Comprehensive Exam

Passing either the biology department’s comprehensive examination or the GRE Subject Test in Biology is required of all biology majors to graduate. The class of 2016 majors will be the last class for whom the GRE Subject Test is an option (see note below).

Class of 2016 comprehensive exam date TBA (early in winter semester).
GRE Biology subject test fall dates are TBA.

All biology majors, including the class of 2016, must pass an approved comprehensive exam to graduate: either the Departmental Comprehensive Exam OR the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) Subject Test in Biology (see note below). The comprehensive examination requirement must be fulfilled by a satisfactory performance on the departmental comprehensive exam given once during the winter semester of the senior year, or by achieving a score corresponding to the 50th percentile (starting with the Class of 2013) or better on the GRE Subject Test in Biology. The GRE option must be fulfilled by the last fall test date of the senior year (early November); students are encouraged to take this test early.

For students who are already taking the GRE option, submission to Sylvia Deschaine (Carnegie Lobby desk) of a satisfactory score (minimum 50th percentile or higher) on the advanced subject test in biology satisfies this requirement. Students submitting satisfactory GRE scores need not take the departmental comprehensive exam. Most students will take a departmentally prepared comprehensive exam, given once a year in late February or early March.

NOTE: Beginning with the class of 2017, the GRE Subject Test In Biology will no longer be accepted as a comprehensive exam for graduation. Henceforth all biology majors must pass the departmental comprehensive exam to graduate.

Biology Comprehensive Exam date for the Class of 2016:   TBA

Faculty administrator:  Ryan Bavis


This Biology Department’s comprehensive exam is described below. Students who take the departmental comprehensive and fail to achieve a satisfactory score may not take the exam again, but may complete their comprehensive exam requirement at any time by satisfactory completion of the advanced subject GRE test in biology, which they may take as many times as they wish.


The Bates College Biology Departmental comprehensive examination will consist of ten essay questions, chosen from a much longer list of possibilities. Each of the Biology core courses will have several questions devoted to it on the exam. Additional questions will test the student’s comprehension in the areas of biology in which he or she has taken advanced courses. All questions will require the student to demonstrate an understanding of important concepts and principles, rather than emphasizing the recall of less important facts or details.

Exam Structure

The exam questions are selected to cover six topic areas within the biology major curriculum. In each area, you will have a list of questions from which to select a subset to answer. A total of ten questions will be answered.

Choose two questions each (total 6 questions covering the core) from questions covering material in:

  • Bio 190 (Organismal Biology)
  • Bio 270 (Ecology and Evolution), and
  • Bio 242 (Cellular and Molecular Biology)

One question each from the following areas (two questions total):

  • Techniques and journal-style scientific writing
  • Chemistry as it relates to Biology

and TWO questions from:

  • 200-level or higher biology electives

Students who are exempted from any of the sections will select additional questions from ANY section the exam as replacements. Exemptions will be discussed/approved ONLY by consulting with the supervising faculty member who goes over your registration information with you at the time you register for the exam.

Exam Time and Location

Students will be allowed to begin the exam on a flexible schedule. You can use as much time as you need to finish this exam. However, it must be done continuously in one sitting. The exam location will routinely be Carnegie 429. Specifics about time and location will be emailed to all registered for the exam and will be posted here.


Answers should be essay in nature and should use outlines, graphs, and or diagrams where appropriate. Each answer must go in a separate pink booklet with the question number written prominently on the cover. DO NOT write your name on the answer booklets. Instead, use the ID number assigned to you, or a phrase you have chosen. Make sure this code number appears on each booklet containing your answers.

Evaluation and Passing Score

The student will answer each question in a separate exam book, and to ensure anonymity, each student will select or be given a code to identify their exam books. Each question will be graded by an appropriate faculty member. Faculty members grading a particular question will be unaware of how the student did on other questions. Each question will be graded on a scale of 0 to 10. In order to pass the exam the student must not score below 4.0 on more than one question and must average at least 6.5 over all the questions. If the student fails this exam, the department will not administer another exam. However, the student may retake the GRE exam repeatedly until he or she achieves a satisfactory score of at least 26th percentile (or, beginning with the class of 2013, the 50th percentile).

Registration Procedure

Download registration form for the comprehensive exam

Prior to taking the departmental exam, you must fill out a record of courses taken in the department. To be eligible to take this exam you must have completed, at a minimum, the core courses and chemistry requirements for the Biology Major (or their equivalents transferred from another institution). This must be completed and submitted to Ryan Bavis, Chair of Biology, no later than the week before the exam.


Class of 2016 Majors May Take the GRE Subject Exam in Lieu of the Department’s Comprehensive Exam

The comprehensive examination requirement may be fulfilled by a satisfactory performance on the departmental comprehensive exam given once during the winter semester of the senior year, OR, by achieving a minimum score corresponding to the 50th percentile or better on the Graduate Record Exam Subject Test in Biology. The GRE option must be fulfilled by the November test date of the senior year; students are encouraged to take the test early. To find out test dates, go to the GRE website, choose Test Takers option, follow the links for the GRE Subject exam, select Registration, then Test Dates.

One method of review for the subject GRE is to re-read a good detailed text in general biology (e.g. Campbell’s Biology, Benjamin Cummings). You may also complete or practice for the GRE requirement by taking the test prior to your senior year. (For example, juniors may wish to take the exam this year in April.) This “dry run” is especially recommended for students educated outside the United States and Canada, and for others who may be unfamiliar with machine graded, multiple choice testing situations. Students who have taken the GRE twice by the December test date without achieving a passing score may request to fulfill this requirement by passing the departmental comprehensive exam given once during Winter or Short Term of their senior year.

The GRE is given several times each year, but only on certain dates is the exam conducted on this campus. Details and application forms may be obtained on-line from the Career Development Center website or at 31 Frye Street. Students should list Bates College on their registration form when they sign up to take the exam.

The GRE now offers an advanced test in Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology. Interested students should inquire from members of the Department whether this exam would be useful for graduate admissions. This exam does not, however, serve as a substitute for the Biology Test as a requirement for the major.

UPDATE for class of 2016

The GRE subject test is an in objective format exam with off campus test sites determined by GRE.  GRE charges a fee to take (Google GRE for more information).  A score at or above the 50th percentile on the GRE exam will be accepted for students in the class of 2015.  The Biology GRE subject test dates for this year are TBA, with results available in time to obviate the need to take the department scheduled exam if you achieve a passing score.  The GRE exam may be taken more than once.

TAKE NOTE: Late registration (for an extra fee) for the September test date is TBA and for the October test date is TBA. A possible last chance GRE test date  in April is TBA, but this is recommended only for those who have trouble passing one or more of the other test opportunities, because scores from the April date might not arrive in time for graduation.  Regardless of when you take the GRE, we recommend that you designate Bates as a recipient for GRE test scores to insure that we receive confirmation of your score.

Register for Subject GRE

Last updated: 8-15-2014 ga