two students working in the greenhouse at amherst college

Welcome to the Biology Department at Amherst College. This webpage is for first-year and transfer students interested in Biology. The Biology Department at Amherst welcomes your interest in our courses and research. Get to know your professors! Biology faculty are eager to get to know you and can make useful suggestions to you about other courses or campus events and opportunities that might fit your interests. If your curiosity is sparked by a particular subject matter, go seek out the professor to explore more!

For other Amherst department webpages for new students, please click here.


  • Questions about Placement in (or placing out of) courses: Placement Info
  • If you're a sophomore and looking to declare/enroll in the Biology major, please follow the steps found on the About the Major webpage

Students Interested in Non-Majors Courses

Students interested in the insights of biology but whose area of specialization is likely to lie outside biology

Please consider the following courses that do not have prerequisites: BIOL-104, 106, 108, 110, and 114. Each of these courses focuses on a particular topic within biology and is intended for students who do not plan to major in biology.

Transfer Students Interested in Majoring in Biology

Transfer students intending to major in biology are typically assigned an advisor in the Biology Department upon acceptance to Amherst. While the Registrar's Office determines which courses are transferred, together with your advisor, you willl look carefully at the coursework you've already done to determine which courses will meet requirements for the major and then make a plan for how best to succeed moving forward in the major. For any questions related to majoring in Biology, please contact the department chair.

Students Interested in Majoring in Biology

Majors in biology need to take the two introductory chemistry courses (CHEM 151/155 and CHEM 161/165; which of the two options you enroll in will depend on whether you are placed in MATH-111 or MATH-121, respectively) and the two introductory biology courses (BIOL-181 and BIOL-191) that lay the foundations for all advanced biology courses. Please consult our new Getting Started in the Major webpage for lots of information on how to start off on these courses and pathways through the Biology major.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions from first-year students:

If I want the option to major in Biology, what’s the best thing for me to do this semester?


There are several ways to navigate the Introductory math and science courses necessary for the foundation of a Biology major. Because math and chemistry are important foundations for Biological inquiry, begin by looking at your Amherst College Math and Chemistry placements; based on these, your options for laying the foundations to the biology major are shown in “Pathways For Biology Foundations Courses”. In consultation with your advisor, you should tailor your own path to give you the best opportunity for success in these courses so that you can move on to advanced courses with confidence. As you choose a path forward, consider the following:

  • your previous preparation in Biology, including previous laboratory work

  • requirements for courses, and other majors you might be interested in, including the pre-medical track

  • your other curricular/extracurricular commitments for the coming semesters to decide which semester

    (fall or spring) you have more flexibility in your schedule and could handle two lab courses

  • your ultimate career interests or general areas of interest

**Note that BIOL-181 and BIOL-191 can be taken in either order, but BIOL-191 has a Chemistry pre-requisite. If you have been placed into CHEM-151, there are several different options for the fall semester; if you have been placed into CHEM-155, and are confident about wanting to major in Biology or Neuroscience or BCBP or pre-med, then we recommend you take CHEM-155 in Fall of your first year because CHEM-155 is not offered in the spring.*

What Math should I take if I may want to major in Biology?


The Biology major requires MATH111 or MATH105/106. If you have been placed into either of these, we recommend you take that Math course this fall as it is required for CHEM161. In addition to MATH-111, Biology majors must complete one additional course in math, statistics, or physics some time during their college years. If you have been placed into MATH 121/211, then you have completed the essential math for the Biology major, but you are still required to complete two courses of your choosing among math, statistics, or physics. We highly recommend a course in statistics as one of these options.

I only want to take one Science course my first semester, which should I take: Chemistry or Biology?


