On Game of Thrones, “Winter is coming” is a catchphrase used to warn characters of impending doom. But in medical school admissions, “Summer is coming” would be far more apt.
Why? Summer marks the beginning of AMCAS season, with candidates scrambling to complete their primary essays and fill out the online app (seriously, don’t underestimate how long it takes just to fill out the AMCAS).
In general, summer is a whirlwind for applicants, as they graduate, transition into new jobs, secure gap year activities, etc.
But summer also foreshadows the Real War to Come: secondary essays.
In past articles, we’ve warned you about the huge number of pages of secondary essays you’ll need to write (hint: it’s a lot). We’ve also explained why underestimating secondaries is one of the most common reasons applicants fail.
However, we believe this warning is worth repeating. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE the secondary essay writing process. They are not a formality or something you can accomplish quickly. You cannot afford to wait until you receive them in June and July.
The most successful applicants make a point to pre-write all their secondaries ahead of time. Use our School Search Tool to see last year's secondary prompts. The questions don’t change too much from year to year, so there’s no reason to wait until the last minute.
So yes, Summer is coming, but like the characters on Thrones, you can strategize and prepare for the war to come. Sure, you can’t call upon your dragons, concoct dangerous explosives, or steal people’s faces, but you’re not entirely helpless either.
Besides pre-writing, you can also heed the advice of this wise old sage (think of me as the Ser Davos Seaworth of secondaries). I’ve never fought the war of secondaries myself, but I’ve lived through many of them (10 cycles to be exact). As an editor for anywhere between 15-50 clients during these cycles, I’m proud to say that I’ve fought in the trenches alongside candidates.
Throughout these summers, I’ve come out unscathed (for the most part) with many stories of success to share. I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of essays. I’ve seen what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to the epic tome of secondaries you’ll have to complete.
With the hordes of essays staring you in the face, many of which never seem to die, the war can feel impossible. That’s why I’ve taken the time to write this survival guide for the secondary process (trust me: I need it as much as you do).
Look, I get it. You love UCSD, UCSF, Duke, INSERT DREAM SCHOOL HERE. I think they’re pretty great too. But the fact is that most “dream” schools are highly competitive. It’s likely that they’re already “reach” schools on your list, and they make up only a few of the 20-30 secondaries you’ll need to complete.
On top of that, these secondaries are often especially time-consuming (like UCSD’s 6,000 character autobiography or Duke’s long list of mind-benders). Year after year, I will see candidates obsess over these schools and their prompts, sometimes for weeks at a time, while progress on their other essays remains stagnant. Sure, they can reuse some of their writing from these dream schools, but comparatively, they’ll be behind the curve.
In fact, lovers of the three schools above might be better off starting with schools like UC Riverside or Cal Northstate (schools with a handful of reusable 250-word essays). That way, they can focus on generating lots of solid, repurposable content without that “dream school pressure.” Bonus: focusing on these building blocks of content will make the “dream school” essays easier (mostly editing of past content, making it feel especially polished).
This does not mean you should settle for mediocre content. That’s why you pre-write in May and June (and hopefully April) before secondaries arrive - so you don’t have to rush the process and can feel confident in what you submit.
But still - even when you’re prewriting, you should be forward-thinking and avoid the temptations of perfectionism.
Sometimes candidates look at me funny when I tell them an essay is finished after one or two revisions. That seems like such a foreign concept to them after a slew of drafts on the personal statement and most meaningful essays (upwards to a dozen revisions for the more persnickety and meticulous writers).
That approach won’t fly for secondaries. I would never recommend Larry the Cable Guy’s advice in other situations, but “Git-R-Done!” is a good mantra for secondary essays.
The truth is that in many cases, you can only do so much with the space provided in secondaries (sometimes 800 characters for UCLA or 75 words for Penn State). Other times the schools will just be looking for straightforward information (briefly describe your research, what are you doing in your gap year, list your honors and awards, etc.), so you shouldn’t over-analyze the situation. And lastly, most of my clients have improved as writers by the summer, and the problem is that they’re too self-conscious to give themselves any credit.
Perfection is elusive, and it’s more important to send secondaries back to schools in a timely manner than to make them impeccable. Don’t delay a submission in some pursuit to turn an A essay into an A+.
