Scheduling for tandem cold mills refers to the determination of inter-stand gauges, tensions and speeds of a specified product. Optimal schedules should result in maximized throughput and minimized operating cost. This paper presents a genetic algorithm based optimization procedure for the scheduling of tandem cold rolling mills. The optimization procedure initiates searching from a logical staring point - an empirical rolling schedule - and ends with an optimum cost. Cost functions are constructed to heuristically direct the genetic algorithm's searching, based on the consideration of power distribution, tension, strip flatness and rolling constraints. Numerical experiments have shown that the proposed method is more promising than those based on semi-empirical formulae. The results generated from a case study show that the proposed approach could significantly improve empirically derived settings for the tandem cold rolling mills.