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How easy is it for foreign students to study in Swiss universities?

Getting in: University admissions in Switzerland, US and UK

Students at a university
Deadlines for international students are sometimes set earlier for international students who require a visa to study in Switzerland. © KEYSTONE / GAETAN BALLY

Should you start planning your university admission strategy two years in advance?  We look at how application deadlines, qualification requirements, and proof of language proficiency can make finding a university spot complicated. 

There is no centralised admission system in Switzerland, which means that prospective students must apply directly at one of the country’s ten universities and federal technology institutes. Some basic requirements are nevertheless relevant to all schools: to enter a bachelor’s degree programme, students usually need to hold the equivalent of a matura, the Swiss school-leaving certificate; and to study at the masters’ level, they must have a bachelor’s degree from an internationally recognised university, in some cases in a related discipline. 

Deadlines for applications vary and sometimes are set earlier for international students who require a visa. Some programmes begin only in the autumn, with application deadlinesExternal link anywhere between the end of November and April. Once applicants have picked a programme, it’s advisable to check directly with the university when to apply and what the exact admission requirements are. 

For those planning to apply in the UK application portals are typically launched in the autumn, one year ahead of the start of the new academic year. Although it is not uncommon for universities to set specific application deadlines, most will accept applications throughout the year. It is advisable, however, to apply sooner rather than later, as competition is high, and many universities operate on a first-come, first-served basis.  

Application deadlines might differ for international students. In 2017, for instance, the University of East AngliaExternal link required certain prospective international students to apply by  May 31, while home students could apply by July 31. At Queen MaryExternal link, however, the difference was much smaller; the international student postgraduate deadline was only one week ahead of the home students’ deadline. Also to bear in mind is that scholarship deadlines are often different from course deadlines and generally fall between January and March for courses beginning in September. For these reasons, it is worth double checking the various deadlines for each university so as not to miss a crucial date.  

International students looking into U.S. universities have to juggle tuition fees, immigration requirements, varied living costs depending on region, and figuring out whether they can find work. But there are also added admissions hurdles for students coming from abroad, leading some expertsExternal link to suggest the planning process begin two years before studies are to begin. 



Two years may seem like a long time to prepare for university admission in the US, but meeting submission deadlines requires significant forward planning. All incoming freshmen at UC BerkeleyExternal link, for example, would need to show they met requirements on courses completed, grade point average in the final two years, and complete either the SATExternal link or ACTExternal link tests. The University of California system also has specific requirements for students of each country to show eligibility. So a student from India, for example, also needs to showExternal link they’ve finished “year X and XII state board or CBSE examinations, with average marks above 70 and no mark below 60.” Documentation will also be required to show a student can support themselves financially while abroad. 

International students will need to prove English proficiency, usually through TOEFLExternal link or IELTSExternal link tests, though some schools also permit SAT/ACT English scores to count.  These requirements can vary from school to school, however.  Penn State UniversityExternal link, for example, requires a TOEFL of 80 (550 on paper), or IELTS of 6.5, which seemed like a common requirement at a few universities we checked.  

Submitting English proficiency can add another deadline for international students to consider. (Berkeley wants those test scores by the January before the Fall semester in which a student wants to enrollExternal link.)  At Penn State, applications for first year international studentsExternal link are available in August for the following year’s Fall semester. A priority filing deadline of February is offered for a student to have best chance of campus and major selections. The point is: the process takes time.

Swiss requirements for university admission are also demanding and can be time-consuming. For graduate degrees in particular, the list of prerequisites can be rigorous – at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ), the document outlining the academic conditions to fulfill in order to enter the master’s in computer scienceExternal link is nine pages long. Expect an equally demanding list of official documents to submit, everything from course transcripts to a CV to a personal essay. Of course, getting the application in on time is critical, as is paying the application fee – otherwise candidates can expect a swift rejection.

