Because Phi Beta Kappa exists to recognize achievement in the liberal arts, it elects undergraduate members from among those students seeking a degree from the College of Arts & Sciences, which includes University College. Students in other undergraduate schools (for example, engineering or business) are eligible only if they are in a combined degree program to earn a second degree (not merely a second major) from Arts & Sciences.

Students do not “apply” for membership. Seniors and juniors from Arts & Sciences are nominated once a year by a Selection Committee made up of Phi Beta Kappa faculty and/or staff members representing the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. The Selection Committee meets each year in early spring. It receives the internal records of students (a) with a cumulative grade point average of 3.60 or above and (b) graduated in the preceding August or December or are anticipated to graduate at the end of the spring semester.

Together, the Committee completes a name-blind examination of these records and votes on each nomination. Usually the committee nominates about 90 students, which means the lowest grade point averages of each year’s nominees is usually higher than the eligibility cutoffs, although there is no rule about this. Newly elected members are then notified by e-mail, usually in late February or early March. There is a formal initiation ceremony later in the semester.

In making its nominations, the Selection Committee reviews each record for evidence of both breadth and depth of interest in the liberal arts, as demonstrated in a student’s work at Washington University.

One record, for example, might be for a 4.00 science major who shows few interests outside the sciences — just the minimal set of distribution requirements. Such a student is clearly outstanding and deserves special recognition of some kind, but they likely would not be nominated; this is not the kind of broad interest that Phi Beta Kappa seeks to honor.

Another 4.00 student’s record might show diverse interests but not much depth in any area — for example, a “minimal” set of courses in the major and “dabbling” in a number of other areas. This student would likely also not be nominated.

Sometimes a course of study touches base with many different departments but, on closer examination, seems focused in a narrow window rather than having the wider perspective that the Selection Committee is looking for. For example, a course of study might consist of courses from many departments but be tightly focused on a particular topic, such as health and medicine. Such a record would likely also not show the breadth of interest in the liberal arts  the Committee looks for.

In looking at a student’s record, the Selection Committee may also take into account other features of course selection related to the creativity, breadth, or challenge of a student’s work. For example,

  • a psychology or anthropology major might fulfill most of their science and social science requirements all within the major department, or
  • a student might fulfill the College’s science requirement completely with mathematics courses while never studying an “empirical” science, or
  • a student might use the “pass/fail” grade option to fulfill requirements outside the major, or might take a 100-level course as a senior to fulfill a curricular requirement which the student, at that stage, could fulfill in a more challenging way.

Such features of a student’s record might not disqualify them for nomination per se but would likely be viewed as “minus” factors in the overall picture.

Clearly, the nomination decisions involve judgment calls by the Selection Committee. For this reason, the Chapter reviews records identified only by student identification numbers and tries to keep the committee fairly large and representative of the different parts of the College.