What exactly is in the AMCAS primary and secondary applications?
First of all, what is AMCAS and what does it have to do with me getting into medical school?
Well, when you apply to medical school, you’ll first submit a single application through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). For most allopathic (MD) medical schools AMCAS is the centralized online application service (osteopathic medical schools use a similar service). It essentially provides medical schools with enough information to make an initial screening of applicants. Your completed AMCAS file will include your undergraduate transcript, MCAT scores, information about your extracurricular activities, and a short personal statement. Some med schools also allow you to submit letters of recommendation through AMCAS.
You can submit your information to AMCAS beginning in June each year. Each medical school sets its own final deadline for submitting information to AMCAS. Regardless of these deadlines, admissions officers recommend you submit your application as early as possible. Keep in mind too, that AMCAS is sloooooooow at just about everything, so plan on 4-6 weeks of “reviewing” and “processing” in every step of the AMCAS med school application process.
AMCAS charges a fee for this service (aid is available to those who need it). Procrastinators take note: AMCAS is serious about its deadlines. If an application is late, you’ll get it back without a refund.
What’s a “primary application” and what’s a “secondary application?”
You’ve just finished reading about “the primary.” It’s what pre-meds submit to AMCAS all at once, after which AMCAS submits it to the medical school(s) students select. After reviewing your AMCAS file, the admissions committees at your chosen schools will either reject you or send you a secondary application, or “secondary” (if you’re a really slick pre-med, you always drop the word “application”).
While some schools send all of their applicants a secondary, others go through an initial cut that is usually based entirely on GPA and MCAT scores. These tend to be more competitive schools that receive more applications than they have time to thoroughly review. In other words, as much as you think Harvard will be impressed that you cured cancer and saved the Invisible Children Of The World, if your GPA and MCAT scores aren’t up to snuff, you can kiss Cambridge goodbye.
Why a primary and a secondary?
Secondaries typically include a variety of essays on assigned topics. You could be asked to discuss your favorite novel, describe a leadership role you’ve taken or detail your greatest academic achievement. You will also be asked to submit letters of recommendation if you did not do so through AMCAS. Basically, they help they folks on admissions committees separate that wheat from the chaff, so to speak, by learning more about what you think about the things they care about.
Once the committee reviews your secondary application, they will do one of three things: reject you, invite you to the campus for an interview or hold your application until after the first round of interviews. In my opinion, schools like to send out secondaries mostly because they can charge you a fee for the privilege of getting included in the second round. Without as much as the flick of a wand, schools can send out thousands of secondary applications and charge students $100 or more to send them back, whether the schools seriously intend to review them or not. I’ve heard of people receiving rejections on the same day they sent in their secondaries, as if the school was only waiting for the students’ payment to tell them to give up. Not cool.
Despite the costs, unless you’ve decided not to apply to a particular school, you should complete and return each secondary application as you receive it. Most schools will reject any application that arrives after the deadline. Even so, if the cost of sending back secondaries is prohibitive, you can call the school and request a fee waiver. If you were eligible for a waiver from AMCAS, for example, you will probably be eligible for a waiver from individual schools.