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How to Survive Secondary Application Season

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Every harried med school applicant knows it: secondary application season is upon us. You’ve come so far already: you got the grades (even in organic chemistry!), you took the MCAT, you nailed your AMCAS personal statement, and you’re steeling yourself for the grueling schedule of interview season. You’ve probably spent your life acing tests and nailing first impressions, but few among us are truly prepared for the sheer volume of writing required by secondary applications.

First, the good news: when a school invites you to submit a secondary application, you’ve already made the first cut! But don’t rest on your laurels because thousands of your peers will also receive secondaries. Now for the bad news (because we know a little competition doesn’t scare you): You often have a very short window to respond (maybe a few weeks) and there are a LOT of questions to answer. Secondaries also tend to come out at random intervals. As they pile up, deadlines become increasingly hard to make (or even remember). So as things heat up this secondary application season, we’ve got some tips to help you stay motivated, organized, and even ahead of the curve.

Keep a calendar.

We know, we know, you’ve been managing deadlines for your entire academic career. But whether you keep a meticulously color coded Google Calendar or simply have a spidey sense for approaching deadlines, secondaries can still take you by surprise. So set up a system that’s easy for you to understand, maintain, and reference. It could be as simple as a running list of deadlines written on a whiteboard or pinned by your desk. Or if you’re more of a spreadsheet type, maybe you set up a database of all the secondary application information you need from deadlines to prompts and word limits. Whatever you do, make sure it’s set up in a way that clearly shows you when the next deadline is and how much work you have to get done by then. The constant reminders may seem stressful or annoying, but you’ll thank us when you’re juggling 30 different questions for 5 different schools. (Yes, this could really happen.)

Look for overlap.

Although medical schools can ask a lot of questions on their secondary applications, they aren’t always original. After all, you’re going to be a doctor, not a journalist. Some common questions that tend to crop up repeatedly are (in CEA’s own words):

  1. Why do you want to study medicine at [insert literally any med school]?
  2. What makes you different?
    1. What will you contribute to the school community that your fellow applicants won’t? AND/OR
    2. What aspect of your background or upbringing makes you unique? AND/OR
    3. What are your interests outside of medicine and science?
  3. Describe a time when you had to collaborate with others (and what you learned).
  4. Describe a challenge or failure you have had to overcome (and how you did it).

As you see questions like these begin to pop up in your secondary applications, flag them. Star the drafts in Google Drive (or your filing system of choice). Highlight them in the aforementioned spreadsheet. Do whatever you need to do to remember where they are and what you wrote because, chances are, you’ll be able to recycle and tweak them in other applications. In an ideal world, you won’t have to write anything from scratch when you get down to your last few applications. You’re welcome.

Brainstorm preemptively.

Don’t wait for an invitation to get started. We’ve already given you an idea of what to expect so you might as well get ahead of the curve. Just because you haven’t come across a question about collaboration yet doesn’t mean you’re in the clear! Even setting aside 15 minutes a day to brainstorm bullet points or freewrite on each of the broad themes listed above will give you a huge advantage. No need to write a fully-formed, perfectly punctuated essay at this point. Just having a ready supply of good ideas (and maybe even a few preliminary paragraphs) is enough to grease the wheels and keep you moving forward.

Pick a priority.

As we’ve been saying: secondaries come at you fast. The simplest option is to muscle your way through your applications in the order you receive them, but it may not always be the smartest. To optimize your essay-writing, prioritize your work by deadline, then by desirability, and finally by length. Yes, this is like triage. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Deadline: Missing a deadline is probably the worst case scenario, so make due date your top priority. Secondaries don’t always come out in deadline order, but your handy calendar will keep you on track. (Again, you’re welcome.)
  • Desirability: If a few schools have the same deadline, you’ll have to decide where to focus your attention first. You only have so much bandwidth, so be selfish: Which school appeals to you most? Which has the best reputation? Those are the applications you should work on first. (Chances are, by the time you get to the others, you’ll already have some solid content to recycle.)
  • Length: All other things being equal, work through overlapping prompts in order of word count. As you prepare to remix, recycle, and tweak your writing to fit different questions and requirements, keep in mind that it’s always easier to cut material than to embellish after the fact. Starting with your longest word counts and whittling them down will ultimately save you time and effort, but it’s not worth working this way if it will prevent you from meeting a deadline or devoting enough attention to your dream school.

And that is it, dear applicants! Your complete survival guide to secondaries season. Now go forth and power through!

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