By: Savvy Pre-Med Staff
Even though it’s a huge accomplishment, getting into medical school is only half the battle.
Once you’re in, you not only have to thrive in your coursework, pass USMLEs, and take on the enormous responsibility of saving lives, but you also have to find a way to pay off the overwhelming amount of tuition and fees.
Should you take out loans? Which ones? What about scholarships? Can you negotiate with medical schools? What are the do’s and don’ts of medical school financial aid?
The truth is that there isn’t one financial aid strategy that works for every medical student, so you’ll have to do some research to figure out what’s best for you.
However, you’re not alone in this difficult journey. To give you a healthy perspective on this challenge, we wanted to share 8 testimonies from actual medical students and residents about their strategies for paying for medical school.
These testimonies come from a diverse set of students with different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. We hope that these testimonies will help you avoid mistakes and give you a baseline of advice.
My parents and I had initially planned on paying for medical school through a combination of scholarships, loans, and family contributions. As I was applying for medical schools, I had also been looking for independent scholarship opportunities (the Soros scholarship is one that comes to mind).
I ended up getting none of them – but very fortunately, I received a sizable half-tuition scholarship from the school I got into. Later in the year, I received a full-tuition scholarship and stipend from a similarly ranked medical school which I managed to flip into a full-tuition scholarship from my first choice school. After that, I slowed down on applying to scholarships quite a bit.
The financial aid office at any medical school is going to be your biggest ally. Don’t shy away from asking whether there is any money available, and always ask if a school you like can match an offer you get from another school. The worst that can happen is they say no!
Lastly, while medical school is expensive, keep in mind that the type of people you meet and the quality of the education you receive should still be very important components of this decision (and arguably, the most important considerations). You can always pay loans back, but you can’t get a do-over on your next four years.
The idea of taking on $320,000+ of medical school debt is terrifying. After having already accumulated $125,000 of debt from college and a master's program, I knew I needed to address how I would pay it back.
My family was unable to contribute to my college education, but I earned merit scholarships and qualified for Pell grants in college. I used Federal loans (maximizing my subsidized allowance) to pay for the remainder, which left me no choice but to use Grad PLUS loans for my master's program. Afterwards, while coordinating research at a state university, I learned about Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). In exchange for making 120 payments while working in some area of the public sector (at a state or federal institution, for example), the rest of your federal loans are forgiven. Experiences volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and disaster-relief organizations in the US had shown me the fulfillment of serving people in need, and I decided that PSLF would be a great way to give back and eventually earn loan forgiveness. I successfully applied for 30 out of the 120 payments required to qualify for PSLF while working.
When I decided to apply for medical school, I spent hours searching for any local, state, or organizational scholarships, but I found that few exist for medical school. There were, however, two national scholarships. I seriously contemplated the Army Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), which offers full tuition, a room and board allowance, and even a substantial cash bonus in exchange for four years of active duty, but I realized that I would prefer to serve the US domestically. So, I switched to applying for the National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program (NHSC-SP). Although I was not selected this round, I intend to apply for it again. Next year, I will also apply for some merit and essay-based scholarships that my school offers, but they are highly competitive. Whether or not I receive any of these scholarships, I am planning on continuing to work in the public sector once I earn my MD in order to qualify for PSLF.
I would advise any pre-meds to spend as much time as necessary searching and applying for scholarships in undergrad, where they are plentiful. Once you reach the graduate and medical school level, most of the scholarships are either tied to a service contract after graduation (HPSP, NHSC-SP) or are exceptionally difficult to obtain. The timeline of medical school applications makes it difficult to negotiate unless you are accepted early in the cycle to multiple schools and can get your financial aid packages in time to compare them (if the schools even allow you to fill their aid application without matriculating first).
All that said, it is completely possible to pay off medical school-sized debt, even without scholarships, by using common sense strategies after graduation. I'm planning on living very much within my means (e.g. sticking with my rust-bucket despite the appeal of a new Mustang) and putting the majority of my income towards debt for the first 5-10 years after graduating. The financial commitment of going to medical school mirrors the deep personal one, and you need to make both if you want to earn a medical degree.
Before you even attend medical school, you have to apply. With application fees, travel (assuming we can travel) for interviews, lodging, food, and time off from work, these expenses can add up to a few thousand dollars.
I was fortunate enough to have my family cover these expenses, since I was a student with no income. Understandably, this cannot be the solution for everyone. Luckily, the AAMC has a fee assistance program that helps offset MCAT and application costs for students who need it. Once you have an interview, schools can often assist to offset the costs of travel for the interview, but this is usually on a school-by-school basis. Schools will often have a host program where current students will let prospective students crash on a couch or air mattress. As for food, most interviews will provide a small breakfast and/or lunch.
Once you are accepted, you have to deal with a much larger expense - tuition. This is further complicated by the fact that you are most likely not going to be working, so you have to have some money for rent, food, supplies, and other living essentials. Students will usually take on loans to cover these costs. Most schools will have scholarships that you can apply for during the application process or are awarded at acceptance with no input on your part. There are also smaller scholarships you can apply to while you are in school. Usually, your financial aid office will have a list of those that are available to you.
In my case, I am a part of an MD/PhD program. With this specific type of dual degree program (this does not necessarily apply to MD/MBA, MD/JD, etc), your full medical school tuition is covered and you are provided with a living stipend (~$25,000 - $40,000/year) funded through the NIH or your institution. This is predicated on the fact that you complete both the MD and the PhD. While this shouldn't be your main reason for pursuing this path, it alleviates the financial concerns with dedicating 7+ years of your life toward being a student.
