For many students interested in a career in medicine, the period after the final year of undergraduate education represents a time of transition to medical school or to furthering their experiences and their education in preparation for applying to medical school. This month’s article from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) focuses on those two pathways.
Going to Medical School
Financing Medical School
If you are headed to medical school, you’re going to need a plan to pay for it. To make your medical education more affordable, keep your outstanding debt as low as possible. If you can pay off any of your undergraduate loans or credit card balances before going to medical school, it will make handling your finances more manageable.
There are options for paying for school, and the key is being knowledgeable about those options. If you applied for financial aid as an undergraduate student, some of this may be familiar to you; however, if you’re applying for financial aid for the first time, make sure you take some time to learn about the process. Meet the staff at the financial aid office and become familiar with the school’s financial aid website. The financial aid office can help you throughout all four years of your medical education.
If you need to apply for financial aid, make sure you understand the school’s procedure and deadlines. Generally, the first step to apply for federal financial aid is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), as well as any other forms that the school may require. These forms provide important financial information to the financial aid staff so that they can determine your eligibility. Once you complete the FAFSA, you’ll receive an award letter from each of the schools listed on the FAFSA.
The Award Letter
Compare the award letters that you receive from each school. One way to do this is by reviewing what is being offered at each school and asking yourself the following questions:
• Have I been offered grants and scholarships (free money), or will I need to borrow and pay back loans?
• Have I been offered federal loans or institutional loans?
• When will I need to pay back the loans?
• What is the interest rate associated with each loan I’ve been offered?
You’ll want to look at what aid package is offered to you and compare the award to the cost of attendance at the school, and to the amount you will actually need to fund your education. Most schools will require you to sign an award letter in order to accept the financial aid offer, but remember, just because you’re offered a loan, you don’t have to accept the full amount. If you’re offered more aid than you need, think about declining it or decreasing the award. If you later decide that you actually need more money, you can generally go back and request it again.
Live Within Your Means
While you’re in medical school, one of the wisest things you can do is keep your spending to a minimum. Learn how to live frugally and budget your money wisely. Some money saving tips include: dine in with your friends and cook your meals together – it’s less costly than going out to a restaurant; limit the use of your credit cards – what may seem important at the moment, may not be as important the next day; brew your coffee at home – it will save you money; and consider getting a roommate – share some of your monthly expenses to cut down on costs.
Keeping track of what you borrow and staying organized is a great concept, and it can really help you make knowledgeable borrowing and repayment decisions. The Medloans Organizer and Calculator (MLOC), which is free for students at all MD-granting US schools, allows you to input all the loans you borrow, run repayment scenarios, and review repayment and loan forgiveness options.
Making the Most of Your Gap Year
Many medical school applicants opt to take a “gap year” (or years) between the end of their undergraduate education and the start of medical school. Although there are numerous reasons applicants take a gap year, many use this time to address the need for more time to participate in medically-related volunteer and lab experiences, strengthen GPA or MCAT scores, pay down debt, work on becoming a stronger candidate, or simply take a break. Some applicants must take a gap year if they are not accepted into medical school. Whatever the reason, it’s a good opportunity to leverage the time and make yourself a more competitive applicant.
Partner with an Advisor
So how do you get started? Start by setting up an appointment with the Pre-Health Advising office at your school. Partnering with your advisor is key in figuring out which parts of your application are weakest while also helping guide you to resources. If you’re not sure where to find an advisor, start by contacting science faculty at your school or look at the “Find an Advisor” section of the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions site.
Focus on What you Need to Accomplish
Don’t make the mistake of trying to “pad” your application. Admissions committees are easily able to spot this and it could end up hurting, rather than helping you. Here are some things you can do to be a more successful applicant:
• Strengthen your GPA by taking extra and/or higher-level coursework. Academically, this time can be extremely beneficial whether you already have a strong GPA or not. There may be a course you didn’t have time to take that will prove your ability to master upper-level science coursework.
• Study for the MCAT exam.
Without a full course load competing for your time (depending upon your work schedule), you’ll have more time to devote to MCAT preparation. Be sure to check out the MCAT site for resources, practice tests, and other study materials.
• Pay down your existing debt as much as possible.
Even if you’re fortunate enough not to have any undergraduate debt, start saving money so that you’ll have a cushion when you begin medical school. If you’re able to take out fewer loans, you’ll not only have less to repay, but you’ll help reduce the additional stress associated with worrying about repaying your educational debt.
