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:  To be distributed on Friday February 19th, 2016; exam must be returned no later than March 4th, 2016.


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:   Take home exam Feb 19th, 2016 – March 4th, 2016

Faculty administrator:  Ryan Bavis, Chair of Biology


This Biology Department’s comprehensive exam is described below. Students who take the departmental comprehensive and fail to achieve a satisfactory score  must retake the questions they failed during Short Term as detailed below.


Exam Structure

The 2016 comprehensive exam will be a take-home exam focusing on your senior thesis (Bio 457 or Bio 458) or Research & Seminar course (Bio 470 or Bio 477). If you participated in two separate capstone experiences (other than Bio 460), you will choose to answer questions based on one of them. The exam questions will ask you to think carefully about what you did, how you did it, and why you did it that way. You may use any non-human resource to answer these questions.

Exam Time and Location

The Biology Comprehensive Exam for the Class of 2016 will be distributed on February 19, 2016 for those students who did not take the Biology GRE or who did not score ≥50th percentile on that test; if you have completed the Biology GRE with a score ≥50th percentile, please be sure that Ryan Bavis receives a copy of your scores.

Completed comprehensive exams must be returned to Sylvia Deschaine in the Carnegie Science Reception Office no later than 2 PM on March 4, 2016.


The questions on the comprehensive exam are designed to test your conceptual understanding of biology. Supporting your answer with specific facts and details is important and can make the difference between a good answer and an excellent answer. Answers should be essay in nature and may use outlines, graphs, and or diagrams where appropriate.

Evaluation and Passing Score

Each exam will be read by at least two faculty members who will be expecting thorough, well-written responses. You will be notified by March 21, 2016 as to whether you passed the exam. Any question that receives a failing grade must be re-written during the first week of short term.

You must pass the exam in order to complete the major. Details on what constitutes a passing score on the exam will be forthcoming shortly.

Registration Procedure

Comp Exam Registration Form 2016 (PDF)

Prior to taking the departmental exam, you must fill out a registration form.  This must be completed and submitted to Ryan Bavis, Chair of Biology, no later than the week before the exam (February 12, 2016).


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