I'm from Santa Barbara, which has a very robust scholarship foundation, including a portion specific to medical and law students. I was able to get two scholarships through an application process for all four years. The scholarships combined were about $15,000-20,000 per year.
I also received the Regents Scholarship when I applied to medical school, which gave me another $8,000 per year. Lastly, I also obtained an opportunity grant that I applied for via the FAFSA and my school and received another $20,000 from that for three out of the four years.
I fortunately did not have to take out any loans, and my parents were able to support me if I needed extra money beyond the scholarships (about $5,000-$10,000 per year).
As far as advice, I would tell people to look for scholarships, especially local ones! I never applied to any throughout college, so it was a novel experience for me during medical school. I reused the essays and activity descriptions from my medical school application and used them for my scholarship applications, so it wasn't too much extra work.
I would've definitely had to take out loans if I wasn't awarded scholarships.
I worked as a care manager before I even decided to do prerequisites and pursue medical school. While taking prerequisites and applying, I still worked as a care manager and professional fiduciary (I managed elderly clients' finances and administered probate estate). My husband works while I am in medical school, and that's partly how we pay for living expenses.
I received a scholarship that pays for my tuition, but I am committed to working in the state for five years after I finish my residency. I took out a small loan when my husband was on paternity leave. But other than that, we tried to keep loans to a minimum. I applied for scholarships as little as $500 to as big as $200,000 (the one that pays for my medical school tuition).
Medical school debt is what will tie you down and prevents you from being able to do what you truly love. Minimizing your loans will free you from having to go into specialities that you may not love, but need to, in order to be fiscally responsible. Do the fiscally responsible thing early: minimize your loans!
If your institution provides financial aid counseling (like mine did), utilize that opportunity. Many of my classmates weren't happy with the sessions that the school set up during orientation and as part of the curriculum, but this is an important topic. It might not seem as important as passing the Friday weekly quiz right now, but it will make a big difference in your future.
Don't splurge while you are on loan (i.e. while you are a medical student since most of us can't work while we are in medical school).
At the end of the quarter, set aside whatever amount of money you have left for Financial Aid (even if it’s just $50). If you get $100 from your aunt for Christmas, set it aside for Financial Aid. $150 today is a lot of money 15 years down the road (which is how long it might take you to pay off our debt).
During medical school, I lived mainly off federal school loans and money that I had saved up for before starting. While I was still in college, I had already planned on taking time off before medical school to work and save up for the spending money that I was going to need, but also to take a bit of a mental break before starting.
I came from a middle-class family, and while my family was willing to help out with a little bit of my living expenses during medical school, I chose instead to work before medical school to support myself. I honestly did not even try to apply for very many scholarships because I did not think that I would qualify given my social demographic background. In hindsight, that was a big mistake. At the very least, I should have applied because it also looks great on your CV.
My recommendation to students is that if they are willing to take some time off before medical school, they should do that in order to work and save up. That was easily one of the best decisions I made. Finally, my advice would be to take out loans if they need them and use them frugally and strictly for school and important living expenses. Many physicians I have spoken with about the matter have used school loans, and most did not have any issues in doing so.
I was born in Florida and grew up in Taiwan. My parents are doctors in Taiwan. My mom supported all my school tuition in college. For medical school, I paid for the cost of attendance through a combination of parental support and student loans.
The amount of government loan I could receive was calculated by my school in this formula: cost of attendance - expected family contribution (EFC) - resources = loan available for me. Examples of resources could be scholarships that you do not need to pay back in many cases.
EFC is determined by a standard government formula that takes into account the family size, number in college, total income from the previous calendar year, and assets. Your school will review and may recalculate your expected family contribution.
For my school, the estimated cost of attendance per year is 60K. In my case, about 1/6 of my total cost of attendance (10K) is expected to come from parental contribution. This leaves about 5/6 (50K) of the cost of attendance assistance available to me in loans.
In terms of advice for others, I would say it’s most important to first set a budget of your cost of attendance that involves rent, food, transportation, books, and all the essentials. This way, you can just borrow what you need and only what you need. For every penny we borrow, we have to pay back, and with interest too!
Additional loans may be available to students, such as unsubsidized loans to cover unmet need and/or replace EFC. It’s a good idea to contact your campus financial aid office to find out your options before applying for private loans or military loans. In terms of government loans, there’s the federal direct unsubsidized Stafford loans and also the Grad PLUS loans.
Don't waste too much money on outside academic resources during the didactic years. It's better to pick a couple ones and stick to them. Sometimes there's not even enough time to cover the school's materials, and subscriptions expire quickly. So sometimes, it's better to wait to subscribe until the dedicated time to prepare for the USMLE step 1 exam.
I would say my family is middle-class and helped to support me through medical school. We figured that we probably wouldn't qualify for any loan forgiveness program in the future, so we did not apply for any federal loans.
Instead, we chose to apply for private loans from a private company because they usually carry a lower interest rate than federal loans. I would say it’s usually a 1+% difference. Private loans also offer many options, such as a fixed rate or variable rate. Your interest rate drops further with a co-signer (ex, parent). I have been borrowing from the same company for all four years. The con is that you don't enjoy any government benefits such as the current interest rate freeze during COVID with federal loans.
My advice is to be active and seek out as many options as possible, but usually people just settle with federal loans.
Have any questions about financial aid for medical school? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll respond to you personally.