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Weekly Weigh-in: The University Secondary Essay

Welcome to PDr’s Weekly Weigh-in! Each week, we ask medical students and physicians to weigh in on some of our most frequently asked pre-med questions.

This week’s question: How did you approach “the university secondary essay” on your secondary applications?

Evan Laveman, DGSOM MS3

Secondary prompts may ask you why you specifically want to go to their university. This can be extremely difficult since it’s very hard to determine what specific parts of a medical school would actually contribute to your desire to go there beyond finances, location, and general rank. Also, for applicants, it’s hard to really be “picky” at this point. My ideal medical school was best school that offered me an acceptance, so it was hard for me to really focus in on each school and learn their ins and outs, especially when the chances are so low for each individual school. That being said, for schools that I preferred over others, I would put in more effort to researching what makes their school unique, and what the school values in itself. One of the best ways you can do this is to try to connect with a student who goes to that medical school, and find out firsthand what the actual strengths of that school is from a students perspective. For example, you may find online that a particular school has a cutting edge cancer institute attached to their medical facility, and you may mention that as a unique draw of that school. However, if you talked to any of the students or faculty at that school, you would realize that medical students don’t really interact with that institution at all, and instead are really excited about their one-on-one physician mentorship programs that their school provides. What I’m saying is that it’s hard to get realistic information about the medical school without talking to a student, so for schools you are really going after, do your best to get some inside perspective. These will provide good talking points for your secondary questions on the topic, but the other major points I talked about were the following:

1. Location of the medical school/hospital: Was it in an area that I liked? Did they have a large and diverse patient population? How close was it to family and friends?

2. Hospital system: How reputable and expansive is the hospital system? Do they have a good mix of county/private/academic hospitals and clinics? Any volunteer clinics? Good hospitals means good doctors which means good faculty.

3. Students: Are they happy and balanced? Are there organizations set up for professional and recreational purposes? Is there a gym? Is it a social school?

4. Programs/Paths: Do they have any joint programs that are unique to their school? Any special pathway opportunities? Good scholarships?

5. Faculty environment: Is the medical school physically attached to a larger university with more faculty to learn from? Is it near a large hospital? Proximity can be important in faculty accessibility and diversity.

|| Read: Three Secondaries to Pre-Write ||

Edward Chang, DGSOM MS3

“Why us?” is a tricky secondary question because honestly for most medical school applicants, they are willing to go to whatever school they are accepted. When I was applying, whenever I got a “why are you interested in _________ School of Medicine?” question, my internal monologue went something like, “because if I graduate from your school, I’ll be a doctor.” Nevertheless, this question is important and you need to show that you are interested in each individual school, even if you are applying to 40 schools.

Most applicants will tackle the issue in this way:
1. Go to the school’s website
2. Find something that they think is remotely unique and/or interesting (global health for example)
3. Answer the question by saying something like, “I am extremely interested in the global health program since I’ve spent 2 years working in a global health organization” etc, etc, etc.

That is not the best way to do it in my opinion. I think the best way to approach this question is to first see if you can get into contact with any students at the school. If you don’t know anyone personally, you should contact the admissions office and see if they can put you in touch with somebody. A student who attends that specific medical school will have the best perspective of why YOU should go to that medical school. They’ll give you insider information that no website can give. This may be tedious to do for all of the school’s you apply to, but it may be worth it if you get the coveted interview.

|| Check out: PDr’s Secondary Essay Prompts Database to start pre-writing! ||

Emily Singer, DGSOM MS3

Anyone can read the school’s website, and most applicants do. There is a lot of overlap between schools, and websites tend to be pretty generic, which can lead to a generic answer to “Why our school?”

The way you can distinguish yourself in these essays is to get insiders’ perspectives on the medical school. Talk to current students and faculty about the culture of the school – is it highly academic/research-oriented or more focused on patient care? Are students competitive or collaborative? Do students participate in extracurriculars or physical fitness? What do people do for fun? How would the faculty characterize students?

You might also look for things that are missing, for example, if you went to ________ School of Medicine, you would like to work with some of your classmates to start a Global Health or Mindfulness and Meditation club or start a summer research project on cooking and nutrition in low-income communities.

It is really tough to organize the one-gazillion secondaries that you are no doubt filling out. I recommend prioritizing about five of your top-choice schools to target for getting the insiders’ scoop. Contact the admissions committee and ask them to get you in contact with one or two current students, or tap your own social network and ask friends of friends, cousins, etc. for input. You will be surprised how open people are to answering your questions about their schools.

Don’t forget – this fact-finding mission for special characteristics about individual schools will also help you shine in interviews, and – at the end of this long, dark tunnel – to select the medical school into which you will ultimately matriculate.

About Emily Chiu

Emily Chiu
Emily Chiu is the Director of Logistics at ProspectiveDoctor.com. She is currently a third-year undergraduate student at UCLA. If you have any questions about her work, or are interested in contributing to ProspectiveDoctor.com, please contact her at emilychiu@prospectivedoctor.com. Follow ProspectiveDoctor on Twitter, @ProspectiveDr.