After you’ve wrapped up your primary application, your next step is a doozie: the secondary application. You can expect secondary applications from all or most of the schools you highlighted on your AMCAS primary application. While there are a few schools that screen applicants out based on their initial GPA/MCAT scores, most simply pump out the secondary application (“secondary”) and charge you an additional $100 fee (or more/less). A lot of adcoms don’t consider your application complete without both the primary and secondary, and won’t review your file until your secondary is in hand.

Why do schools need secondaries?

The primary application is standardized among all medical schools; the secondary application is school-specific. Every school requests the same essays for the primary; but the instructions on the secondary vary from school to school, in content, length and depth. So get your second wind…you’ll need it!

Your primary application gives schools a brief introduction to your strengths and experience; in your secondary application, they’re going to ask you to dig deeper and provide a more fleshed out version of yourself.

What questions should I expect on a secondary application?

Schools vary widely in what they expect on the secondary. For one, it may be as simple as responding to a few questions and writing a topical essay; for another, you may be required to write several full-length essays. Schools have full control and latitude about what to ask of applicants!

Here are some potential questions and/or prompts on a typical secondary application: Why are you interested in this particular school? What’s a challenge you’ve had to overcome in your life? When have you shown leadership skills and what did you learn? What specialties are you leaning towards? What can you add to our school’s specific mission? Why are you a good match for this school? What would you do if you had to choose between getting to your residential duties on time or stopping to give medical care to a stranger on the side of the road? (This is one of the easier moral/ethical questions you may have to address.)

Answering the questions you encounter will require you to do a little research about the schools you’re applying to. You’ll want to check out their mission statements. Learn about their teaching methods. Find out if they’re affiliated with local health clinics or have a commitment to research. Then when prompted, express your interest and commitment to those ideals. This applies even if it’s a state school. Your job is to convince the members of the admissions committee that you deserve a spot at this school over other applicants being considered!

How much does the secondary application matter?

Unless you have stellar GPA/MCAT numbers, published research and excellent EC’s, schools will need the secondary to answer their burning question: are you the kind of applicant they really, really want? The secondary does matter; in fact, essays in this application may be reviewed even more critically than those in the primary.

You need to be thorough and specific. Go over your questions to make sure you’ve answered them fully. Don’t use boilerplate answers that could apply to any question. Don’t recycle essays you’ve used elsewhere. Spend the time and effort to make each essay/response your best work.

Secondary applications will take you some time, but don’t rush it. Prioritize by starting with the schools you are most likely to attend, and move down the list. Don’t leave any schools off your secondaries list, unless you are absolutely certain you won’t attend that school. Make sure to apply broadly to a diverse group of schools, giving yourself as many options as possible.

Some do’s and don’ts

Do…talk about your interest in and commitment to medicine; not just your grades…think through your answers and be as specific as needed…watch for opportunities to demonstrate critical reasoning, rather than simple yes/no black/white answers…give adcoms insights into your strengths, without being cocky or arrogant…show you are willing and anxious to learn.

Don’t…use a response that is only partially responsive to the question(s) being asked; it looks lazy…don’t overestimate your abilities or competitiveness…don’t repeat large sections of your primary essay…don’t rush through, giving your secondary application less attention than your primary application…don’t wait and let time pass; get the secondaries in as soon as you are able!

What’s the deadline?

Each school will spell out your deadline for the secondary application. It may be a date certain, or it may be “14 days from your receipt of this application.” The secondary application will spell out the terms. Be attentive to the deadline, as it can spell disaster if you miss it.

Can I get financial assistance?

Many schools offer fee discounts/waivers. If you qualified for a waiver on the AMCAS primary application, you may qualify for it on the secondary as well. Just ask the administrator at each of the schools where you are applying.

How long till I hear from the school?

Application deadlines for the secondary application may be as late as December or January, but read the fine print closely. If you’re given a 14-day deadline, don’t blow it! Even for those schools giving you several months, I’d recommend getting  your secondary in within weeks. It’s possible they’ll be reviewed in the interim.

There are three possible outcomes: the school will reject you, invite you to campus for an interview, or hold your application until after the first round of interviews. In other words, it’s not over till it’s over! Adcoms have literally up until the time school starts to be revising their lists and extending last-minute acceptances!

Check out these posts for additional help on the AMCAS application packet:

—How important is my science GPA vs cumulative GPA to medical schools?

—Medical school application timeline

—MCAT prep books: Review of Kaplan, Princeton Review, Examkrackers and Berkeley Review

—Should I re-take the MCAT? How do schools treat multiple MCAT scores?