Usually applicants also need to have a good grasp of the language of instruction; for many graduate programmes, this is increasingly English, although some courses might be taught in one of the national languages as well. Often applicants need to submit a recognised language certificate, with some exceptions, such as when the language of instruction is their mother tongue. Some universities require students to pass a language test before admission. 

Admission to UK universities also requires careful planning. Unlike at undergraduate level, where all applications are made through UCAS, a charity that operates the process on behalf of all British universities, postgraduate applications are made directly to the universities themselves. This means that there is no limit to the number of applications one can make, but also that application timeframes, entry and language requirements vary considerably.   

Postgraduate applications typically include a personal statement, academic transcripts, two or more references, a CV, and, depending on whether one is applying for a researched-based program (e.g. MPhil, MRes, or PhD), a research proposal. Further information about this can be found on the university websites or on student advice websites, like UCASExternal link or ProspectsExternal link.  

Entry requirements vary according to the university and course one is applying for. University websites have detailed entry requirements for Indian students, but the minimum requirement for most courses is a completed three or four-year bachelor’s degree from a recognised institution and a final qualification equivalent to a 2:1 (55-60% or above). See examples from SheffieldExternal link, ManchesterExternal link, and CardiffExternal link for further reference.   

If you are unsure about your qualifications, contact the universities admissions offices for clarification or apply for a statement of compatibility from NaricExternal link, Britain’s national agency for the recognition and comparison of international qualifications and skills, to support your applications. This service costs £60.  

Most, if not all, universities will require applicants to demonstrate proficiency in English or ask them to take an approved language test, like IELTS or SELT, which are approved by UK Visa and Immigration agency. For the IELTS, an average of 6.0 or 6.5 is generally required. 


Bridging the gap

The requirements to secure a university place may seem daunting but Swiss institutions do provide some breathing room. For instance, depending on the university, those who don’t hold a recognised secondary school certificate may still be able to start a bachelor’sExternal link after completing an exam. And some graduate schools accept applicants who don’t fulfill all necessary prerequisites on the condition that they do so before or during their master’s studies. For the computer science programme at ETHZ, such students needExternal link “to acquire the required additional knowledge and skills […] via self-study or by attending classes”, to be followed by “individual performance assessments” to determine if they’re fully eligible for the programme. 

The UK also cuts some slack for those who are not quite up to speed yet. Bridge courses between undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are offered by British universities for students who either do not meet the academic entry requirements or who have graduated in an unrelated discipline. The aim of these bridge courses (known either as pre-master’s or postgraduate certificate/diploma) is to develop English language skills, academic literacy, critical thinking and presentation abilities, as well as more tailored skills required for the course. They are either integrated into the main master’s degree and are a year longer (e.g. MSc International Economic from BirminghamExternal link); or they are simply a stand-alone course, postgraduate degrees in themselves (e.g. St AndrewsExternal link), and a key to further education in the UK.

American universities also provide a helping hand for those falling narrowly short of admission requirements. There are some programs for international students to further their English learning and feel a little more comfortable in coursework at some universities. George Washington UniversityExternal link requires international graduate students to enroll in an “English for Academic Purposes” course in the first semester, but a student can test out with a TOEFL of 100 (600 on paper.) The University of OregonExternal link offers a wrap-around program to marry language work and core coursework for undergrads.

So, when considering a university, it might be a good idea to ask about bridge programs for language, culture, and academic integration.

Next in the series we tackle the university experience: What non-academic facilities do universities offer? How many students can you expect to share a class with? Are there services to help international students adjust to a new environment?

Tony Ganzer is an American journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio who lived and worked in Switzerland for many years. He will help examine the American university system for this series. 

Geraldine Wong Sak Hoi, a Canadian journalist based in Switzerland, will report on the Swiss university system for this series. She is also involved in fact-checking projects for

Leo Shearmur is a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford and has lived and studied in the UK and Switzerland. He will report on the British educational system of this series.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR