Article by Ben Feuer, photo by Robyn Jay

When we work with medical school students, one of the most common questions we hear is about AMCAS Activities versus Secondary Essays. Applying to medical school is a ton of work, and a lot of that work can seem redundant. Many candidates worry that they are talking about the same topics on their secondary essays and their AMCAS Activities, particularly the ‘most meaningful’ activities.

An understandable concern – here’s how to deal with it.

AMCAS ACTIVITIES TEMPLATE – This document should read like a resume on steroids. Students should be including extended descriptions of every activity that is important to them, taking full advantage of the available character count to show what is distinctive, and meaningful, about each position. The focus is more on facts, but not exclusively – particularly for the most meaningful activities, a couple of leadership anecdotes to show how the student is taking full advantage of the opportunities the position offers can add a special spice to the document. But for the most part, this work should be bread and butter, covering a lot of ground, giving technical/medical detail where appropriate, and differentiating the student from the pack.

SECONDARY ESSAYS – These are all about reading the prompt, considering the context and the available word count, and crafting something tailor-made to fit. In other words, if the AMCAS Template is Forever 21, the Secondary Essays are 5th Avenue Boutiques. Students should aim at a smaller, more targeted audience, should focus on storytelling over fact-listing, should avoid diving into dull, technical detail, and should limit themselves to discussing specific, focused aspects of a commitment rather than the entire scope of it. For example, in a secondary ‘challenge’ essay (talking about a challenge they have overcome), they might talk about the three-month period when they were treasurer of their local chapter of a volunteer group giving free medical education to the needy, rather than focusing on the entire 2-year scope of their commitment to the organization. They would talk about the names of their supervisors and how they convinced them to change policy, rather than discussing the position in abstract terms. And they would focus on results, subjective psychology (how do they feel about what they did?) and details rather than broad strokes.

So you see, they’re actually two very different things. In the vast majority of cases, it’s possible to write about a single activity in the AMCAS template as well as one or even two essays, depending on the scope of the commitment. But you don’t want to write all your essays about the same topic – after all, there’s more to you than just one thing!

Got more questions – we’d be happy to answer them.