• Kunal Debroy

A Guide to the Secondaries

After submitting your primary AMCAS application, you have about 4-6 weeks before your application will be verified. Once your application is verified, you will receive a flood of secondaries in your inbox (make sure to check your spam folder too). This stage can be one of the most overwhelming aspects of the medical school application process. To help you through it, here’s some answers to important questions you may have about the secondaries.

What is a secondary?

A secondary is an online portal where you submit answers to essay questions and answer admissions-related questions, like whether you have previously applied to a medical school or which of your previous courses satisfy each prerequisite. Each school has their own secondary website and along with emailing you the link for their secondary, will email you a username (often your AAMC ID) and password to log in to their secondary portal.

How to keep my secondaries organized?

As the average student applies to around 15 medical schools, it is very possible that you will receive four to six secondary requests (or even more) in one week. Therefore, it is imperative that you keep all your secondary invitations organized. I suggest creating an Excel spreadsheet with sections for the secondary website, login information, date arrived, date submitted, etc. Below is an example of how I formatted the Excel sheet I used during my application cycle.

When you are creating secondary portal accounts, I also highly recommend letting your browser save your login information. This way, you don’t have to keep track of all the different login information credentials for each secondary portal. I also placed my AMCAS ID in the sheet, because, as mentioned above, the majority of secondary portals require your AMCAS ID as your username and, if you forget it, you have to go back into your AMCAS application every time. Make sure you continuously update this document each time you receive or submit a secondary, so you always know where you are in the cycle.

How do I know if I will receive a secondary?

Each school will have its own policy for secondaries. Some schools send secondary applications to everyone who submits a primary application. Other schools have screens where candidates with a GPA and MCAT above a certain range (for example, 3.0 and 500 commonly) will automatically receive a secondary application and those below will be reviewed individually. A select few schools like VCU and the UC medical schools will actually review an applicant’s entire primary before deciding to send them a secondary. Although you can check the policies for each school on your list on their website, the average applicant will most likely receive a secondary for almost, if not all, of the schools on their list so you shouldn’t worry about receiving them.

When will I receive secondaries?

A few schools will send secondaries even before your application has been verified. However, the majority will send applications after verification. The day your application has been verified, you will receive an email with the subject line “AMCAS Notification: Your application is processed”. You may receive a few secondaries the day you are verified, but most will come in the day after. For me, out of all of my schools, over half sent their secondaries the day after I was verified. Some schools might take a bit longer to send a secondary, either because they are reviewing your application more closely to determine if they should send you a secondary or because they simply are finalizing their secondary application for the entire applicant pool. The best resource for keeping track of when a school is sending out secondaries (if you do not receive one within a few days after being verified) is Student Doctor Network (SDN). If you search “____ (school of your choice) ______ (year you are applying) SDN”, a SDN forum post for the school’s current application cycle will come up as the first result. From reading the comments, you can determine whether people are still waiting to receive a secondary from this school or if the school has already begun sending secondaries.

How much do secondaries cost?

As with other aspects of the secondary, the cost also varies from school to school. However, the price for most schools is usually around $100. Although most applicants will have to pay this fee, applicants who qualify for the AMCAS Fee Assistance program can get secondary fees waived for some schools.

How much time do I have for secondaries?

A common myth is that secondaries must be turned in two weeks after you receive them. It will not make a big difference if you take three or four weeks to submit a secondary. However, some schools do set a deadline of four weeks after receiving the secondary, so it is a good idea not to submit a secondary over four weeks after receiving it.

Even if there isn’t a hard deadline, you cannot be considered for an interview at a school until you have submitted your secondary. Since the number of interviews available goes down over time, it is therefore a good idea to get your secondaries in as early as possible. If you wait till you receive all of the secondaries, this can be a bit overwhelming. Instead, since secondary prompts at schools are often unchanged from year to year, a good idea is to look up the secondary questions for your schools from the previous application cycles. You can use thus to start pre-writing your secondaries while waiting for your primary application to be verified. If you want to learn more about pre-writing secondaries, please check out our post about tips for the application process here.

What kind of essay questions will I be asked?

A few secondaries will not ask any essay questions and some will ask nearly 10. Some schools will set an incredibly short limit of 100 words for their essays while others will set limits of 500-600 words. This variety also applies to the questions themselves, for schools that do have essay questions. Given this wide range, it is impossible to address every potential question you might see. However, I will discuss the most common types of questions that you are likely to see on several secondaries.

1) The Diversity question.

This question will often ask how you can uniquely contribute to a school’s community or what makes you different from other applicants. Hearing the word “diversity”, you may automatically think about race or culture. This is one option but diverse experiences or characteristics can also apply. If you have any unique hobbies or a unique background, these would also certainly be worth talking about. Some people approach the question by talking about how they uniquely display a combination of traits and experiences (as opposed to just one). Ultimately, considering the broad applicant pool, there will likely be at least a few other applicants who might share your diverse trait or background. So don’t worry too much about trying to find the most unique aspect to talk about. It’s more important, whatever you choose, to explain why this could allow you to positively contribute to a school’s community or your future career in medicine.

2) The Challenge question.

This question will ask about a time you faced a significant challenge. Although you can certainly talk about major challenges, like poverty or racism, you are not obligated to do so. Certain answers like mental health challenges, while certainly significant and important, may be risky from an adcom’s perspective (as medical school can negatively impact mental health, even for students who have not dealt with significant mental health issues before) and are best to avoid unless you can determine an appropriate way to discuss them. The best answer is a challenge you have overcome or solved, even if it may be seemingly simple. If you are struggling to think of a major challenge you have faced, more simple situations where you had to go outside your comfort zone or learn something new would be acceptable for this question. Some examples could include having to quickly learn an unfamiliar procedure in your research lab or facing culture shock in a new country while studying abroad.

Remember, as with the diversity question, medical schools aren’t especially interested in the exact challenge you faced. They are more interested in learning about how you deal with and respond to a challenge, regardless of which one you mention. Thus, for whatever you choose to discuss, the bulk of your essay should really be focused on how you handled or overcame this challenge, rather than focusing on the details of the challenge itself.

3) Why this school?

Several secondaries will include a question about you want to attend their school. With so many qualified applicants, schools use this question to help narrow down which applicants are most interested in them. For this question, a school’s website is your best friend. The important thing here is to try to be specific - just saying how you are interested in a school because it has several research or volunteering opportunities is vague and will make you sound like you haven’t looked much into the school. Instead, talking about a specific lab or community service opportunity that is related to the research or volunteering you did in undergrad would be much more valuable.

In general, you want to mention specific things about the school, whether it’s aspects of the curriculum, research opportunities, or the school’s location, and if possible, tie them to specific aspects of your application. For example, if you have an emphasis on public health in your application, you might want to discuss public health-related material in the school’s curriculum or specific research labs focusing on public health. Some other questions are sometimes repeated between secondaries and for these, it can be easier to copy and edit these responses. However, the “Why this school” question, although it is common, should be written uniquely for each school so that your answer is highly specific (and also so you don’t accidentally say you want to go to Georgetown on your George Washington secondary).

What happens after I submit a secondary?

After you submit your secondaries, you have finally completed the application process from your end! This next stage, interview invitations, is just a waiting game for applicants. If you do receive an interview invitation from a school, you will usually select a date for the interview and submit a photograph of yourself on the same portal where you submitted your secondary.

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