The Hidden Costs of Applying to Med School

As a student enrolled in higher education, I hear the term “Pre-med” get tossed around a lot amongst new students with quite a bit of confusion surrounding the term. Although many people have the misconception that being pre-med is some sort of specific major, it only refers to a student’s intended career path, with the student allowed to major in whatever they’d like. Being “pre-med” only necessitates taking certain classes and tests that make one eligible for medical school application.

However, the process to applying to medical school is not quite as straightforward as it may seem. Recently, I was conversing with a friend about what exactly is in the so-called “fine print” of applying to medical school, and we both came to the same somewhat startling conclusion: application to medical school is largely inaccessible to those in lower income brackets.

Let’s start with the application process to med school first. Actually, let’s start with getting ready to apply. There are a number of steps a student must take before considering applying. Sometimes, these prerequisites end up being so expensive that they deter students and their families from even giving med school a chance.

One of the most integral parts of a student’s application is their score on the MCAT. For those unfamiliar with this test, the acronym stands for the Medical College Admissions Test, and it’s a comprehensive exam that tests a student’s knowledge on a variety of subjects ranging from psychology to biochemistry. The test is designed to holistically assess a student’s preparedness for medical school in addition to their GPA and extracurricular activities.

Now, before I start getting too numerical, it is worthwhile to acknowledge that the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) provides some fee assistance to subsidize the cost of actually taking the test. This is presumably to make medical school admissions more accessible, but it doesn’t seem to do enough. For example, here are some of the costs associated with the MCAT, and how much AAMC does to help out:

Normal Registration Price for MCAT = $305 (cheapest/best option)

Subsidized Price = $115

This, as those of you who can do basic arithmetic know, is a savings of around $190 (I say around because I’m not sure whether tax is a thing when paying for registration). While certainly substantial, let’s think about the costs of preparing for the MCAT. A cursory look at Amazon’s listings for prep books comes up with a few popular options, namely The Princeton Review (TPR), Kaplan, and Examkrackers. Many people also recommend materials from the Berkeley Review. The prices are as follows for the most up-to-date versions of each resource at the time of writing:

TPR = $122.03 (really nabbing you on those 3 cents)

Kaplan = $149.99

Examkrackers = $261.19

Berkeley Review = $394 (with included practice exams, comes out to be $639)

Once again, AAMC offers to subsidize costs for studying for the MCAT, but the organization only provides introductory materials, and not nearly enough to actually thoroughly study for the test. Furthermore, AAMC provides the materials only once. Should the student need to take the test again (for any reason), they would be forced to either use their old materials, or front the cost for new materials themselves.

If we delve even deeper into the preparation necessary for the MCAT, we’ll come across prep courses. I’m sure many lament the use of these prep courses (“Wow, why don’t kids just buckle down and study on their own?” “Back in my day, we had to write our own prep courses and write our own MCAT and then open our own medical school!” yaddah yaddah yaddah) but the fact remains that these sort of structured programs provide a clear path for students to study and can be very helpful, especially in the cases of first-gen students. But the cost of these courses? Thousands of dollars.

That’s right. Thousands.

For a family that is struggling financially, or a financially independent student, these prep courses are out of the question. But the true value of these prep courses is not in the studying, but in the provided practice exams. If you take some time to peruse online forums catering to aspiring medical students, most contributors argue that the practice tests are the most important part of a healthy start to your medical school application. If you’d like to buy the materials separately, a set of 7 full-length practice tests will run you about $400 dollars. And most of my friends who have taken the MCAT (and did fairly well) took around 15–25 different tests.

Let’s slow down for a second. That’s a lot of numbers, not much context.

Given that every single thing listed above is within a student’s capability, this is only to prepare for the exam and take it. These numbers say nothing about the costs associated with traveling to and from testing centers (some of which may be out of state), and they certainly give no information on the amount of time a student must invest in order to adequately study for the exam. These are all details that a family must take into consideration when determining whether the path to becoming a doctor is worth their student’s time.

The main point is this: given all of these costs, often adding up to over $1000 dollars (conservatively) when all is said and done, taking the MCAT is just not a viable option for many who might otherwise be great doctors. Even with all the different numbers provided above, none of it takes into account the opportunity cost of sending your child to medical school and incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. In fact, these numbers don’t even mention the cost of transportation to interviews or any other miscellaneous expenditures. Even using all of the benefits offered, and with a good amount of luck, a student can still expect to incur over $150,000 of debt by the end of medical school, something simply unimaginable for many families.

I don’t bring all of this up to discourage students from wanting to be doctors. In fact, the United States medical system is one of the most overburdened in the world, with an ever-increasing number of patients. As more baby boomers begin to retire, the medical system’s shortcomings will only be exacerbated. We as a country need to invest more in healthcare infrastructure, and while this topic can (and may!) be an entire post on its own, we can certainly start by making medical school more accessible to students who otherwise would not even consider it.

It’s time we take a hard look at the medical school system and really evaluate whether we’re doing all we can to lessen the financial burden on families that already struggle to make ends meet.

I’m not looking for a magical solution that will suddenly fix everything. Instead, I am looking for resources that are equally available to every student that is interested in becoming a doctor. If a student is willing to put in the time studying and receiving a great score, they should not be deterred by financial barriers. At the end of the day, the most beneficial outcome for society would be a group of well-educated, well-balanced doctors, regardless of personal background. In fact, doctors that come from a variety of personal circumstances will be better equipped to deal with a larger range of social situations.

Interestingly, one of the Foundational Concepts of the newly-added sociology section of the MCAT states that students should keep in mind that “Social stratification and access to resources influence well-being.” Maybe the writers of the test could learn a thing or two from their own teachings.