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Opinion What I learned when applying to a British uni from Switzerland

Students following a lecture in St Gallen - most Swiss pupils go to Swiss universities

Students following a lecture in St Gallen - most Swiss pupils go to Swiss universities


Thinking of studying abroad? It’s a long learning process, with not much support, writes Leo Shearmur of his personal experience of applying for UK universities. Also frustrating: not all foreign universities understand the Swiss school marking system.

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Around 19,000external link young people a year in Switzerland leave school with their matura, which allows them to study at university level. As far as I know, few of them decide to study abroad, and even fewer choose to study in the United Kingdom*. I count myself among this small number.

I attended a bilingual gymnasium (senior high school) in the canton of Bern and secured a place at King’s College London (KCL) to study History - but only after passing through the application process twice and overcoming many unnecessary obstacles on the way.

The first problem came from my school. I did not feel that it offered me much support when I expressed a wish to study in the UK. In fact, the school seemed surprised that I wanted to do so. It was up to me to find the help that I needed.

This is different to British schools, which teach their pupils about university application processes. For a prospective student to be accepted at any British university, s/he must meet the grade requirements, hand in relevant work, and write a personal statement that justifies their aptitude for the undergraduate position for which they are applying. Some elite universities also invite applicants to be interviewed.

In short, British high school students are guided through the entire process, receive mock interviews, and lessons in how best to write their personal statements.

Swiss differences

As far as I am aware, the only institutions that provide a similar service in Switzerland are the international schools. They offer universally-recognised education systems with standardised marking criteria, like the International Baccalaureate (IB), that make it easier for young people to apply to universities all over the world. The only catch is that these schools can cost between from CHF20,000 and CHF130,000external link ($21,000 and $135,000) per annum.

To my knowledge, very few Swiss state schools offer the IB. Nor is it standard practice to tell Swiss matura students of other possibilities abroad, let alone to teach them how to proceed. Although there are websites for Swiss matura students interested in studying abroad, we are mainly left to our own devices.

This reflects a recurring attitude in the Swiss educational system that an individual’s education is entirely his or her own concern, an opinion many of my teachers have directly expressed on several occasions. While I do not disagree that personal motivation is crucial in secondary education, I believe that it is important to support young people, especially those of disadvantaged backgrounds.

Swiss schools – a view

Senior high schools help prepare their pupils for Swiss university applications, says Gisela Meyer Stüssi, deputy director of the Association of Swiss Senior High School Teachersexternal link. They accompany pupils to the external cantonal careers and study advice centre, where young people get free advice, she told There are university open days and some universities visit schools.

The motivation to study abroad has to come from the pupil. They must find out about the application process themselves – she recommends well in advance, also to gather the necessary documents – but schools will support the pupil, said Meyer Stüssi. This can be through translating the school report into English with the British grade equivalents, support in writing personal statements and in getting references.

In her experience, studying for part of a degree abroad is more common than doing a whole degree abroad. Or people will do a Bachelors in Switzerland and a Masters abroad. Cost is a factor, as university fees are low in Switzerland compared with other countries. She says a Swiss Matura is more accepted at Swiss universities than an IB and is well accepted in France and the German-speaking countries.

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Up to speed

So I had to bring myself up to speed on the British application process, as well as understand the British education system, and learn what was required of me. I garnered this information from various websites, online chat rooms, and by bombarding friends from international schools with questions.

But I could never access that inside information that teachers familiar with the system possess, nor get the coaching.

Had it not been for the support of one particular teacher, I would never have managed to even send off a completed application. He was especially helpful when I was required to send in some relevant work, meaning that I had to hand in some history essays. But since essay-writing is not widely practised in the Swiss system, I first had to write them.

My teacher agreed to give me extracurricular assignments and I spent days researching the topics and drafting the essays, putting far more work into them than into any other writing assignment I had ever received.

We sent them off pretending they were representative samples of my school-work for which I had been properly graded.

The Swiss educational system had to be bent or bypassed in order to satisfy the entry requirements of British universities by sending in the “school work” they wanted to see, otherwise I could not study in the UK. Because of this discrepancy in pedagogical approach, it is even more important that Swiss state schools support those students who wish to cross-over into another educational system.   

Lack of understanding

Meanwhile, several British university admissions offices were making applying difficult by setting ridiculously high entry requirements. One may be predisposed to believe that the top universities in the country have justifiably high standards, but of the five universities I applied to in 2012, four of them displayed a misunderstanding of the Swiss marking criteria and therefore of the Swiss education system in general.

For example, the matura entry requirements to study history at St Andrews, currently ranked 3rd in the UK by The Complete University Guide 2018, were set at “an overall average grade of 5.5 or above, with three specified subjects at 6.0 or above”.

Now, every Swiss child will tell you that there is no such thing as “6.0 or above”. Marks go from 1 to 6, with 4 being a pass.

An average of 4 at matura level will get you into any university in Switzerland. In other words, receiving the diploma matters more than the results. It is not like in Britain where everything depends upon the A-level results and students are under immense pressure to get the top grades that elite universities require. These usually ask for AAA to A*A*A*, which only around 13% of students achieve in Englandexternal link (2015 figures).

Leo Shearmur

(Leo Shearmur)

Apples and pears

To make a direct analogy between the British and Swiss marking criteria is to assume that high results in one system are equivalent to high results in another. This was Durham University’s mistake. To study History there, I would have needed an “overall average score of 6, with 6 in specified subject(s)”. This was a preposterously high demand to make. If a student does achieve an average of 6 in Switzerland, they become newsworthy. No student in England ever made the headlines for getting straight A*s – unless of course they passed far more than the usual 3 or 4.

What British universities fail to grasp is that there are years of pre-selection involved before a student even gets to a Swiss high school. In England, the number of 16-18 year-olds that continue in full-time education stands at 71.5% (2016).external link In Switzerland, only 20% take a high school diploma to get into university, while the rest pursue vocational training.

Not all British universities make these mistakes. Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, LSE, and KCL, to name but a few, all ask for an overall average ranging between 4.5 and 5.1. In my opinion, this is a challenging but fair demand to make of Swiss matura students willing to make the transition into the British higher education system.

How to make it better

But it is important that British universities get this right, and not only in the case of the Swiss matura. If a university’s entry requirements are wide off the mark, then the university might lose a fruitful pool of able and willing foreign students – something it may not be able to afford in the present political climate surrounding Brexit.

Moreover, prospective students might feel slighted. Yet setting high but feasible entry requirements shows that a university has put time and effort into understanding the educational system of a prospective student, however obscure it may be, and encourages students from any country to apply. It also makes the admissions fairer by opening up further to international competition.  

At the same time, senior high schools in Switzerland must become more open to the idea of international studies. They must offer more support to pupils who are interested in studying abroad in the form of information, advice, and coaching.

* was unable to independently verify this claim as no statistics exist on the proportion of Swiss students studying abroad. However, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), there were 3,380 Swiss students in HE in the UK for the period 2015/6. 2,015 of them were in full-time or part-time first degree study.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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