Content/Quality of Secondary essays

Well, this weekend I submitted 3 secondaries, and I’m hoping to get 2 or 3 off tonight. This is so exhausting. I feel like the only way to get it done fast is by making myself a human essay mill. I am making the essays as individual as possible, and grammatically correct, but other than that I can’t say the writing’s anything special. Is this ok? I am resorting to boring phrases like “One factor in my interest is… Another feature that appeals to me is…” I am doing my best, but I’m wondering, what general level of quality is expected in these things? Is there a tacit understanding that secondary essays aren’t the most interesting reading in the world? Are they expected to be a) more or b) less interesting than the average government document?
Also, for one of my secondaries, we can submit an optional page of additional comments. This is a school that requires community college attendees to take upper level courses at a 4-year school, which is what I have done during the previous year based on their recommendation. I was thinking of using the extra page to describe my post-bacc experience and the way I planned it and what its benefits to me were. Also just to clarify how I fulfilled their specific requirement. Does this seem like a wise use of the space? My post-bacc experience was somewhat complicated, so it would be nice to explain stuff. I don’t want to be too verbose though, or sound like I’m trying to butter anybody up.
To anyone who’s intersted in this-thanks in advance!

As a former AdCom member who’s read lots of essays, I think your sense of how to write them is spot-on. The personal statement is where everyone’s literary gifts should shine. You want it to really grab the reader’s interest - you want that person to respond, “Wow, when can I talk to this person?”
The secondary questions are often (though not always) asking for information, and answering them in a pretty straightforward conversation manner is fine. Now, there are always those schools that ask out-there sorts of questions (it was U. of Chicago when I was on the application circuit) and so you’ll certainly need to give thoughtful answers to, say, ethical dilemma sorts of questions. But they can still be conversational and straightforward without any of the dramatic turns that you might put into the PS in order to really punch it up.
Using the extra page to explain your complicated post-bacc course sounds like a great idea and a good use of that space.
Note that in the case of secondary essays and this “extra space” piece, you still want to use strong, tight, economical writing. We tend to work hard to cram a lot into the PS because of the restriction on the space, and get a little more verbose when not up against that character count. Don’t say more than you need to. If you’ve said it in half a page when you’re given a page, that’s OKAY.

Great! Thanks for your response, Mary. I sent in two secondaries today. Followed your advice to a T. One of them I have to follow up with a photo. Now if I wasn’t in turmoil before, boy here do we go. I think there should be a special category on OPM just devoted to the trials and travails of my secondary experiences! The big issue of tonight is, do I send them the lackluster passport photo or the picture I used for christmas cards 7 years ago (has a beach in distant background)? I’m just thinking of Ann Landers here and how she used the same picture of herself for like 50 years, and how probably everyone in the world but her could see that that beehive hairdo was dated! Don’t want to give that impression. I also don’t want to spend another dime on more passport photos.

One of the things Lori Haxton has in her “I can’t believe it!” file is a collection of the funny photographs people sent them back when they still requested pictures. She blocked out enough of the faces that you couldn’t identify people and showed us her favorites. My rough recollection includes: a head shot from a glamour portrait studio in flashdance clothes; people in lab coats trying to look like doctors, someone at the beach with one of those drinks with umbrellas. Go for boring.

Well, sure I will go with something fairly conservative. I already planned to. But I think it is mean spirited of adcom members to pass around pictures that their staff once laughed at. I’m sorry, but I’m tired of hearing of all the gaffes applicants make and how it entertains the staff. These are people applying, not jokes. I wouldn’t apply to any school who I knew did that stuff.
Ok, passport pictures cost $7 each. Multiply by 20 schools say and there’s another $140. I guess we’re supposed to have endless funds for this.
Sorry if I sound curt, I don’t mean to I’m just annoyed by these costs and the existence of these “files” on people.

On that whole head shot thing, anyone know what the purpose of requesting pictures for the applications are for? I know it’s pretty common, but it seems kind of strange to me. Maybe it’s for some sort of identification purposes so if they invite you for an interview they know it’s actually you and not some actor you sent in your place? But even so… I have a variety of pictures on my license, work ID, etc. that don’t necessarily look like me (different hair styles, whatever). I can’t see any other reason why they would need that.
As for laughing at them… well, I laugh at my own ID pictures, I can only imagine what I’d be thinking if I were in their shoes, especially with some of the things that people think are appropriate to send in (i.e. glamour shots). I suppose it’s not the nicest thing to pass them around, but it sounds like the person did her best to conceal their identities!
By the way, you don’t need to get passport photos. You can take a headshot or snapshot of yourself to CVS or anyplace that has those Kodak picture maker kiosks and crop them to the appropriate size and make a sheet of the requisite size for fairly cheap. If you have a scanner and photo quality printer at home you could do the same thing.

