In society today, trying to convince a young adult to pursue a career in medicine despite the increasing burden of student debt and the 10+ years of higher education required to get there can be a daunting task. To be honest, I cannot blame someone for wanting to take an alternative career path that gets them to the end that they desire quicker and with less associated costs. However, like those who have been called to medicine know, this career path will weed out those who lack the calling, passion, and fulfillment for it at some point or another. And in the same way that someone will leave medicine for a career that they truly desire, someone who finds fulfillment in medicine will eventually find their way here as well. But the unfortunate reality is that… some individuals who have the calling are not pursuing it because of one or more of the many obstacles that currently exist that prevent people from becoming doctors.
My goal in writing this is to address one of the most influential factors affecting the current generation’s pursuit of a career in medicine: medical school debt. Whenever I speak to high school and college students, I often hear “It costs too much”, “I’ll never be able to afford medical school”, or “I want to be a doctor, but I’m going to pursue … instead because it doesn’t take as many years, and I’ll be able to start making money faster.” To me, I hear a bunch of individuals who could potentially be amazing doctors in their communities discouraged from a passion because of money. This is always a hard pill for me to swallow, as I witness firsthand the positive impacts of having great doctors who want to be in medicine, and I believe that we are missing out on many others.
Always having been an advocate for pursuing your dreams and seeking fulfillment in life, it is hard for me to hear and witness individuals putting their passions and dreams on the backburner so that they can make money. I know that life is not a bubble, and it is not always practical to pursue a dream if you do not have the means to do so. However, what I am hoping to achieve in this is to say that there are means if you are strategic and access and utilize them. If there is a will, there is a way, and I will always encourage you to find the way. Especially being that there are people like myself who will do whatever in their means to help you on your way.
I would like to preface this piece by stating that my personal experience is specific to me. It would be with ignorance and carelessness for me to advise with guarantee that what worked for me will work for you. However, it is my hope that you take something away from my experience so that you can: advocate for yourself (and your finances), reevaluate your priorities, and make informed decisions about your education.
So let’s get to it… How did I get a full ride to medical school?
Honestly, I ask myself this question more than you can imagine. But just know that I am blessed and humbled by this reality every day. After having many conversations about this very question with my Deans, I have compiled a few of the reasons and means that got me to this point.
1. I was a “competitive” applicant.
I put competitive in quotes because while I do think I am highly qualified and have made strides in my education, I do not think my resume got me a full ride to medical school alone. Actually, I know for a fact that it did not. You can check out my actual application statistics here to see what my GPA, MCAT, and all that stuff was.
Medical school is a tough road and is becoming increasingly more competitive. Be sure you are a strong applicant, especially if you are hoping to get significant financial aid. Scores are a significant part of the application, but even if your scores are not top-tier, work on the other areas of your application in order to compensate and to show your resilience and dedication to medicine.
Obviously, in my case, the numbers mattered. But there are individuals who had much better statistics than I did who applied and did not get the scholarship that I did. So what else was it?
2. I have a true passion for medicine.
This sounds so trivial and cliché, but I believe it was a significant part of the outcome. Something that I take pride in is the fact that I have a love and a calling to medicine. It was engrained in me very early, and it has never wavered. When you speak to someone who shares this sentiment, you can tell. I am sure even if you reflect on your own personal experiences in healthcare, you can sense differences in your interactions with some doctors and nurses and prefer some to others. It is very apparent who enjoys what they do and has a burning passion for it.
When it comes to medicine, that passion radiates from me. And while it can infuriate the life out of me at times, there is nothing that I would prefer to do. I am also very confident in myself and the impact that I believe I can have on the field and the community. I believe that my school saw my potential and the contributions that I will make, and they invested in me. A school invests in you as a student in the same way that you invest in it. Realize that you as an applicant hold power.
3. I changed my priorities and found my fit.
Going into the medical school interview trail, I was sure what I wanted out of a medical school. I wanted a school that was prestigious and top-ranked. I wanted a school that had abundant research opportunities and somewhere I could build an extensive resume. I wanted a school that was diverse and committed to its students. Very early on in the trail after traveling from coast to coast, I realized that my priorities were changing… fast.
