[Today’s guest post was submitted by McKenzie Momany, MD, a recent graduate from the University of Washington in Seattle. She addresses a critical financial topic for MS4s. We have no financial relationship.]

As a fourth-year medical student, I was shocked to learn during my school’s residency preparation webinar that I should anticipate spending $5,000 to $20,000 on residency interview-related expenses. Up to that point, I had heard interviews would be an expensive part of my fourth-year costs (and furthermore not covered by government loans), but I did not imagine spending anywhere close to $20K. I abhorred the idea of taking out a private loan to cover these expenses because of higher interest rates and the general absurdity of $20K. Hence, I decided to tackle interview season as frugally as possible.

Ultimately, by the end of my interview season in January, I had attended 17 interviews across the country (ranging as far west as Seattle, WA and as far east as Providence, RI), boarded 20 planes, and spent 35 nights away from home. My grand total amounted to $1,560 – that’s an average of $92 per interview and far less than the $5K-$20K budget I had been told to anticipate.

Now, I hope that by sharing my tips, other medical students can incorporate these ideas into planning their residency interview seasons. Here’s what I did:

7 Tips For Saving Thousands During Residency Interview Season

#1 Travel Credit Card

Picking the right travel credit card (or two) and accumulating sign-on bonuses prior to booking interview flights can save you a significant sum of money. About 12 months before interview season, I signed up for the Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card. I used its $250 sign-on bonus towards my future travel expenses. Six months before interview season, I added the Chase Sapphire Preferred card to my wallet. The sign-on bonus for this card is a substantial 60,000 points, which can be transferred directly to certain airline partners for optimal point redemption. Importantly, Southwest is one of these airline partners, and I’ll discuss below why I flew Southwest almost exclusively for interviews. These 60,000 points allowed me to purchase about $1,100 worth of flights for “free”. I also earned an additional 45,000 points by referring friends (15K points per friend), which covered even more of my interview flights.

Looking back, if I were to do this process all over again, I would have applied for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card when I began medical school – I likely would have accumulated enough points to cover all my flight costs by the time interview season rolled around.

#2 Flights

As I mentioned above, Southwest is one of Chase’s preferred airline partners and I flew with them almost exclusively during interview season. The main exceptions were for my three trips to the Bay Area from Seattle (Southwest flights were nearly three times the price of Alaska flights for these West coast trips).

The primary reason I flew Southwest is because of their generous rescheduling policy. I rescheduled my interviews numerous times in order to best group them by location and convenience, thus minimizing redundant trips. I would not have been able to justify this schedule shuffling if I had been charged a hefty fine every time I rescheduled.

Another lesser-known perk of flying Southwest is you can replace your current flight for the exact same flight but at a lower price. For example, let’s say you purchased a flight for $230, and five days later the same flight is being sold for $200. You can replace your flight with the cheaper one without changing the dates/times and pocket the $30 difference as travel credit. During interview season, I would check my Southwest app once a week (usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday when flight prices are lowest) to see if any of my purchased flights had decreased in price. I saved about $100 using this tactic.

#3 Scheduling Interviews

Scheduling interviews in an ideal fashion can make a massive impact on interview expenses. However, the current interview system makes this very challenging to do. Interview invites occur at random times of day, and oftentimes you must respond within minutes in order to secure your preferred interview date.

My strategy was to always carry a paper copy of my calendar with me and keep it updated with interviews as they came in. I did my best to cluster interviews together by location, creating three larger “trips” that contained anywhere from two to six interviews. I had a few outlier programs that I traveled to individually.

Organizing my interviews as such was no easy feat. It involved contacting program administrators to request interview date switches and staying on waiting lists for weeks at a time in the hopes that a more convenient date would open up (which usually happened as people dropped interviews later in the season).

By grouping interviews, I reduced my number of cross-country trips, money spent on flights, and time zone changes. Furthermore, linking interviews together enabled me to take cheaper modes of transportation between nearby cities. At one point, I completed six interviews in a row in the Midwest and on the east coast but only flew three times. For interviews within a few hours of each other, I was able to take the bus or train in lieu of flying.

