Step 1: Understand your Financial Aid Award Letter
Coming from an FLI background, I found it quite difficult to learn how to trust and navigate financial institutions. Imagine my dismay having to sign that financial aid agreement “rewarding” me $30,000 in loans. Let’s have a look:
Before Weill Cornell went debt free, my student contribution (aka the EFC or expected family contribution) was $1000 (out of my pocket). I would have had to take up $14,577 in federal unsubsidized loans (unsubsidized essentially means that it will build interest the moment the funds are dispersed) and a $14,500 WCM Homan Loan (a type of institutional loan that doesn’t build interest until I graduate.)
Note that the financial aid package you are awarded may not always match your current situation. Pay attention to the money a school gives you for rent and personal expenses. It does not take into account a car bill, personal loans, or any credit card debt that you might have. You can always speak to a financial aid advisor to adjust your total cost of attendance, but some of those adjustments have a limit. You may have to look to private loans in order to cover whatever remaining cost federal loans cannot.
What if your EFC or expected contribution is unattainable due to circumstances like family medical bills (including religious obligations, natural disasters, etc) not mentioned in FAFSA or CSS? In that case, you can talk to the financial aid office to adjust this number as well! However, be prepared to have paperwork/proof that these bills exist. The CSS Profile will have some space where you can explain that the income on your most recent tax return is not at all representative of what you can pay for at the moment. For schools that just have FAFSA, write and bring up this situation to the counselor! Do not be ashamed. Embrace your mom’s haggling skills at the fish market; you might just get a good deal on some quality salmon.
With this in mind and not expecting my income to change (more on that later), I calculated that after 4 years I would graduate with ~$120,000 in loans + interest.
Step 2: Choose the school that best fits you and accommodates your needs.
WCM was actually not the most generous school I received acceptance from. There was another school where I would have only needed to take out $20,000/yr in loans. But word on the street was that WCM was going debt- free, so I decided to take my chances.
However, know that YOU CAN NEGOTIATE your financial aid. Let’s say you were accepted to both School A & B. School B gave you an extra 25k in loans (100k total in savings!) but you really want to go to School A. What do you do? Below is some advice and a sample negotiation letter:
“To leverage offers I recommend emailing either a contact at admissions or the financial aid office themselves. Personally, I often reached out to administration as at that point you are trying to increase or add a potential merit scholarship. Often, when I reached out to the financial aid office they would simply defer me to reach out to admissions.”
Dear Admissions Staff,
My name is XXXXXXX, and I was recently accepted to XXXXX. I wanted to start off by thanking you for this opportunity. I understand the large number of qualified applicants that apply each year.
I am reaching out to see whether it would be possible to make my attendance to XXXXX a reality. Given my family situation I was able to receive financial aid from XXXXX but the school I currently hold an offer from is significantly cheaper for me. I wanted to see whether there is any possibility of matching the offer. I worry over being able to truly consider my offer and attend due to finances, given the other school’s affordability. (XXXX is my top choice, but I worry over being able to attend due to finances, given XXXX's affordability)
I thank you again for your consideration.
(AAMC ID # XXXXXX)
Alternatively if you are reaching out for merit you can instead say "Given my family situation I was able to receive financial aid from XXXXX but I did not receive any merit aid. XXXXX medical school offered me a Dean’s Scholarship for XXXXX making their program more affordable.”
Underneath the text I would often attach the offer letter from the other school. I know some of my friends, who did not have concrete scholarship offers to leverage, simply reached out to the more expensive school and simply said "XXX school is cheaper” and asked for a possible reconsideration of their aid/merits. Some schools will be very receptive to the request while others may not. It is worth a shot as the worst that can happen is admissions says no.
Step 3: That sounds great and all but what if I don't want to take out any loans?
Unfortunately, a majority of medical students will graduate with debt. In fact, according to a recent AAMC report, the median debt of medical students upon graduation was $200,000, and 73% of students graduated with some debt. However, it is still possible to minimize or even avoid loans entirely.
Here, we've compiled a list of full scholarships, partial scholarships and a list of schools with more generous financial aid programs. What’s not on that list are local scholarships from your hometown/state/country. Be sure to look for them. I actually found a graduate student loan that had 0% interest rate for people that grew up where I am from. I am definitely taking up the offer for the next 2 years.
This AAMC article on reducing debt may also be a helpful resource.
Step 4: Okay...so I have to take out those loans. Am I trapped forever??
Let’s say you missed that scholarship deadline and have no choice but to take out loans-- don’t fret! Though you might have to take out loans now, there are still programs that exist that can help repay them by meeting the program’s standards/service agreements/etc. If you were planning on engaging in research and serving the underserved anyway, why not hit two birds with one stone?
If you see a career in serving underserved communities: https://services.aamc.org/fed_loan_pub/index.cfm?fuseaction=public.welcome&CFID=1&CFTOKEN=44809076-AF13-E3AB-E06E45C1F1AB5A09
If you see a career in Research: https://www.lrp.nih.gov/ repays up to $50,000 annually of a researcher's qualified educational debt in return for a commitment to engage in NIH mission-relevant research
Below are a couple more helpful reads:
But long story short: don't worry about your loans during medical school. Most people are in the same boat, and you'll get to paying it back... eventually.
Step 5: You may or may not have gone through the 5 stages of grief and have reached A for Acceptance. All of the financial forms are signed. What now?
You will receive your lump sum (to fund your rent, personal expenses, etc) in August-October. During the fall semester of my first year, I received $2,996.51 at the end of August. This meant that I had around $750 per month until December. Make sure you have enough to cover you from June-October. After you’ve received the lump sum, it’s your job now to make sure that lump sum lasts you until Spring’s lump sum. How to do it?
Budget! I personally like to track every single expense I make. This is not for everyone, but it certainly gives me a sense of whether I need to slow down with my credit card this month or not. It also has become somewhat of a food diary, since I postmated A LOT during first year due to the shared kitchen situation in our dorm.
Here are some categories I keep track of. Hopefully it can help you when building your own budget excel
There you go! A little walkthrough on paying for medical school. For extra money, some students also decide to take on side jobs such as tutoring, dogsitting, and babysitting during their pre-clinical years. Another potential source of funding for those who have a break between academic years is to do summer work study or a paid summer research program. Use the extra cash to offset some of your expenses or treat yourself a little.
The road to financial freedom is a long one. As FLI students, we are so used to delayed gratification (or we wouldn’t have chosen this profession otherwise). Don’t forget that your mental and physical health are important too. Hopefully here at RTM, we can help ease some of your worries by guiding you through the process.