Unlike many medical school students, John DeGuardi didn’t have adolescent dreams of becoming a physician. “I liked science, history, political science,” he says, but was undecided on a major or career. His appreciation of multiple subjects is what led him to apply to liberal arts colleges. But where he ended up, Hamilton College, was not initially on his radar; it was on his parents’. Looking back, John admits it was youthful hubris that initially prevented his interest in Hamilton: “I thought I was too good to go to a school I hadn’t heard of.” At his parents’ insistence, he visited campus and instantly clicked with the “down-to-earth people and atmosphere that was collaborative, not competitive.”
In freshman year at Hamilton, John was especially impressed with his science professors and was invited to work in a research lab over summer. While he liked the experience, he came away knowing he didn’t want to spend his life in a lab. “I wanted more people, more collaboration.” It occurred to him that medicine could blend his enjoyment of science with his desire to help others, so he used the college’s career networking program to connect with an oncologist. As he shadowed the physician, he realized medicine was a perfect fit for his strengths. “It was problem solving, it was interacting. You teach patients about their illnesses, so you have to be a good communicator.”
Convinced medicine could be his future, John met with a pre-medical advisor who suggested he apply to a program that allows students from Hamilton and several other colleges to receive “early assurance” to the University of Rochester’s medical school. The appeal of having a medical school acceptance two years in advance, plus a waived MCAT, was too great to turn down. “There was nothing to lose. If I applied and got an interview, it was nearby and easy for me to drive to. If I got rejected, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.” A relaxed approach, sure, but the application process was no joke. In addition to writing multiple essays, John says, “I had to get six recommendation letters from people at Hamilton. I don’t know how I would have done that at a big school with huge classes.”
The app was only half the battle; next came the interviews. “I was interviewed by a committee that included the dean of admission and a faculty member. It was two or three conversations over the course of a day. It was really about getting to know me as a person: my values, strengths, weaknesses.” There were the expected questions, like why he wanted to work in medicine, but also discussions about favorite books and movies. His advice for anyone preparing for this type of interview? “Be prepared to talk in depth about anything on your resume. Self-reflect. Think deeply about why you want to go into medicine.” And be cognizant of the school you’re applying to. “Rochester has a very holistic, humanistic view of medicine,” and that informed the content of the interview.
Once admitted to the direct entry program, John was still able to have the typical undergrad experience: he majored in Chemistry, minored in Government, and took several environmental studies courses. The knowledge that he had a plan laid out was liberating. “I got to learn for the sake of learning. I wasn’t afraid to take a class just because it might be challenging. Every class I took, I took out of interest in the subject.”
John will graduate from medical school in May and is currently applying to residency programs. As he reflects on his experience, he feels certain of this: “It was because I went to a small college that I got into medical school.” The relationships he’d formed with faculty over his first two years at Hamilton, where his classes typically had under 30 students, were the key to his success. This small class size also made him feel accountable. “People notice when you’re not in class. I was a better student with better study habits as a result and that made the transition to med school easier.”
John’s advice to high school students exploring colleges: “Go to a place you feel you’ll be comfortable, where you’ll excel, and where you’ll be supported by faculty.” He also wants them to learn from his teenage arrogance: “Don’t worry about the name. Go into college with an open mind and choose an environment that suits your learning.”