As the son of Liberian immigrants, Will Smith knew from a fairly early age that he wanted to help others like him and his family access health care and lead healthier lives. But by the time he earned his undergraduate degree from Notre Dame in Indiana in 2019, he didn’t have much money saved up to pay for the MCAT® exam or multiple applications to medical school.
Fortunately, Smith had learned about the AAMC’s Fee Assistance Program from friends during his junior year of college. For those with a family income at or below 400% of the national poverty level, the program provides free MCAT prep materials, reduced MCAT registration fees, access to the Medical School Admission Requirements™ (MSAR®) database, and a waiver of all AMCAS® fees for up to 20 medical school applications.
“The Fee Assistance Program really gave me the ability to focus on the MCAT and take the time to see which schools lined up with my interests,” says Smith, who applied for assistance in July, took the MCAT in September, applied to schools in October and November, and completed his interviews in December. He matriculated in 2020 and is now a second-year medical student at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
“If it were up to me to pay the full amount, the application expenses would have put an extreme burden on me to work longer hours and pay for the study guide, registration, and MSAR, in addition to rent and household bills,” he says. “My family has had some tough times recently and did not have the money to help out.”
When the Fee Assistance Program opens for the current calendar year on Jan. 31, students like Smith will find it even easier to qualify for assistance. That’s because the AAMC has modified two of its eligibility requirements:
- Applicants age 26 and over no longer need to submit their parents’ financial information. Instead, their eligibility will depend on their own income.
- Applicants no longer need to show proof of U.S. citizenship or qualifying visa status. Rather, they just need to show proof of a U.S. address.
“A lot of applicants were confused as to why we were requiring parental documents, especially if they were of a certain age. We had applicants saying, ‘I’m 40 years old; I have a wife and children. Why are you requiring my parents’ information?’” says Shannon Vines, a document processing supervisor with the AAMC services team.
Age 26 was chosen as the cutoff largely because that is the age at which students are no longer considered their parents’ dependents under such federally funded programs as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the Affordable Care Act.
In an effort to open up eligibility even further, the AAMC also modified its requirements around U.S. citizenship. Now, applicants must only show proof of a U.S. address, such as a rental agreement, utility bill, credit card statement, or employer paycheck.
“We want to continue to broaden the pool of applicants and provide opportunities for students underrepresented in medicine to have this medical school dream,” says Sharifa Dickenson, director of business strategy and client engagement for the AAMC services team.
That belief was also the thinking behind the AAMC’s decision in 2015 to open the program to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
That modification allowed Elizabeth Juarez Diaz to qualify for the program in 2019. Growing up in Mexico, Juarez Diaz immigrated to Minnesota with her mother when she was just a child. Originally a nursing student at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Juarez Diaz only realized she wanted to be a physician late in her undergraduate studies. She applied to the Fee Assistance Program early in 2019, took the MCAT exam that April, applied to schools in May — “I applied to 20 schools because that’s what the program covered” — had 10 interviews, and was accepted at five schools.
“I was deciding between Washington University and Stanford — and ultimately chose Washington University because of its robust training for physician-scientists,” says Juarez Diaz, who is now an MD-PhD student at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
“The Fee Assistance Program really made it possible for me to matriculate and also be successful during my interview cycle,” she adds, noting that once programs saw you were eligible for the program, they often also reimbursed flight and hotel costs associated with interviewing. “I’m hoping more students find out about this program and apply.”
The AAMC estimates that the new eligibility criteria will enable 1,000 additional students to qualify for assistance. In 2020, 16,000 applicants received $33 million in fee assistance. In 2021, slightly fewer qualified — about 13,000.
Leila Amiri, PhD, assistant dean for admissions and recruitment at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, is also happy to see the eligibility criteria widened. Her school encourages applications from immigrant and underrepresented populations — and has accepted more of these students in recent years.
“I’m just really happy that the AAMC is moving forward with this initiative and making [medical school] more accessible to these students,” she says. “The individuals who tend to be admitted to medical school are from the more affluent parts of our society. This will impact a small cohort of students, but for those students, it’s important.”