Just to clarify, my “beach” picture wasn’t like some Fort Lauderdale spring break drunk shot. There was some shoreline in the background, and a sand dune. That was it. No tiki torches, jello shots or nude bathers. However at this point I don’t dare send anything with any character in at all. So I just sent in the passport photo.
If the person’s flashdance clothes were showing, then how could it have been a headshot? I can see where a glamor shot isn’t appropriate, but to put the thing on display in a traveling museum for laughs is what I don’t get. We all do things that aren’t appropriate from time to time. This includes doctors and I’ve seen it happen in hospitals. If med schools want 2x2 inch mug shots they should just say so on the app.
Other apps are asking for SAT scores. There’s another wierd thing. I WISH premeds would band together and stand up for themselves. Why do we need to be grilled in this way? What is the relevance of those old scores? If they’re going to go that far back, why don’t they go a few more years back and get my third grade transcript and have AMCAS verify it? Why are there statutes of limitations on violent crimes in this country but med schools can requisition old transcripts from as far back as they feel like?

Yikes! I’m sorry if I offended you. I almost didn’t mention this, and I think that must have been my better judgment trying to shut me up.
On the other hand, having been on the hiring end of many personnel decisions, sometimes I DO have to laugh. I don’t lose sight of the fact that these are real people I’ve been interviewing, some of whom have been out of work for two years or more. And it’s sad that some of them, in just a couple of sentences, talk their way completely out of a job. (And they do. The one time I ignored those one or two unfortunate sentences and hired the guy, I was very, very, very, very sorry. And so was he.) But some of the ways they do it are funny, and I don’t care who you are, you’d laugh, too.
Lori does thoroughly anonymize the things she does keep so you can’t tell at all who it may be, but it DOES help give applicants, many of us VERY UPTIGHT, a sense of the spectrum of applicants out there. It’s reassuring to know there are people who do silly things that it would never occur to me to do, and nice to have clear examples of what NOT to do. More importantly, I also got to hear about some much less obvious mistakes, and the effect those can have on your application. Admissions commitees see many qualified applicants and cannot take them all and that adcom’s eye view, however much it might surprise me, is very helpful.
The real point is that you don’t want your application to be unusual in any way except very positive, meaningful, I-wanna-talk-to-this-person-and-hear-more-about-this experience kinds of ways. Anything else should be VERY VERY NORMAL because you don’t know how things will strike people.
Can you not make color photocopies of your passport photos, or do the pictures have to meet certain standards of print quality? And do all 20 of those schools still require pictures? I thought many schools (Lori’s among them) were phasing them out.

Oh, and the head shot went down to the shoulders. The description of the picture as a head shot was mine, and maybe it was a bit off. There was enough of the hairstyle and the pink and gray ripped sweatshirt showing around the big black hide-the-face bar to know what the look was. Lori did point out that it has been a very, very long time since her school asked for pictures, in response to our general chuckling at the fashion statement this made.

Here is a fairly cheap solution to the photo question. You can go to Walmart and have the photo package for $4.99 and not buy any of the “options” they have, and you can get a decent picture with a nice background (white, black, colored) with enough of the wallet size to do the job. (You also get some other sizes, but who cares). If you go when they aren’t busy, and are nice and explain what you are doing it for they’ll probably even let you look at the digital image first. I had a very nice lady, and we played with backgrounds and such to get a nice shot. It does take a little while to get them back (I think it took 3 weeks). For people that have time, it might be worth doing.

Hi there,
The WalMart option is great idea but take some time, spend some money and get some professionally done, professional-attire head and shoulder passport sized photos shot. Make sure that you look your best. (Put on some makeup and no garish earrings or hairstyles) It doesn’t make sense to invest thousands in undergraduate/post bacc tuition, hundreds in MCAT prep and testing, hundreds in application fees and skimp on the one thing that represents you on the application. You are going to need these photos for many things down the road so get them shot. You will need them for USMLE applications, license applications, secondaries etc. This is an easy part of your application to get right.

I went to Sears and had a nice picture made in the standard “sitting” pose wearing a dress shirt (white) and blazer (red). It was a great picture of really nice quality, all for about $25. I trimmed the wallet size pictures down to the required size, which varied for each school.

Hey samenewme–
Not to worry at all. I was not offended. I was in a tizzy yesterday and felt like going on one of my frequent rants re. the premedical universe. The application process has its cold and condescending aspects–but it wasn’t your post I was upset by. I’m actually pretty curious about the ridiculous things some people put in their applications. Plus, I wasn’t there when the pictures were shown, so I don’t know what the tone of the discussion was. I’m sure it was respectful.
Well, I could have sent in a better picture than the one I did, but I assume it was ok. I hadn’t thought of Sears–that’s a great idea. The other places I’ve checked to a crap job and you still pay an arm and a leg. Plus yesterday it was so hot in Minneapolis that NO ONE was looking good enough to have their picture taken, and I knew that included me.
One thing I don’t agree with is the argument that if you’re willing to pay thousands for your application, why won’t you add on a bit to get a nice photo taken. This is the same argument for application fees, fancy interview clothes, etc. I agree to a point, but I don’t have an endless budget and they don’t give out loans to applicants. The extra $100 for 10 new photos is the cost of a school I could apply to. Also, honestly, my photo wasn’t horrible or anything. If it makes or breaks my application then they probably didn’t like me much to begin with.

By the way, I’ve been in on some hiring decisions myself–seen some seriously bizarre resumes. I also worked in book publishing where it was my job to read through all the unsolicited manuscripts. Everyone thinks they have a novel in them, which it turns out, isn’t true. And I was not so nice that I would not laugh at some of the things I got. Then I would have to remind myself sometimes that the people sending these things in worked really hard and were just hoping for the best.