Demystifying the Cost of Medical School: 8 Expenses That Have Nothing to Do With Tuition


11.20.2019

Read the fine print.

Be wary of claims that seem too good to be true.

Compare and contrast different options.

It’s important to carefully investigate every major purchase before buying. You probably already do this when comparing vehicles or large appliances, but what about when evaluating medical programs you’d like to attend? While you might be tempted to focus solely on tuition when evaluating the total cost of medical school, tuition is just one part of the overall price tag.

Don’t lose sight of the other expenses that you will incur as a medical student. A program that seems like a bargain might turn out to be equivalent to – or even more expensive than – a school you once thought costly after you take everything into account. Keep reading to learn about the medical school expenses you might not have considered.

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8 Non-tuition expenses affecting the cost of medical school

When weighing the cost of medical school, be sure you’re including all potential costs. The overlooked expenses can add up to a big difference when all is said and done. We enlisted some experts to help identify some of the common costs to consider.

1. Medical school applications and campus visits

Medical school applications might not be the first thing you think of when considering the cost of medical school, but they’re something to keep in mind. If you plan to apply using the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS), you’ll pay a $170 processing fee that covers one school. Every additional medical school you apply to through the system will cost you $39. Programs that use their own application instead of participating in AMCAS will have separate application fees.

"If you go to 10 interviews, that can easily be $10,000."

Campus visits during interview season can also be particularly costly, according to Dr. Antonio Webb, an Orthopaedic Resident Surgeon and author of Overcoming the Odds. “If you go to 10 interviews, that can easily be $10,000 because you have to pay for your flight, your hotel, a rental car, and food expenses while you travel,” he explains.

Some medical schools make a concerted effort to ease the financial burden for applicants, but not all programs are so accommodating.

2. Books and equipment

Buying books for classes is just as standard for medical school as it is for college. “Core books for class are very important, but you can usually predict how much they will cost,” says Dr. Gokul Solai, CEO and Head of Products and Alliances at Novatio Solutions. He also notes you’ll need to purchase extras like a white coat and stethoscope.

Not everything is so expected, though. Dr. Solai says it’s easy to forget about how many guides and learning aids you end up buying. “Now we have smart devices, which cuts down on the amount of clutter, but buying apps can add up,” he notes.

"Now we have smart devices, which cuts down on the amount of clutter, but buying apps can add up."

3. Student fees

Tuition makes up most of the cost of medical school, but students also pay additional fees for everything from student organizations to parking facilities. “There is a lot of effort that goes into logistics and ensuring the success of your experience,” Dr. Solai explains. “This does cost a lot more than one would assume.”

Medical schools don’t all stick to the same system when listing student fees, either. Some will include a lump sum while outlining their cost of attendance, but there’s no guarantee the fee listed includes everything.

If you’re comparing programs and notice one lists substantially steeper fees than the other, you should question whether the program with relatively fewer expenses will nickel-and-dime you once you’re in school. Will you have to pay additional fees for student support services? Will you face additional costs if you want to use specific library resources? Those could add up.

4. Cost of living

This broad category can include day-to-day travel expenses, food, rent, and even child care. While most schools make general estimates to assist students trying to evaluate their financial need, some projections are just too conservative. “I do feel like most cost-of-living estimates are grossly underestimated,” Dr. Solai says.

"Given the demanding nature of a medical school curriculum, it is very difficult for students to have a part-time job."

Making sure you have an accurate estimate of what it’s going to cost to live in a certain area is key for avoiding financial strain. “Given the demanding nature of a medical school curriculum, it is very difficult for students to have a part-time job,” Dr. Solai explains. This means most students rely solely on loans.

Many students forget to factor in away rotations as well, and they may end up completing several. Medical students will need to consider food costs, travel expenses, and housing for away rotations.

It can be a real struggle to find affordable housing for a short amount of time, but Dr. Webb does offer a solution. “There’s a website called RotatingRoom.com where residents and medical professionals can rent out their rooms,” he says. The site is designed specifically for medical students, which can help alleviate some of the stress.

5. Health insurance

If you aren’t already covered by a health insurance policy of your own, you’ll want to enroll in a school’s student plan. The cost of student plans can vary significantly from one program to the next. Most schools will list this information somewhere on their website, but don’t hesitate to reach out to financial aid offices to learn more. To avoid footing a significant medical bill should you need medical attention while attending a program that allows you to forgo coverage, also consider acquiring coverage through the American Medical Student Association, which offers insurance plans for members and their families.

6. Exams

You’ll face the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) before you ever step foot on campus. Your results on the MCAT play a big role in whether you get accepted, so many pre-meds do everything they can to ready themselves. Dr. Webb shares the he opted to take two prep courses, each costing around $4,000.

"Set aside maybe $50 every month."

As a student, you will start to prepare for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 – the first in a three-part series – pretty early on in your medical education. Step 1 will cost you $645 for 2020, but you can make that expense more manageable with some preparation. “Set aside maybe $50 every month,” Dr. Webb recommends. “When that times comes up, you’ll already have the money to pay for it.”

Of course, you could end up paying significantly more if you need to retake any of the USMLE exams in order to obtain a passing score. For this reason, you should make sure you research how well students from various schools perform on Step 1.

7. Costs associated with residency search

You definitely want to apply for plenty of postgraduate positions, but that doesn’t mean you should include programs you wouldn’t actually consider attending. “I would be diligent about where you want to apply,” Dr. Solai advises. “Research, research, research.” He also suggests being as flexible as you can and traveling in a group when possible.

“I would be diligent about where you want to apply."

If you use credit cards, make sure you take advantage of ones that offer points or some other type of reward system. “They'll give you 50,000 points after you spend a certain amount and you can use some of those on your flights,” Dr. Webb says. Just be smart about how you swipe — you don’t want to accumulate credit card debt.

8. A few important extras

What’s one very important cost students forget about? “I would say emergencies,” Dr. Webb says. “Like if your car breaks down, or if you have an event where you have to be hospitalized for a few days.” Try to build up a buffer in advance. If you’ve set aside some money, replacing your car battery won’t be that big of a deal.

Lastly, don’t forget to allow yourself some fun. “I would recommend putting aside some money for travel and leisure — you need to take some time off, so you don’t burn out,” Dr. Solai notes. “This is a long journey.”

"I would recommend putting aside some money for travel and leisure — you need to take some time off."

Make a wise investment

There’s clearly more to the cost of medical school than tuition, so make sure you’re being critical when comparing programs. You may need to contact financial aid offices at different schools for specific details that aren’t spelled out on the programs’ websites. Be sure to ask questions about anything that seems unclear.

You should also be thinking about financial assistance. While the vast majority of students will take out loans, you can lessen your financial burden by seeking out grants and scholarships. Learn more about your options by reading our article “The Medical School Scholarships You Haven't Considered.”

* This article has been updated from a previous version to include current facts and figures.

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