• Take time for reflection and rejuvenation.
This time can be extremely beneficial for mental recovery or personal reflection. The road to medical school can be rigorous and demanding; you may want to use this time to work on a personal project, travel, rest, and get ready for the road ahead.
Participate in Experiences that Will Help you Become a Better Physician
Look for opportunities that will help you improve your areas of weakness. If you’re not sure where to look, speak to the pre-health advisor at your school, or an admissions dean or director at a medical school. They may be able to help you identify opportunities that will help address areas of your application that you need to expand or strengthen.
• Volunteer in a medically-related field.
Meaningful and sustained experiences working with patients or in a medically-related environment is not only beneficial in helping you solidify your choice to pursue medicine, but it also makes you a stronger and more knowledgeable candidate. These experiences will also help you during the interview stage. See the Aspiring Docs fact sheet, How Do I… Find Health-care Related Volunteer Opportunities? for more tips and information.
• Shadow physicians.
Shadowing or following a physician can provide you with patient experience and a realistic view of what various specialties and working environments are really like. It can sometimes be difficult to arrange a shadowing experience if you don’t have a personal relationship with a physician. For tips on how to get this type of experience, read the How Do I… Shadow a Doctor? fact sheet.
• Participate in a scholarly activity.
Real and meaningful experience in a lab or research facility provides for more in-depth knowledge about medicine, and helps you have a better understanding of the different research processes. Whether you’re conducting your own research or assisting on a project, this sustained scholarly activity is very attractive to medical schools. For tips on how to get this type of experience, read the Aspiring Docs fact sheet, How Do I …Get Lab Experience?
• Keep track of coursework requirements.
Be sure to check the premedical coursework requirements for each school that you may be interested in applying to. It’s possible that some medical schools may make changes to their requirements during this interim period, requiring you to complete additional coursework. Review the school’s Web site, or keep track with MSAR Online.
How to Discuss your Gap Year During Interviews
As stated earlier, it’s becoming more common to see applicants with a gap year between graduating college and applying to medical school. When speaking about this during an interview, avoid phrases like “time off” or “glide.” Talk about how you used this as an opportunity to strengthen your knowledge and improve the skills that will make you a better physician. Be honest; share what you’ve learned, or how you’ve grown. Medical school admission deans are looking for what they often call “distance traveled” –a candidate who has demonstrated that they are trying to better themselves as a person and physician, not just trying to make themselves look good to get into medical school.
Your Loans Don’t Disappear During Your Gap Year
During a gap year, you’ll need to make decisions about how to manage your student loans.
Compile contact information for each of your federal loan servicers. This information can be found on the National Student Loan System (NSLDS). You will need your FAFSA PIN to access your loan information.
When you finish your undergraduate program, your federal student loans will enter into a grace period (typically 6-9 months long). During this time, no payments are required. After the grace period ends during a gap year, you will either want to continue postponing payments or select a repayment plan. Since the servicer of the loan oversees the administration of all aspects of your loan once it is disbursed, you will want to speak to the servicer about your options. If you are unsure of who your servicer is, you can find out by visiting the NSLDS website.
• Deferment and Forbearance
If you choose to postpone payments, you will have to obtain a deferment or a forbearance. A deferment is preferential because no payments are required and any subsidized debt will not accrue interest; however, strict eligibility requirements make deferments difficult to obtain. Alternatively, a forbearance is granted by the servicer and is up to their discretion. Reach out to your servicer(s) to discuss your options – first seeking deferment, then forbearance.
• Repayment Programs
If you’re not postponing payments, you’ll need to select a repayment plan. There are numerous options, so work with your servicer(s) to determine which option is best for your situation. Just keep in mind, the options discussed above are specifically for federal student loans, and may not be available for private loans. Check with the private loan lenders to find out if grace, deferment, forbearance, or other repayment options are available.
• One More Thing…Keep in Touch
During your gap year, be proactive and stay in touch with all of your servicers. Federal loans will automatically go into deferment while enrolled in medical school, but remember to contact the private loan lenders to determine the options on these loans while you are a medical student.
Additional AAMC Resources
Aspiring Docs Program – Fact sheets, inspiring stories, tips and resources.
FIRST for Medical Education – Financial Information, resources, services, and tools to help you borrow and manage your debt wisely.
Medical School Admission Requirements for the United States and Canada – Comprehensive information, data and profiles on medical schools in the U.S. and Canada.