How Expensive is Applying to Medical School? A Pharmacists Insight

Learn how to apply strategically to maximize application results, while minimizing your financial burden!

Although every applicant’s experience will be different the financial burden of applying to medical school is often a shared experience. Regardless of your upbringing it is important to recognize that applying is NOT a cost-free endeavor. As a pharmacy student/recent graduate, you will likely already have a substantial amount of debt. According to The American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy’s 2017 Graduate Student Report, the average graduating pharmacy student will have amassed $163,496 in student loan burden. The scariest part is that this data is from 2017 and the loan burden is likely even higher today. I myself graduated pharmacy school owing approximately $150,000, slightly below the national average. Regardless, mortgage sized education loans are no laughing matter. This is not to scare you away from pursuing a career in medicine but rather to provide some perspective. Assuming you have a considerable student loan burden like I do, deciding to continue your education warrants a financial inspection. You now have a fiduciary responsibility to yourself to protect your finances more so than ever before.


It is not an easy task convincing your family, loved ones, professors, and peers that you are going back to school. Some may even think you are crazy! That six-figure pharmacist salary that is almost guaranteed at the end of your schooling will fall to the wayside to take on even greater debt. This is no easy decision, and I am only talking about the financial implications at the moment. This life-altering decision has many other complexities that you the reader must wrestle with individually. You must be willing to add years to your schooling experience, handle the mental burden of new information, and now complete a residency after graduating with your medical doctorate. This career shift also has many appealing attributes, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article. This transition isn’t for every pharmacy graduate but those who are considering this route need to limit their expenses to the best of their ability during the application cycle and throughout medical school.


Disregarding your future medical school tuition, the application process itself can be very expensive. These expenses can balloon if you are not careful, however do not attempt to cut corners to save a few dollars. I would much rather be a broke medical student than to save a few dollars on the front-end only to end up reapplying the following year. This is not to encourage you to blow out the budget but for you to understand a few extra thousand dollars upfront is far better than not becoming an attending physician ten years later. For example, when I first took the MCAT I elected to utilize free resources only. I believed that my pharmacy school education was sufficient to excel on the exam. Well, I could not have been further from the truth. It ended up costing me far more later on when I needed to enroll in a prep-course, re-purchase the MCAT, and invest thousands of hours into preparation. Do not try to cut corners! For more information about how to apply, check out our additional articles.


As a pharmacy student it may be difficult to scrape up a few thousand dollars for applications. If you are a practicing pharmacist theses costs will sting but won’t dramatically impact your net worth. For students, save up all your birthday money, pick up a few extra shifts at your local pharmacy, or take out a few extra thousand dollars on your school loans. You can certainly be frugal throughout the process but the last stressor you need is a financial one.


For your reference I have listed some cost you will encounter on the application trail. This process takes more than it gives but getting that acceptance letter makes it all worth it in the end, believe me! Of course, it is impossible to accurately predict every little cost along the way and each student’s experience will be unique. Please note that the costs are always rising so if you are budgeting, always compensate for a little over-charge. The chart below is far from comprehensive, but I hope it will provide you with a rough idea of what you are up against.



From my personal experience, I ended up spending closer to $10,000 after everything was said and done. To be fair, I was neither the smartest nor the most strategic during my application cycle. I applied very broadly to over 33 programs (yikes!). Within my large program list, I failed to adequately review school specific application requirements and had to forgo my pursuit of acceptance along with any associated financials. For example, I was overzealous when applying to reach programs, and unrealistic about getting into programs with severe in-state biases. I tossed away hundreds of dollars in poorly coordinated primary applications and took a bare minimum approach to MCAT preparation which resulted in a costly retake.


While the final result was a medical school acceptance, the manner in which I did it was far from strategic and even less coordinated than I would have hoped. Check out Medical School Headquarters’ Application Cost Estimator to calculate your own potential costs. This is a very useful tool and unfortunately, all too realistic. There are many resources available to you to help limit the cost burden of applying to medical school. We will focus on programs and opportunities that Pharmacy students may find appealing.


1. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) can assist applicants through their “Fee Assistance Program.” Qualifications include demonstrating proof of citizenship and providing parental income values. Check out their website to see if you qualify.


