Advisor Corner: Preparing for Secondary Applications

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Secondary applications are specific to each school and focus on their specific values and interests. We asked three prehealth advisors to offer their best advice for applicants on how to approach your secondary applications

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Once you submit your AMCAS application and it has been processed and verified, the AAMC will send your application to your selected medical schools on your behalf. At that time, you will begin to receive requests directly from schools to complete secondary applications. Unlike the AMCAS application, secondary applications are specific to each school and focus on their specific values and interest. So it’s not surprising there are many questions about how to approach these supplemental essays. To help get you started, we asked three prehealth advisors for their best advice on how to approach secondary applications.

Celeste Crowe, Director, Health Professions Advising Office at Appalachian State University
Before you apply, it is helpful to discuss or outline with your prehealth advisor the ways that you have developed skills and knowledge based upon the AAMC core competencies. Many schools will look for evidence of these competencies, so it’s important to incorporate them in your secondary essay responses. Here are examples of prompts we give to applicants to help them as they prepare for their secondary application:

To highlight the competency of Teamwork: 

  • While leadership is an important aspect of becoming a health care provider, so is teamwork. Describe a time or situation where you were not the leader or could not be. What was your role within the team? What did you learn from that experience?

To highlight the competency of Cultural Competence

  • Describe an experience or time interacting with people who are different from you or adhere to a different set of cultural norms. What did you learn about yourself from that experience?
  • If you have had limited opportunity to experience different cultures or work/serve with diverse populations, discuss how you plan to develop skills and experiences to become a culturally competent health care provider. 

Mariella Mecozzi, Senior Assistant Director of Pre-Professional Services, University of Michigan

  • Be ready to receive secondaries as soon as you submit your primary application and beyond. AMCAS immediately notifies the schools designated by an applicant about that individual's intention to apply there. Many medical schools send secondaries automatically to all applicants; some even send secondaries to applicants as soon as they receive this notification from AMCAS. This explains why some of you may receive secondary applications from certain schools even though your AMCAS application status indicates that your application is still queued for processing.
  • Wait until you’re formally asked to submit your secondary application before you do so. Some applicants find links and questions listed on online forums and submit secondaries early in an unwise attempt to push their application forward. Submitting a secondary before being invited is poor application etiquette, and such a practice is frowned upon by medical schools. This is the equivalent of showing up to a party uninvited. You do not want to be that person.
  • Stay on top of all your correspondence, both mail and email. Medical schools tend to send email messages to applicants in large batches, which may be interpreted by servers' email filters as spam. It seems like a hassle, but while you are applying, we recommend getting in the habit of checking your spam folder periodically. Also, make sure that your mailbox does not reach its capacity limit, which causes email messages to bounce back.

Alex Tan, Director of the Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Program at Johns Hopkins University
Because your primary application sends the same message to every school, it is inherently limited in its capacity to act as your envoy. In contrast, your secondary essays afford you the opportunity to send a tailored, unique ambassador to each and every school. Yes, this is more work. Yes, schools often ask deceptively similar questions. Nonetheless, you must resist the urge to take that similarity as an invitation to send the same answer.

Why send different answers to the same question? Imagine you go on a series of first dates. Your dates ask you similar questions. Would you answer each with a memorized answer you recite on cue? No, not if you want a second date. I am not suggesting that your answers should be completely different, but, while the meat of your answers remain the same, you should emphasize different details about the experience or give different examples entirely. For example, there are lots of things I like about my favorite book, and I could be completely honest while taking different approaches to talking about that book so that I am answering the questions AND actively engaging my companion in a meaningful way.

Similarly, meaningful experiences are meaningful for many reasons. One experience may help me cultivate teamwork skills, allow me to practice leadership, help me better understand how to create a meaningful patient-caregiver relationship, learn to advocate for those in my care, and problem-solve issues of access and limited resources. In writing about it, I can help schools understand how I fit with what the medical school values by emphasizing the aspects of my experience that best illustrate how my values, passions, and goals overlap with those of each individual school. More general questions, as with discussing a challenge I have faced, are even easier to tailor. I face challenges constantly, so I can easily pick whichever one best helps me communicate my perspective.

Unquestionably, this is more time-consuming than recycling your answers, but I’ve never heard a student who was unsuccessful report their gratefulness for saving all that time nor have I heard a successful one regret the time they dedicated to their success. 

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