only secondary questions for a school (like UCSF, Jefferson, St. Louis, etc.), there’s much more justification for including some content. As mentioned in choice #3 above, you have to think about the fact that other candidates might take advantage of this optional space. And if they do that well and write strong content, I can't help but think they'll have an edge over people who don't.

So, what do you think? Are you going to answer these secondary essays or not? Let me know your comments/questions, and I'll be happy to get back to you. Best of luck with your secondary essays!

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