2. Consider applying to an MD-PhD Program. This is an extremely competitive application process that allows participants to complete a hybrid education plan. They start off completing the first 2 years of medical school, then 3-4 years for PhD. attainment, followed by the final 2 years of medical school. The incentive to take on this indirect route to becoming a physician includes a cost-free medical school education. The tradeoff for a free education is an additional 3-4 years of your life spent in an academic research lab.


3. The Military’s Health Professions Scholarship Program, otherwise known as HPSP for short. I bring this up because it is one of the most commonly offered scholarships and its features almost seem too good to be true. In short, the military will pay for all your medical school expenses including tuition and supplies. They also provide the student with a monthly stipend for living expenses. In turn, at the completion of your schooling you are expected to pay back the contribution through equal years of service as a military doctor. A career in the military is certainly not for everyone but an offer this attractive is often hard to overlook. As a pharmacy student riddled with debt, I found this program to be extremely appealing, at least at face value. As the old proverb goes, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” While the upsides of the program are quite obviously marketed by the military, the downsides are often realized much later. I have listed a few Pros and Cons about the program, and you can read through and see if this scholarship opportunity is appropriate for you.


Pros:

1. Your tuition costs are completely covered. This “pro” should be weighted considerably more as the cost of your medical school tuition rises. This scholarship will be far more fruitful to the recipient if they attend an out-of-state private institution compared to their public in-state programs.


2. You will receive a monthly stipend of approximately $2,000 per month. The monetary value will vary based on your medical school location and your branch of military you intend to serve under.


3. There is an opportunity for large signing bonuses which can exceed $20,000. To qualify for these bonuses, you are often required to complete a 4-year service obligation.


4. You have an opportunity to serve in the American Military and will have access to most, if not all, benefits allocated to military personal. A career dedicated to the service will provide ample military benefits and open the door for pension eligibility.


5. You will have the opportunity to travel and see more of the world than any civilian physician would ever have access to. This feature is highly variable, and I have been told from current physicians in the program that the military attempts to work with you to match your travel requests. This however can also be slotted as a “con.” See below for more details.


6. Lastly, physician residency pay is on average higher than civilian residency pay. A recent study published in Cureus found that on average military residents earned 53% more than their civilian resident counterparts. This flips dramatically once you become an attending (another major “con” listed below).


Cons:

1. You may have less autonomy regarding the selection of your future specialty. The military only needs certain types of physicians, and they will likely put limitations on what you can specialize in. This is related to the number of military residency match positions available each year. The military needs far more emergency medicine and trauma surgeons than they need pediatric oncologists. If you are interested in a very specific subspecialty you may want to investigate the current demand for said profession before signing up for the HPSP.


2. Although you received payments and tuition coverage upfront, you will have to pay this back through equivalent years of service. If you accepted a 4-year scholarship, you are expected to pay back those years in service. Another important consideration is that your residency training DOES NOT count towards repayment, even if you participate in the military match. You are also subject to deployments and can be placed wherever the military needs your services at that point in time. This may not always fit with your personal schedule, especially if you are interested in starting a family or your own private practice.


3. As a military attending, your salary is far lower than a civilian equivalents salary. According to the same Cureus study the military attending made 32%-58% less than their civilian counterparts. To put this into perspective, consider the numbers. If you are an orthopedic surgeon in the military, your civilian counterpart will make approximately 50% more gross annual income. Instead of the $500,000 attending salary you were expecting, you will only make approximately $250,000. Multiply this deficit by 4 years for repayment purposes and you are short $1,000,000. The opportunity cost of pursuing a career in the military far exceeds any potential benefit you may experience from a cost-free medical education which averages no more than $350,000.


The HPSP scholarship may be attractive at first glance, but it has some drawbacks hidden away in the details. Considering our substantial pharmacy school loan burden this program may help prevent you from succumbing to even more debt, but I hope you understand what you are signing up for. The best advice I can offer is for you to talk with someone who is currently in the program. Their experience and insight will be worth far more than some conjecture in a book.


If you are committed, you should reach out to a military recruiter, and they will facilitate your enrollment!


TAKEAWAYS:

• The average pharmacy graduate has $163,496 in student loan debt.


• Applying to medical school is expensive.


• Apply smartly and you will save money by default.


• AAMC offers a Fee Assistance Program for qualifying applicants.


• The MD-PhD program may be a viable option for students interested in research while covering their education costs.


• You can seek a free medical school education through the HPSP program but read the fine print before signing up.



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