College Application Booster​®: Get ahead on your college application!

Applying to U.S. Colleges as a Swiss Student

Aside from housing Europe’s United Nations and the Red Cross Headquarters, Switzerland harbors a phenomenal national education system. Vibrant and rigorous international schools filled with some of the world’s brightest and most motivated young minds populate the country. In terms of higher education, however, the limited scope of Switzerland’s offerings may leave some students yearning for an overseas experience in the United States! If such an adventure entices you for your undergraduate studies, this is the perfect guide to help you navigate the differences between the U.S. and Swiss university systems!

Undergraduate Studies in Switzerland vs. the U.S.

Switzerland’s education system comprises of just over ten universities and technical schools, affectionately referred to as ‘tertiary edu.’ By contrast, the U.S.’ vast national constellation of colleges and universities encompasses thousands of schools. While Switzerland recognizes and instructs in three official languages – German, French and Italian – aside from designated foreign language classes, the U.S. primarily instructs in English. As such, taking and excelling in either the TOEFL or IELTS English language certification exams will be crucial to submitting a strong application. If you feel confident in your English capabilities, it’s best to take these exams early to allow you more time to complete the other components of your application.

Application Process and Timeline

While eApply is a critical resource for applying to schools such as ETH Zurich, U.S. schools primarily utilize a portal called the Common App. Scoir serves as a popular secondary option, in addition to schools like MIT’s proprietary application pages. The Common Application permits students to apply to up to twenty schools.

Although American high school lasts for four years, the fact that Swiss secondary education spans three shouldn’t present an issue, but merely means that students should begin seriously preparing their materials during their second year of high school. The application should be finalized in the fall of their third and final year. Additionally, the International Baccalaureate Diploma, A-Levels, or French Baccalaureate diplomas that many expat students prefer are all accepted by U.S. institutions.

Grades and Testing

The closest equivalent to the U.S.’ SAT and ACT testing requirements for higher education in Switzerland is the Matura. Both exams are administered nationally in their respective countries, address a diverse assortment of subject areas, and impact admission to higher education institutions. The Matura is administered through public resources, the SAT and ACT are both privately administered and therefore cost a fee to take. Swiss students should investigate tutoring options and plan their timeline accordingly, since we recommend students take the exam no more than three times and complete their testing by the end of the summer before they plan to apply to college.

Recommendation Letters

The recommendation letter may be the most abstract aspect of the U.S. application to the Swiss student, since the Swiss higher education system doesn’t require letters of recommendation. In the U.S., the recommendation letter serves to provide college admissions officers insight into your character both inside and outside of the classroom. Having a document apostilled, or formally translated and certified by your country’s government, is only required in very rare circumstances. If you have a teacher who is passionate about your success and eager to write a recommendation letter for you but who does not necessarily speak English fluently, however, it’s not a bad idea to reach out to a translator! It is much more impactful to have a strong translated letter written by a non-native English speaker than a lukewarm letter written by an English speaker who may not know you as well.

Extracurricular Activities and Passion Projects

Another aspect of the U.S. application that you may be unfamiliar with as a Swiss student is the Activities List. The U.S. utilizes a distinctly holistic approach to admissions that recognizes, analyzes, and awards academic achievements in conjunction with extracurricular excellence. The Common App’s Activities List is a platform for students to list their extracurricular activities—whether jobs, volunteering, clubs, honor societies, or summer internships. The strongest applications will have a clear hook—an area of focus that unifies all of the activities that a student has engaged in and that encapsulates their future goals.

For this reason, a hallmark component of a successful application is a passion project—something you start on your own accord that unites your skills with your passions, often to make an impact on your local community. Because students are separated by educational capacities and career interests after primary school in the Swiss education system, you likely have some insight into the subject matter that both authentically excites you and resonates most profoundly with your intellectual abilities. Whether your passion is engineering or theater, take it and run with it as you build out your own initiative—whether a blog, non-profit, national movement, or charity. Check out our blog post for more information about how to start your own non-profit.

Finally, the Swiss apprenticeship model, a program that permits you to dedicate one to two days of your weekly educational experience towards real-world application of your classroom knowledge, prepares you excellently for crafting a strong Activities List. In the U.S., students often search high and low for a skill development opportunity that can make their application stand out, so you’re at a great advantage by already securing a research- or internship engagement around the age of 15 or 16. In addition to exceeding your expectations for the role and making note of your concrete impact on the organization, another way to take maximum advantage of your internship is to develop a strong working relationship with your boss that you may leverage for an additional letter of recommendation.

Types of U.S. Schools

Astronomically larger than the Swiss higher education system, the U.S.’ higher education system houses over 4,000 degree-granting institutions, with each offering an idiosyncratic approach to education.

The main categories, however, are:


The Ivy League Schools

The eight Ivy League Member Schools are Harvard, Yale, Columbia, UPenn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, Princeton, and they are primarily situated in the American northeast. These schools are widely considered some of the best schools in the nation, and are some of the oldest that were originally linked by having the same sports league, the “Ivy League.” In terms of student body size, the largest Ivy is Cornell, while the smallest Ivy is Dartmouth. They range from city to rural environments, so there is an Ivy that fits best with everyone!

Ivy League Schools Examples: Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, UPenn


The Top Non-Ivy Schools

Not all great schools reside in the Ivy League, however! There are a lot of schools throughout the nation that offer the small student-to-teacher ratios, world-class academic and research opportunities, name recognition and driven student bodies that distinguish the Ivy Leagues!

Non-Ivy Schools Examples: MIT, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon


Liberal Arts Schools

Liberal arts schools offer small student populations, small student-to-teacher ratios, unique school traditions and, or course, the hallmark and specialized “liberal arts curriculum that focuses on developing the whole student through diverse and comprehensive areas of study.”

Liberal Arts Schools Examples: Amherst, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Haverford, Bates College


The UC System

UC Schools, based in California, are some of the finest state schools in the country, with a diverse array of student bodies and research opportunities. To apply to the UC schools, you use the UC system application rather than the Common App. The largest UC is UCLA, with around 32,000 students, and the smallest is UC Merced with around 8,000 students.

UC Schools Examples: UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara


State Schools

State schools are often large, and offer diverse and dynamic learning communities and great research opportunities! Compared to the aforementioned private institutions, state schools receive public funding from states that often empower them to offer more affordable tuition rates to residents. In-state students receive a special discount that out-of-state students don’t, making them an appealing option for many looking to expand their educational horizons while minimizing their budgets. Private schools, on the other hand, don’t receive such robust funding from the state, so much of their scholarship budgets derive from internal financial resources and private donations.

State Schools Examples: Georgia Institute of Technology, UMichigan, and Virginia Tech.

International Student Support from the Experts

Applying to U.S. colleges and universities as an international student is a complex and intricate process. Command Education Senior Mentors offer international students expert, individually tailored guidance to support them through the process step-by-step, empowering them to build standout applicant profiles and get into their dream schools.

Start your admissions journey at top U.S. colleges and universities today by scheduling a free consult!