The Trouble With Secondary Applications and How CASPer® Can Help

For both medical schools and the students who apply to them, applications are a long and tedious process. Programs receive thousands of applications each year for just a few hundred spots, and they often don’t have enough admissions staff to sort through each one, looking for both cognitive and personal qualities. For applicants, completing multiple application requirements for each school they apply to is arduous and time-consuming.

Then there are secondary applications. These applications are sent directly to applicants on an individual basis and are catered to the interests of the particular school — they’re not standard and can vary widely from one school to another. Some programs automatically send secondary applications to all their applicants, while other programs send secondaries after a fairly conservative filtering process (which still sees most applicants receiving a request to complete secondaries).

Secondaries are incredibly valuable for programs. They give schools an opportunity to target the specific qualities they’re seeking in applicants, to see if an applicant’s own goals align with the goals of the institution. This could mean checking to see whether an applicant has research experience, is motivated to teach, or expresses interest in serving underserved populations.

For applicants, secondary applications can be a particularly grueling process; each secondary application costs an applicant $100, plus about three to four days to complete. Students apply to 16 schools on average, meaning that the secondary application process could take between one and two months, and cost a whopping $1,600.

This challenge was highlighted in a recent issue of Academic Medicine, where a first-year medical student wrote to the editor to express his frustrations with the secondary application process. “I felt I had drained my bank account of all its funds to pay for the secondary applications for schools that were clearly not interested in any part of my application,” wrote Praveen Satarasinghe.

He continued: “For the mental sanity of applicants — and the maintenance of their financial stability — medical schools should distribute secondary applications only after cutting down the applicant pool and identifying individuals whom admissions committees are seriously considering for their programs … Such a reform will help applicants by saving them money, circumventing any false hope they may feel about moving forward in the process, and allowing them to better allocate their time by concentrating their efforts on only the applications for schools they have a good chance of getting into.”

A similar problem exists in the interview process. Medical school interviews drain a lot of resources from both programs and applicants, making it impossible to offer an interview to every student. A filter is typically implemented in the pre-screening phase prior to the interview, and a majority of applicants do not pass. Traditionally, this filter was largely based on cognitive metrics, like GPA and MCAT scores, but more recently, programs have begun incorporating non-cognitive metrics — such as reference letters, personal statements, and CASPer® — to make these high-stakes decisions with a more holistic view of the applicants.

This same process could be implemented prior to sending out secondary applications, in order to, in the words of Praveen Satarasinghe, “help applicants by saving them money, [and] circumventing any false hope.”

As mentioned earlier in this post, some programs do implement a filter to weed out applicants with low GPA or MCAT scores, but it tends to be pretty lenient. Plus, it’s typically only based on these cognitive metrics, and not the non-cognitive abilities such as ethics and communication that are also required to become a successful physician.

CASPer® can help. Prior to sending out secondary applications, programs could incorporate CASPer® and use the results, along with GPA and MCAT scores, to decide which applicants should receive secondaries. This would help programs identify high-potential applicants more accurately and more quickly in the process, and it would go a long way in alleviating the stress and burden faced by students, who are already spending around $7,500 for the chance to pursue their dreams.

Published: April 23, 2018
By: Christopher Zou, Ph.D.
Education Researcher at Altus Assessments