[Editor's Note: This guest post was submitted by Dr. Shirag Shemmassian, a medical school admissions expert and founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. I've been trying to compile some information on medical school scholarships (other than ours) for a long time and am pleased that Dr. Shemmassian has saved me the trouble! We have no financial relationship, but if you talk to him, you can tell him to buy an ad from me.]

If you’ve heard people lament how “Being a doctor isn’t what it used to be,” or “The golden age of medicine has passed,” you’re not alone.

Physicians and non-physicians express concerns about the future of the profession in part because of increasing medical school tuition and practice costs. There are countless articles on the rise of medical school debt—and college debt before that—as well as health insurance premiums.

At the same time, medical school enrollment is increasing. Clearly, financial concerns are not deterring students from pursuing a fulfilling, high-income career path.

Nevertheless, anecdotally speaking, interest in medical school scholarships and other ways to pay for medical school is also at a record high. Parents routinely ask how they can reduce their own financial burden, and also help their child pursue their desired medical specialty in their desired location—with fewer money concerns—when the time comes.

But how exactly can you find and obtain free money to pay for medical school? The three most common ways are:

  1. Apply to medical schools that offer merit scholarships
  2. Apply for federally funded scholarships
  3. Search for private scholarships

We’ll cover each scholarship category and how to increase your odds of receiving them.

Medical School Merit Scholarships

In 2018, NYU School of Medicine made headlines when it announced its decision to go tuition-free moving forward. Applications to NYU shot up and many families became hopeful that other schools would follow it and the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine. Time will tell.

Regardless, some medical schools offer merit-based aid to their most promising applicants in an effort to recruit them. While not an exhaustive list, they include:

Of course, the majority of these schools have some of the highest average GPA and MCAT scores and are therefore incredibly hard to get into. Moreover, most of their students receive no merit aid. And while consideration for merit scholarships at these schools requires no additional materials, the same attributes that make you an attractive candidate for admissions will increase your likelihood of receiving these awards.

First, medical schools expect a high level of academic achievement. Merit scholarships are typically given to students who have at least a 3.7 GPA and 515 MCAT score.

Second, they want to award students who have demonstrated longstanding commitment and achievement through extracurricular activities. For instance, you can demonstrate an outstanding research record through publications and strong research recommendation letters, or a history of impactful healthcare entrepreneurship. The possibilities for developing an extracurricular specialty are limitless.

Medical schools also want to enroll students who exhibit qualities typically observed among excellent physicians, such as leadership, empathy, humility, and interpersonal warmth. If you present a compelling narrative about your background and fitness for medicine, along with how you intend to impact the medical and patient communities throughout your career, you’ll stand out to award committees.

Federally Funded Medical School Scholarships

There is a well-documented shortage of primary care physicians, especially in rural areas, as well as in the military. To address these gaps, the federal government offers full scholarships to medical students who commit to working in medically underserved areas or as active-duty physicians in the military.

If you’re confident about wanting to work in these settings, applying for related federal scholarships is a great way to substantially reduce your medical education costs. On the other hand, it’s important not to be short-sighted. While avoiding large tuition payments and debt is enticing, long-term commitments to working in settings that don’t excite you can lead to major regret.

On the military side, the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) provides a full scholarship for students who agree to eventually serve in the military as a physician, for at least three years. A year of active-duty service is required for each year you receive the scholarship.

If you’re interested in working in medically underserved areas, consider the National Health Service Corps Program (NHSCP). This full scholarship requires a minimum of two years of work as a primary care physician in areas with physician shortages. A year of such work is required for each year you receive the scholarship. The Indian Health Service also provides similar opportunities.

Finally, the NIH’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) is a great option if you love research and are interested in pursuing an MD-PhD. While you’ll likely have to be in school somewhere between 7-9 years—8 years is the average—an MSTP grant will pay for your entire medical education.

Private Medical School Scholarships

Competition is great, but not when it’s for limited scholarship opportunities.

Unfortunately, most students look for scholarships in the same places as everyone else. They’ll search their school’s website for in-house offerings, Google “medical school scholarships” and click a few links on the first page, and so on.

However, the more eyes there are on a certain scholarship opportunity, the greater the competition and lower the likelihood you’ll receive it.

The reverse is also true. The harder to find or more “niche” a scholarship is, the easier it is to obtain it. Moreover, scholarship application deadlines are spread throughout the year, so it’s wise to search regularly and organize opportunities in a spreadsheet.

It’s common to hear, “There’s so much free money out there. You just have to find it!” The problem is, no one tells you where or how to find it.

Online Scholarship Databases

Websites like Scholarships.com or Unigo list various medical school scholarships. But while they compile a wide array of opportunities, they’re where most people look, which means greater competition.

Similarly, scholarships that are incredibly easy to apply to, like those that require no essays, are much less likely to award you. Instead, these low-threshold opportunities are typical ways for companies to grow their mailing lists. In the private scholarship world, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Financial Aid Offices

Medical school financial aid offices typically have a list of scholarships that their students have received over the years, or scholarship organizations that have reached out to them in an effort to generate applicant interest. Speak with your school’s financial aid staff anytime after you’ve been admitted to inquire about available scholarships.

Manual Searches

The best opportunities are typically found when you manually search for private niche scholarships. Typically, niche scholarships have highly specific eligibility criteria that filter out most potential applicants. For instance, they might be reserved for women from a certain ethnic minority background, or individuals interested in oncology research.

I recommend you write down various aspects of your background, including ethnicity, place of residence, gender, community service history, research interests, disabilities, and so on. Then, perform online searches for as many combinations of these details as possible. For instance, you can search for, “Scholarships for Colombian medical students” or “Scholarships for medical students with disabilities.”

Make sure that you don’t limit your search to “medical” scholarships, but rather that you search for medical school, graduate school, and general higher education scholarships. You might come across particularly lucrative opportunities, like the Soros Fellowship for New Americans or the White Coat Investor Scholarship, whose 2019 grand prize winner took home over $42,000 in cash.

Once you identify a list of scholarships that you’re eligible for, you should apply to however many you can. Application requirements typically include some combination of recommendation letters, a CV, and an application essay.

Fortunately, many of the essay prompts will be similar and can be satisfied by your medical school personal statement or another essay you wrote when applying to med school. In other words, they shouldn’t be too difficult to apply to. Additionally, you can use the content of your medical school scholarship essays to write your ERAS personal statement. That said, you should never blindly recycle your work. Scholarship organizations have specific missions and are looking to award applicants who are aligned with their mission, through previous work and future aspirations.

Final Thoughts

Medical school scholarships offer a great way to reduce your financial burden during your years of education and beyond. While a few thousand dollars here and there might not seem like much if you’re facing six-figure debt, every dollar counts.

You’ll increasingly thank yourself once you graduate since your loan principal and interest payments will be lower. And that means a shorter path to financial freedom.

Did you receive a scholarship award for medical school? How did you find scholarships to apply for? Comment below!