I was not impressed by the Ivy League schools and the schools top-ranked in research. It was at some of these institutions that I felt most uncomfortable. Most on edge. Where I looked around and saw not a single person who looked like me.
I realized that a lot of the things that I initially thought I wanted were superficial and ultimately not as important to me. A few things started to make their way higher on my priority list, including diversity and inclusion, community service, and engagement with the local community.
After visiting and interviewing at my medical school, I fell in love with it. I immediately knew it was the place for me. While this sounds like sunshine and roses, it actually matters. When you know where you want to be and WHY, you can make an argument for that. This is similar to point #2 about my true passion for medicine radiating from me. When I knew which medical school I wanted to go to and expressed that to the Admissions office, I feel like they knew I was genuine. That I was not blowing smoke to get accepted or to get money.
That matters. Because while they can fill a medical school class easily with a bunch of young applicants ready to start their journey, filling a seat with someone who cares about their institution and its advancement is a better investment for them. So find your fit, and once you do, make it known. Tell them why, and be real.
4. I asked for money!
As a result of being a strong applicant, I had multiple medical school acceptances, which were a major key… it was leverage. So what do you do with leverage? You can ask for things.
When I was originally accepted to my medical school, I was accepted with a scholarship that would give me in-state tuition even though I was an out-of-state applicant. That was huge! That was like $20k less in tuition costs per year, and I didn’t even request it. That gave me a sense that my school was really interested in me coming there.
I remember being at work one day and making a spreadsheet of all of the schools I had been accepted to, the tuition costs, and the approximate debt that I would have upon graduation. It was overwhelming. It goes back to the point that I opened with… that money can affect our decision making. I remember thinking that I do NOT want to make a decision using this spreadsheet or these numbers. I knew where I wanted to go – the school that felt right in my spirit. So how can I make the money aspect be as little of an issue as possible so that I can go there and not be worried about loans and debt?
I already knew that my medical school was willing to shell out funds to incentivize me to come there so I figured why not push the boundary. The worst thing they can do is say no, right? Worst case scenario, I have already been accepted with a scholarship and can fall back on that. I drafted an email to the Dean and Associate Dean of Admissions, expressing to them my gratitude for the scholarship, my interest in attending their medical school and my reasons why, and what I believed I could bring to their institution. I asked if they would consider me for additional scholarship so that the burden of finances would not be a factor in my decision making. They thanked me and replied that they would bring it up to the Admissions committee. Two weeks or so later, I received a call from the Dean informing me that I had been selected to receive a Chancellor Scholarship, which included a full ride + stipend. I cried. I called my mom and cried some more.
Safe to say, I do not believe that I would have gotten the full scholarship had I not asked for more aid. I tell every single student that I advise, and I am telling you now if you are reading this, ASK for what you want. We often think that institutions will just give us things, but sometimes they need a little pressure as well. Also, yes… being a doctor will provide most individuals with a comfortable living, however, if you can reduce as much student debt that you will have upon graduation as you can, do so. Doctors are bogged down with student debt just like every one else. So ask for financial aid. Advocate for yourself.
The moral of the story: If there is a will, there is a way.
If you or someone you know is a student applying to medical school or any graduate or professional program, follow my recommended four key steps below to maximize your chances of getting as much aid as possible.
Be a strong applicant.
Express a genuine passion for the field.
Make sure the institution is a perfect fit for you.
Ask for aid.
I will conclude with saying that you may or may not receive a scholarship to medical school, and that is okay. The four steps above apply to EVERYONE and should be followed regardless of your situation. You should exhaust all of your means to reduce student loan debt to set yourself up better for the future. There are many institution and external scholarships and grants that students can apply to throughout their education to offset tuition costs. Do your research and be on the lookout for free money at all times. For as long as you are a student, scholarship hunting should be an extracurricular activity.
Best of luck on your journey!
“Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential.” – Barack Obama