High-school admission in Zürich: Examination hell?

The push for high school

Every year in March, thousands of students are trying to get a place in one of the prestigious academic high-schools (gymnasium) in canton Zürich. Unlike other countries, Switzerland only admits around 20% of students to university entrance qualifying schools. In some regions, teachers have the power to recommend students to these schools. In other cantons, such as Zürich, students have to pass an entrance exam to get into gymnasium school. Last March, 12, over 7000 students across canton Zurich sweated over their entrance exams. For all these students, the annual entrance exams are make-or-break time. Most of them have been spending the last six to twelve months with extensive exam preparation:

“It has been a nerve wrecking 6 months”,

concedes Hanna, a British mum in Zürich, whose daughter sat this year’s entrance exam. Other parents agree:

“you can make it but only if you set your mind to it, give up evenings, weekends and holidays for a half year and have supportive and experienced teachers…

Rising numbers of exam candidates

According to an article in the Swiss newspaper NZZ, the number of students sitting the entrance test has risen by almost 24% in the last years. In 2019, around 7500 students completed the exam, compared to 6200 students in 2010. In Zürich, children can attempt to sit the entrance exam either straight after grade 6 of primary school or try taking the test after 2 or 3 years of secondary school.

Throughout Zürich, nervous students are now anxiously awaiting their results, due to be released on March 22nd. For students hoping to enter Gymnasium after primary school these results, together with the average school grades in German and Maths, will determine whether they will be allowed to enter Gymnasium. Candidates sitting the entrance exams in secondary school rely solely on their exam score as their school grades are not currently considered (although that is likely to change from 2020 onwards).

Gap in primary and secondary school success rates

The education department is trying to encourage more students to sit entrance exams after secondary school rather than primary school. However, looking at pass rates for both cohorts, the differences become obvious: In 2018, 2120 out of 4109 primary school students passed the entrance exam, or 51,6 %. By contrast, only 1418 out of 3511 secondary school students successfully passed the exam (40.4). It remains to be seen if this gap is going to close with the planned revision of entrance requirements for students in secondary school. 

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