​What Makes an Application Strong?

The admissions committee consists of faculty members with active research labs. Committee members review the entire application. Although an emphasis is placed on the research experience, decisions are made taking into account the applicant’s coursework, grades, test scores, and letters of recommendation. Committee members also rely on the application essays to gain a sense of the applicant’s scientific maturity.

Research Experience

At the heart of the application is the research experience. Successful applicants generally have at least one year of research experience at the time of application; so, research experience should begin by the sophomore or junior year.

Working in the lab or field setting helps students gain an understanding of the principles of research as well as the environment in which the research takes place. Students learn the techniques of research while absorbing the cultural environment. They usually know very quickly whether they like or dislike the culture of "bench" science. By starting this process early, students who love research have time to build upon their skills and knowledge. Those who do not like the research setting have time to find another setting or even change majors.

Many schools offer their own funded research programs or participate in programs funded by McNair, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, NIH, or NSF. If your school does not offer research programs, students may want to spend summers in a research program at another school or with a biotechnology company. Several summer research experiences are available at Washington University. These include the
Summer Research Programs for students who are interested in careers in biomedical research.

Students often have more than one research experience. It is important for the student to remain in contact with previous research mentors, so they may provide letters of recommendation later.

The admissions committee will be looking for research experiences in which a student's level of independence can grow as their scientific skills develop and in which their native curiosity can be expressed. Ideally, the applicant would have research experience related to the area for which the applicant is applying.

Coursework/ GPA

Choosing Courses

General requirements include several courses in biology, general and organic chemistry (4-6 semesters), calculus, and physics (1 to 2 semesters each). Some programs require specific course work. The programs in Biochemistry and Computational & Molecular Biophysics give preference to applicants that have completed one semester of physical chemistry or an equivalent course. The program in Computational & Systems Biology prefers that applicants have taken courses in algorithms and statistics as well as programming (i.e. C++). See program websites for additional information.

Students earning degrees in fields such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, or engineering and who have an interest in the intersection of their own discipline and biology are encouraged to apply to our programs. In programs such as Computational & Molecular Biophysics or Computational & Systems Biology, a background in physics or computer science is extremely useful.


The Division does not set minimum grade point average (GPA) requirements. We ask that GPAs be reported for each school attended on a 4.0 scale. Applicants are also required to submit an unofficial transcript from each college/university attended. The committee reviews these transcripts, taking into consideration the range of courses taken, overall course load, and grades in specific courses. Successful applicants usually have GPAs in both science and non-science courses in the range of 3.3 – 4.0.

Test Scores

Graduate Record Examination

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General test is required for all applicants. Scores must be from tests taken in the last five years. The Subject test is not required. Although the Division does not set minimum test scores required for admission, the most successful applicants score at or above the 80th percentile in the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) general test.”

GRE scores should be sent, using Institution Code: 6929 and Department code: 0299

To reach the web site for the GRE testing agency, click here.

Test of English as a Foreign Language

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is required of non-native speakers of English, if they have not earned a bachelor's or master's degree at an English-speaking institution. Scores must be from tests taken within the last two years. Successful International students generally score 250 (Computer Based Test), 100 (Internet-Based Test) or higher.

Outstanding recommendations and higher quality research experience may make up for lower test scores, so do not let lower scores discourage you from applying.

NOTE: Non-native speakers who earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree from a school where all instruction is in English are exempt from the TOEFL.

TOEFL scores should be sent using Institution Codes: 6929 and Department Code: 45.

To reach the web site for the TOEFL testing agency, click here.

Letters of Recommendation

Applicants are required to submit three letters of recommendation. Letters from research mentors are most important. If an applicant has had multiple research experiences, it is important to get letters from more than one mentor, including the current mentor. Only under rare circumstances would the committee need to see more than three letters of recommendation.

Occasionally, students begin their latest research experience in August or September before completing an application a few months later. In this instance, the faculty member may not feel he/she has had enough time to assess the student's ability. The student can make note of this on the application form. The admissions committee may request a letter from that mentor in the spring.

Letters of recommendation should focus on the student's ability to reason scientifically. Examples of initiative, motivation, and determination are helpful to the committee.

When students ask for letters of recommendation, it is helpful for the student to provide the faculty member with a copy of the student's resume, a transcript, and a description of why the student is interested in pursuing a career in scientific research.

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