Optional Essays For Medical School

In secondary (or “supplemental”) applications, each medical school poses several prompts, tailored to provide specific information for that school. These prompts will be different for each medical school, although similarities do exist from one school to another; certain themes are repeated (i.e., how you might add to the diversity of a school, what challenges you have overcome, etc.).

Of these prompts one or more may be listed as optional. While some “optional” questions discourage applicants from responding unless they truly have new information to add to the application, most others are not optional. If you fail to answer an optional question it may appear that you’re not making enough of an effort to advance your case with that particular medical school or that you’re not fully interested in that school, which is not the impression you want to leave with a medical school. It’s in an applicant’s best interest to think about the prompt given, then write an essay to fill that “optional” space.

What should you write for the optional essay?  Your response will depend on what’s been asked previously on that school’s secondary and the prompt for the optional essay. If no question has been asked about why you’re interested in that particular school, the optional essay is an opportunity to help the school understand why you’re interested. If “Why X school?” has already been asked, look at the entirety of that school’s secondary and figure out what other information you could add that would help the school understand you more comprehensively (and obviously also consider what has already been covered in your primary application). You may want to write about unique aspects of your background that would add to the medical school community (having lived in several foreign countries or overcome significant hardships or obstacles, for example). Remember that secondary applications represent an opportunity for you to help the admissions committee get to know you more comprehensively. Don’t leave any space unused.

Unfortunately, there is not a “one-size-fits-all” response since it depends entirely on what questions have already been asked on a particular secondary. Put it all in context, then decide what to address in that optional space, and do your part to help the medical school get to know you just a little bit better.

–Liza Thompson, Expert Medical School Admissions Consulting

Medical School Secondary Applications

Nearly all medical schools have individual applications, called secondary applications, which supplement the centralized AMCAS, AACOMAS or TMDSAS application. Generally secondary applications have additional essay questions and request a secondary application fee.

Medical schools differ in their procedures for providing secondary applications to applicants. Most medical schools will automatically provide a secondary application to all applicants whereas other medical schools prescreen the processed centralized applications and only invite the top candidates to submit a secondary application. For Texas residents, the Texas medical schools make their secondary applications available through the TMDSAS web site, and they should be completed as soon as you submit your TMDSAS application.

The process for receiving secondary applications also varies from school to school. Some medical schools will email you and give you access to their secondary applications, while others are posted on the schools’ web sites to be downloaded when you are ready. You should visit each school’s admissions office web site to see if the secondary is posted there. If the secondary application is available, read the instructions carefully because some medical schools do not want you to submit the secondary application until after they contact you. If it has been 3-4 weeks since the verification of your AMCAS or AACOMAS application, and you have not received a secondary application from a particular medical school, you can then contact the school to ask about the availability of their secondary application.

Miscellaneous advice on completing secondary applications

  • Some secondary applications ask for your SAT or ACT scores. You will not need an official score report form at this time - just the scores. If you cannot remember them, you should be able to access them through Bionic.
  • Some secondary applications will ask you to convert your Bryn Mawr credits to semester hours and to calculate GPAs for the core premedical requirements (general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, and physics). Remember that 1 unit of credit at Bryn Mawr is equal to 4 semester hours.
  • There are sometimes “optional” essays on the secondary appilcation. Read each question carefully. If the tone seems to be discouraging you from answering the optional essays unless you have new or unique information to add to your overall application file, then do not write an essay unless you have such new information. In all other cases, medical schools may believe that not answering an optional question is a missed opportunity to share more information with the admissions committee.

Suggestions on how to respond to essay questions such as "is there anything else you want to share with the admissions committee?"

  • You should write an original essay and not simply recycle your personal statement in this space. The admissions committee has both the centralized application and the secondary application; they will know right away if you simply cut and paste the centralized application essay onto the secondary application. Whenever possible, you should try to personalize your application and add new information and perspectives.
  • Two categories that are always worth writing about: your job and volunteer activities this year, and why you are applying to that school. If those questions have already been asked, then write on another topic. For ideas, look over the drafts of your personal statement and autobiography for things that you could write about. Think about particular situations that have impacted you over the years that have helped shape who you are today. You should also review the selection of sample medical school secondary application questions in the Bryn Mawr Medical School Application Handbook. These questions might inspire ideas for new essay topics.

Suggestions on how to respond to essay questions asking, "Why are you applying to our medical school?"

  • Take the time to look at the medical school's web site carefully. Review the curriculum and educational programs, advising system, institutional affiliations, teaching hospitals, patient populations being served, elective rotation sites, and research opportunities. Also examine the opportunities for medical student involvement in community service and research programs.
  • Reflect upon what you find unique and appealing about each school and explain why those features attract you to that medical school. In the essay do not restate the medical school's web site; ground your response in your personal experiences and goals and how well they fit with these unique features of the medical school.

It is a good idea to complete and submit secondary applications as soon as you can after your centralized application is submitted. While your goal should be to have your AMCAS/AACOMAS/TMDSAS application, MCAT scores, secondary applications and letters of recommendation submitted to the medical schools as soon as realistically possible, you should make sure to submit all materials by the end of August. Many medical schools begin to review completed applications in mid-summer.  Remember it is your responsibility through this entire process to make sure your files are complete at the medical schools and that everything is received in a timely fashion. The application process will take place over several months, and so careful planning from the outset is important.

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