There is no one right answer for this question, and also no wrong answer. Paths 1-5, and 7 on this sample paths for Bio majors webpage all start with either Biology or Chemistry, and all can lead to a solid Bio major. First consider the points listed above and see if that helps you answer this question for your own interests. If, in addition to Biology, you are also interested in a pre-medical curriculum, or Neuroscience major or Biochemistry & Biophysics major, you will have the most flexibility in the future if you begin with Chemistry (paths 3 or 5-9). If you are interested in Ecology and field Biology, and not the above options, then you might prefer starting with BIOL-181 in the fall and then starting Chemistry in the spring (paths 1,2, or 4). Note that if you have been placed into CHEM-155, we recommend that you take Chemistry in your first year fall, because CHEM-155 is not offered in the spring.

Can I take Chemistry and Biology my first semester at Amherst?


There is no single answer to this question, as it really depends on your own level of preparation and the other things you have going on in the fall semester. We do NOT recommend taking both science courses AND a math course, so drop one of those three for your first fall semester. If you have been placed in CHEM-155, and enjoyed good preparation through high school Chemistry and Biology courses, and feel like you are well prepared to tackle a hefty semester, then this may be the perfect choice for you! If you are a fall athlete, or have some other large fall commitment, you are more likely to put yourself in a good position by focusing on just one science for your first fall semester, so choose one. We are happy to talk with you to help make the best choice for you.

How does advanced placement in Biology work?


Amherst does not grant College credit for AP courses. It is possible to “place out” i.e. to be exempted from taking, one (or, in unusual circumstances, both) of the two introductory biology courses, but it is important to note that this does not decrease the number of courses required for the Biology major. It is also important to note that most advanced Biology courses are not open to first year students. In rare cases, a student with an extraordinarily strong biology background may be exempted from taking both Biology 181 and 191. In all instances, exemption from both Biology 181 and/or Biology 191 requires permission from a Biology professor and documentation of your AP 5 score, see Placement Info.


Biology majors who place out of Biology 181 or Biology 191 must take an additional upper-level Biology course in lieu (or two courses, if placing out of both). If you are considering placing out of Biology 181 or 191, and moving on to an advanced course, talk to a Biology professor to make sure you are adequately prepared for advanced level courses. A last final note is that most Amherst students with Biology AP5 take BIOL-181 and BIOL-191 and benefit greatly from taking these courses before moving on to advanced level courses.

If I have a 5 on an AP test, which course should I place out of, Biology 181 or Biology 191?


Biology 181 focuses on evolution and natural selection; Biology 191, on genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology. You should place out of the course(s) whose subject matter you know best and therefore are best prepared to jump into advanced work in that area. You may also choose to not place out of either of these courses as they each go well beyond the AP level of high-school Biology courses.

Can I get involved with research in the Biology Department?


Yes, our advice is to first focus on building your foundation course work. As you get to know different subjects and professors, and you see that your schedule has room for an extra time commitment, speak directly to professors in whose labs you would like to work. You can also fill out an application form (see “Student Job Interest Form” under “Research Opportunities” on the Biology website or see Biology Academic coordinator, Leah Davis, office E304 in the Science Center).

What are the opportunities for student research in the Biology Department?


Research is of great importance to Biology faculty and to a good many of our majors. Roughly half our majors undertake senior honors thesis research, comprising 3 courses in the senior year. Students who choose to do thesis research often consider it the most rewarding academic experience of their Amherst years. But that decision is at least 2-3 years away. Sooner than that, you may be able to participate in biological research during a January Interterm, or by working several hours a week during the academic year or during a summer after your first or second year. Discuss your interests with Biology Faculty, and do take notice of announcements in the Intro classes as those opportunities arise, especially summer research opportunities at the College, which are advertised in the early spring.

How can I keep up my interest in Biology as a first-semester Amherst student if I am taking Chemistry and Math and won’t start Biology until spring semester or the following fall?


Come to Biology seminars, which are at 4:00 PM on most Mondays (see Seminars & Events). Talk to sophomores, juniors, and seniors about the Biology courses they are taking, or the research they are involved with, and visit them in the a Biology “groupie”. Talk to Biology Professors about their research programs and whether there are any opportunities to get involved. Be on the look-out for Biology events. Remember that each semester goes very quickly, and your job is to build strong foundation skills.