Every cycle, I receive countless text messages and emails from students asking me, “Is it okay if I reuse X essay for Y school’s prompt about Z topic?” I can count on one hand the times I’ve had to stop them and say, “No, that’s too much of a stretch.” You must learn to trust your own judgment and let go of the anxiety.
These questions most often arise when candidates want to reuse their diversity, challenge, leadership, or accomplishment essay for “curveball” prompts like Albany’s “Describe yourself in 1000 characters” prompt.
Most of the time, the essay in question fits very well for the new prompt (sometimes they can just copy/paste), or it just needs a small adjustment to fit the new prompt’s precise language or limit. For example, in the case of Albany, it’s quite simple to “describe yourself” through a story of a challenge you overcame or through the unique background/insights you offer.
I get it - when candidates reuse essays so many times, constantly seeing the same thing, it can feel bankrupt. But you MUST reuse essays (and do so constantly) in order to survive.
ANY TIME you can repurpose old content, even if it’s just the first half of an essay, DO IT. I’d even suggest digging up unused content from your past primary essay drafts. Anything that helps you avoid writing a brand new essay from scratch.
Usually, I do not endorse the oxymoronic expression “productively procrastinate.” But there is one exception.
When you inevitably hit writer’s block during the secondary writing process, I think it’s smart to spend that time researching the individual schools on your list. Sometimes you don’t have the critical thinking, willpower, or spark of inspiration needed to write, but that doesn’t have to be wasted time staring at a blank screen or wallowing in self-doubt.
Nearly all schools ask a “Why our school” question in their secondary prompts, and the ones that don’t will often have available space to potentially connect your activities/involvements to their mission/opportunities. I recommend checking out my approach to these “Why our school” essays in my guide to George Washington’s prompts.
So, if you want to “productively procrastinate” (ugh), the best way to do that is by perusing the schools’ websites and compiling personally relevant information about each school (make sure to bookmark links and keep detailed notes).
That way, you can move through those essays more quickly when you’re unstuck from your writer’s block. Plus, many candidates find that the online research step helps clarify the best “fits” for them, and sometimes it even provides inspiration for the writing process.
Besides “Why our school” and straightforward prompts (i.e. gap year), the vast majority of secondaries should be approached like Most Meaningful essays (and many of them have similar character limits as the Meaningfuls). This would include prompts about diversity, challenges, failures, leadership, problem solving, etc.
As in Most Meaningfuls, your goal will be to hook the reader’s attention, provide a compelling glimpse into the activity/situation, illustrate some growth, and provide some reflection.
This means you need to follow the show first, tell later approach, which balances the right amount of storytelling and reflection.
My article, The Art of Writing a Most Meaningful Essay, as well as my many articles on secondaries (USC, Boston University, Tufts, etc.), all share a common thread of standing out and exhibiting your voice/personality in the essays.
Substance is a prerequisite for pre-meds (at least it should be), but style is not. Academia has not trained you to take risks, and the pre-med mob mentality encourages conformity. But it’s actually in your best interest to consider how the herd is likely to respond to a certain prompt, so that you can move in a different direction or give the common trope a new spin. This, if nothing else, should be where the “fun” comes in.
For example, to this day, I still vividly recall a diversity essay from a few years back that centered around the history of cheese and cheese-making (that student got into a handful of MD schools). Was it a risky essay? Yes, but with enough expansion and contextualization, it ended up offering the high reward of memorability.
I’ve also helped students write secondary essays about soap carving (yes, I know how silly that sounds, but that candidate is also enjoying life as an MD student now), Indian beauty pageants, parkour, running a mattress delivery company, and all kinds of other odd topics.
In all cases, these students were HIGHLY skeptical and worried about being trivial or tangential, but I assure you, there’s definitely a place for creativity and risk-taking in these essays, and with enough finesse, they could be the reason you’re invited for that coveted interview.
I mean, wouldn’t you want to interview the “history of cheese-making” guy? Don’t forget that your audience is made up of real people that like hearing unique stories and voices!
Summer is coming! But it’s cool - you’re ready for the war. You’ve got my survival guide in hand, and a plethora of Savvy Pre-med resources to fall back on when the horde of White Walker essay prompts threaten to overwhelm you.
And good news: we’ll be publishing more secondary essay guides for individual schools in the near future, adding to our ongoing library. Stay tuned!
Have any pressing questions about secondary essays? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll personally respond.
Stay strong, and keep up the good fight!