By Kyle Curtis, MD
Among the most challenging topics for those students applying broadly is at the secondary application stage when a school asks “Why do you want to go to [insert name of medical school]?” The intent of this question from an application reviewer’s standpoint is twofold: one, to rule out those students who have simply shot-gunned their application to every single school that meets their criteria on the MAR; and two, to assess the applicant’s ability to research, evaluate, and express his/her findings in writing.
Most reviewers are realistic about the current state of medical school admissions: an acceptance rate hovering around 40% means that applicants are wise to apply as broadly as their time and budget can accommodate. While admissions committees recognize these realities, they nonetheless seek to find those applicants who can be self-starters, demonstrate the ability to appraise a program critically, and express in writing a project or shared value embodied by the school that resonates with him/her.
There are a few simple strategies that I recommend to applicants who receive these secondaries, things that will make these essays less onerous and hopefully endear applicants to the admissions committee.
- Use geography to your advantage. Every location has unique experiences, locations, activities, etc. that can (and should!) be a part of your medical school journey. If you are familiar with the city or state, feel free to share a brief anecdote about activities or locations that draw you back or keep you there. If you are not, use travel websites to find something that piques your interest, even if it is not directly applicable to medical school. Life outside of medical school is a topic for an entire other blog post, but suffice it to say that reviewers look favorably on someone who is drawn to the area as well as the program.
- Research the program’s capital projects. Most—if not all—medical schools are working toward a capital project: a new educational building, a new curriculum, a new sim center, etc. These are often posted on the school’s public website with details that can give you some idea of the program’s vision for the future. Look into these programs enough to be able to reflect on them in writing, but also be prepared to discuss them at interview day if you do bring them up.
- Review the program’s curriculum. Although curricula are becoming more standardized across US medical schools, there is still some variability in things like mandatory attendance, video/audio recording of lectures, problem-based/team-based learning, etc. If a particular curriculum speaks to you, by all means discuss that in your secondary as a justification for that school.
- Look at the outreach/international programs on offer. These programs target training towards helping disaffected or under-served populations like rural, urban, international, or specific ethnicities/cultures. They also provide you the opportunity to discuss items on your application that connect you more strongly to the school and its outreach programs, doubly true if that school is located in an area where your outreach program of interest is in greater need.
- Sort through the extracurricular activities. While extracurriculars are a less important consideration, they are nonetheless a part of your medical school experience. If there is a service-oriented or special interest group that you identify with, that can provide additional weight to your decision to apply to this specific program.
- Review the school’s mission statement. Mission statements are a good place to review some of the values that are espoused by the leadership in the school. While many schools have similar values and mission statements, the differences between them can help you to identify with one program over another, and therefore to speak more meaningfully about your fondness for that program.
The guidance above is not intended as an all-inclusive list ways to answer these secondary applications, but it is at least a starting point to help you to structure and streamline the often chaotic secondary application process.