#4 Lodging

Although lodging can easily become one of your largest spending categories during interview season, I spent $0. Hence, there are ways to dramatically reduce or eliminate the effect it has on your credit card.

First, I avoided hotels and Airbnb’s all together and instead contacted friends and family friends in areas where I would be interviewing. When people offered to help me find places to stay in cities where I didn’t know anyone, I took them up on it; I ended up staying with friends of friends on a few occasions. I made sure to invest in nice thank-you gifts for all my hosts, bringing a variety of fine chocolates and thank-you cards with me wherever I traveled.

I was also fortunate enough to attend a medical school where our alumni relations department coordinates a “Host” program. This setup connects 4th-year medical students with alumni willing to host students. I ended up using this resource on four occasions when I could not use my personal network to find accommodations.

resident physician interviews

McKenzie Momany, MD

I would recommend that applicants use their personal network as much as possible to find hosts – even if you stay in a few Airbnb’s along the way, you’ll save a substantial chunk of change compared to booking hotels everywhere you go, especially in places like NYC and the Bay Area.

#5 Local Transportation

Rideshare app costs can be deceiving during interview season. A $6 ride here and a $10 ride there do not seem like much at first. Still, when you later realize you need

  1. a ride from the airport to your accommodation
  2. from your accommodation to the pre-interview dinner
  3. from the dinner back to your accommodation
  4. from your accommodation to the interview
  5. from the interview back to the airport/train station

Multiply all of these rides by 10-20 interviews and the costs add up quickly.

Instead, I used a combination of Lyft and public transportation. Whenever I was in a time crunch or wanted to get home quickly after a pre-interview dinner to maximize sleep, I used rideshare apps. In particular, Lyft has a partnership with Chase Sapphire Preferred – you earn 5x points by using this credit card for your rides. More times than not, I was arriving or leaving a city with extra time to spare, so I took public transportation. Most of the time this saved me about $5-10 per ride, and in NYC it saved me nearly $40 in getting to the airport.

#6 Food

During my travels, I brought instant oatmeal packets and tea bags for breakfast every morning. They’re light and easy, and I knew I would always have access to hot water wherever I went. I also brought a few of Trader Joe’s non-perishable meals with me for occasions when I was pressed for time or didn’t have easy access to a grocery store.

Most of the programs where I interviewed treated applicants to gourmet pre-interview dinners and interview day lunches – these covered a large portion of my meals. I split my remaining meals between buying pre-made food at Trader Joe’s ($3-5 each) and eating out (usually less than $12 per meal. I must admit, I consider myself a foodie and really enjoy eating great food. I did not want to miss out on the eats that many cities have to offer, so I ate out more frequently in places like NYC and less often in cities that are not as well known for their culinary delights. Between these meals and the (oftentimes) 3-course dinners the residency programs provided, I didn’t feel as though I short-changed myself.

#7 Interview Attire

Prior to interview season, I happened to stumble across a black Nordstrom-brand blazer and an Ann Taylor business professional dress at a thrift store. Both of these items were in like-new condition and costed a total of $18. I would say this was quite a serendipitous find and one not easily repeatable, given how challenging it can be to find business-professional attire that is both flattering and comfortable. Still, it is never a bad idea to take a quick trip to your local Goodwill just to see what is there – you might end up being able to avoid dropping $100-200 on a new suit!

In conclusion, residency interview season does not have to cost the $5K-$20K that I was told to budget. It can cost far less. I do want to acknowledge that residency interview season is a highly stressful and logistically complicated time. It is tempting to take the path of least resistance, which frequently ends up being the costlier option. However, I hope my experience can demonstrate that there are many small things you can do that add up in the long run and can save you literally thousands of dollars in high-interest loan.

[Editor’s Note: Given the general change in behavior with the COVID pandemic (i.e. we’re all on Zoom all day), I think residency interviews may get MUCH cheaper this next year, although I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable taking a job without actually going in person to a hospital.]

What do you think? How have you saved money during residency interview season? How will Covid-19 change your plans? Comment below or continue the conversation on the WCI Forum, Facebook, or Reddit Groups!