How Much Does Medical School Really Cost, and Is It Worth It?

Dayton Uttinger  | 

Some people spend their whole lives trying to figure out what they want to do, but doctors rarely have that experience. You’ve probably known for a while that medical school is in your future, but now that it’s looming closer than ever, you’ve started to wonder: is this really worth it after all? Yes for some, no for others. Are you more concerned about finances? Or do you want to follow your passion no matter what? In either case, you need to know what you’re getting into first.

How Much Does It Cost to Apply to Medical School?

Before you even start medical school, there’s some pretty steep costs. In order to be a candidate, you’ll have to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), which is over $300 alone. Hopefully you get the score you want the first time.

Most medical schools use the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) to process applicants. Currently, that will run you a $160 for your first school and an additional $39 for each one after that. Even if your medical school of choice does not use the AMCAS, it’ll probably have a sort of secondary application fee that goes directly to the school itself.

Considering that people typically apply for around 15 different schools, these fees can add up fast. That’s over $700, without considering secondary fees. The competition for medical schools is fierce, especially the higher you climb, so most students shell out the extra cash to make sure they’ve got some options.

Average Cost of Medical School

Phew, you got in! Unfortunately, the race is far from over, and neither is the drain on your bank account.

How Many Years is Medical School?

This is a difficult question to answer. Medical school itself lasts for four years, but your residency is part of your education as well. How long you spend as a resident will depend on how quickly you pick your specialty and its complexity. Usually, residency takes between three and seven years, but it can be longer.

Cost of Living for Medical Students

This will be heavily dependent upon where you are living. Medical students in metropolises will have a higher cost of living than students in rural areas. Other factors to consider are how many people are in your household, and your level of frugality.

Because of the high demands of medical school, most students find it difficult to work and keep up with their coursework. You probably won’t be bringing in money to cover your cost of living, so you’ll probably rely on loans to support you.

Average Debt of Medical Students

Medical schools are expensive alone, but add cost of living to that, and you’re running quite the tab. New physicians have an average of $189,165 of debt. They will spend decades paying off their debt, and will likely only really being able to accrue positive net worth in their late forties or fifties.

Even dropouts aren’t safe. You can count on spending at least $50,000 per year in medical school after cost of living is factored in. Even if you drop out after just one year, that’s $50,000! Don’t commit to a career in medicine unless you’re sure.

Lost Income Potential: The Hidden Cost of Medical School

You also need to consider that, besides pulling yourself further and further into debt, you’re losing out on a lot of potential income.

Let’s say that Brian and Becky both receive the same undergraduate degree at 22 years old with $25,000 in student loans. Brian moves immediately into the private sector and begins building a career. Becky, however, applies to medical school. We’ll be conservative here and say that she spends the next seven years of her life going through school and residency. At 29, where are they both?

Brian has had seven years to chip away at his much smaller student loan debt, as well as begin a career. He’ll be pulling in about $40,000 a year and has had a chance to start saving for retirement.

Becky, on the other hand, is just entering the professional world. She has around $200,000 of debt, counting medical school and her undergraduate degree, and has had zero chance to save for retirement. She has to hope that her higher than average salary will make up for the lost time.

While Brian has been adding to his net worth for the past seven years, Becky has been subtracting. She is making an investment, but at the expense of short-term earning potential. As with any advanced degree, there is the a risk that it won’t pay off.

Is Medical School Worth It?

There is no doubt that health professionals can rake in big bucks, especially in certain specialties, but is that enough to account for some inevitable problems afterwards?

Paying Off Student Debt

Paying off student loans can consume the better part of your life if you’re not careful. People carry their undergraduate debt for decades sometimes, so you really have to be aggressive in chipping down medical school debt.

Taking into account medical malpractice insurance and cost of living expenses, it’ll probably take you around a decade to pay off your debt if you are diligent. Then, in your forties or fifties, you’ll begin to accrue a positive net worth. However, remember your classmates from your undergraduate class have been in the workforce for about twenty years at this point. That’s a lot of time you have to make up for.

Happiness and Work-Life Balance

We all know that money doesn’t buy happiness, but it certainly helps. Many healthcare professionals enjoy a comfortable salary, and that can help ease some of the burdens of life.

However, the sacrifices you make for this money are high. Many physicians work between 40 and 60 hours a week, but 80 hour weeks are far from unusual. Furthermore, these hours aren’t always regular. You’ll be expected to provide care whenever you’re on call, whether that’s at three in morning after an 18 hour shift or in the middle of your son’s birthday party.

Before you even become a doctor, there is a severe risk to your happiness. Suicidal thoughts plague medical students at a higher rate than any other school. The pressure to succeed and to avoid disappointing others can lead this group of typically high-achievers to doubt themselves and fall into a depression. The cost of medical school contributes to this: because of the high student debts and the need for future income to make up for this investment, it can seem like there is no alternative to completing medical school and becoming a doctor, even if that career path loses its appeal. This is of course not the case with every medical student, but it is a significant threat to their health.

There are real risks to becoming a doctor in this day and age. Everything laid out above is something that you should consider when applying to medical school. Although we’ll always need healthcare professionals, this is a decision you need to make with a clear mind and all the information at your disposal. If medicine is your passion, then you can certainly make it work, but there are some sacrifices you’ll have to make.


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Dayton is a chronic Wikipedia addict, which is detrimental to her social life but stellar for her writing. She resides in Boise, ID, surrounded by her own frantic outlines, highlighted encyclopedias, and potatoes. The latter was not by choice.

This post was updated March 9, 2018. It was originally published February 13, 2018.