In Switzerland, as far as I’m informed, scholarships are mostly considered something that is to be awarded to students in dire need of financial support. Merit-based scholarships seem to be rather unheard of, and so they are only rarely actively promoted (or perhaps just in specific circles). And yet, at the very latest as one enters university, I would argue scholarships become one of the most useful and desirable things all around, especially if you plan to go on exchange abroad.
Thus — mostly out of self-interest —, I took the time to research some of the most well-established merit-based scholarships attainable for Swiss students. I want to note that this text is mostly a byproduct of having written along in said research process. It is by no means an exhaustive list or complete guide, and if you’re interested in applying to scholarships yourself, you should definitely do your own research. Furthermore, since scholarships and grants for PhD students and post-docs are a tad different, the contents of this text may not be useful if you fall into said category. However, there is one thing that applies to anyone applying for a scholarship, no matter the career stage: There’s a tremendous amount of paperwork coming your way. Consider yourself warned!
What scholarships are there?
For students that are also Swiss citizens or residents, swissuniversities provides a decent first overview of national and international scholarships awarded by various governments and government bodies. They list a total of 30+ countries that offer study abroad with official financial aid, ranging from Australia to China all the way to Russia and the USA.
But while there are scholarships and grants for pretty much any field of study and most domains of “talent”, there are many nuances to what each individual scholarship actually entails:
The type, duration and amount of a scholarship varies greatly from country to country. Scholarships are awarded for studies, research, specialisations, teaching, art or language courses; the duration can last from a few weeks to several years. Normally, a government scholarship covers the cost of living and studying in the host country. Some countries, however, only award partial scholarships; in such cases, the scholarship recipient is personally responsible for covering the remaining costs. (Quote from swissuniversities)
So, in certain cases, you may actually have to apply to multiple scholarships if you don’t have any funds of your own. Fortunately, it’s not only governments that offer financial support! There are also independent foundations such as the Schweizer Studienstiftung, even some heritage-based ones (e.g. the Charles E. Blatter Stiftung). Interestingly enough, the independent kind quite often awards scholarships based on place of birth and/or residence or other very specific criteria, e.g. religious affiliation. You can find an official list of all acknowledged Swiss (study-related) foundations here and other useful links here or here.
What does the application process look like, roughly?
When applying to scholarships, especially international ones, there are generally the following steps:
- You check whether you meet the eligibility criteria. Those often include aspects like age, citizenship, (family) income, language proficiency, grade point average, amount of study semesters completed, amount of study semesters left to complete, and not currently receiving any other scholarships or financial support. As I mentioned right before, you may also have to live in a certain canton or city or have other affiliations. This information can always be found online.
- You send in your application with all the required documents. In 99% of cases, this includes your CV, Transcript of Records (an overview of all your courses and grades), a Personal Statement (why you should be awarded the scholarship and what you intend to do with it), an essay of some sorts, proof of meeting the eligibility criteria (e.g., language diplomas, financial records), and sometimes also a study and budget plan, as well as multiple Letters of Recommendation (LoR). LoRs often have to be from professors or other people of “status”, and not only is getting multiple of them not easy, they should also be full of praise. Furthermore, you may have to get certified copies of your documents if they’re required to be in English or any other language. Besides it being a lot of effort to collect all these documents, it most often also costs quite a bit of money.
- Your application gets reviewed and you are (maybe) invited to a personal interview. The interview is usually held by the board of the respective foundation/scholarship or their representatives. As far as I understand, questions posed in these interviews revolve around your motivations, qualifications and plans. As I don’t have any personal experience with this, you can find a lot of information and tips on this on YouTube.
- Provided you pass the interview, what follows is the final confirmation that you were accepted. But then comes information meetings and more paperwork. The responsible people tell you what your next steps should be, and you go on to prepare for whatever your destination is. You may even have to attend another interview at the VISA office or apply for a spot at your desired university, possibly taking more tests (e.g. the GRE for US universities).
- You’re done! Well, at least for the time being. Many scholarships also demand that you’re actively and consistently engaged in the network and community, for example taking part in meetings and events and writing essays or giving talks on your experience. But if you’ve come this far, chances are that you don’t mind doing those :-)
You’ll find the above steps in most if not all scholarship application processes, no matter if you’re applying for the Schweizer Studienstiftung or some international scholarship. But as I previously mentioned, do keep in mind that certain scholarships come with very unique requirements, which is why starting early and reading through things yourself is crucial!
Lastly, I’d like to touch on one special case:
The Fulbright Scholarship
Now that Donald Trump has left office, one can finally think about going to the USA again! And one of the best ways of doing so is through the Fulbright scholarship––a very prestigious accolade. It is specifically aimed at exchange in study and research between the US and other nations and does not fund anything other than that.
The relevant program for (pre-PhD) Swiss students is the Fulbright Foreign Student Program. You’ll find more extensive information on it and other options here, but let me give you a quick summary:
Fulbright Foreign Student Program
If you want to pursue: a Master’s or Ph.D. degree; non-degree coursework; or Ph.D. research. The Grants are four to ten months in length and not renewable. They are to be used toward the cost of tuition and other academic expenses. In general, a grant for one academic year is about $20,000.
A general heads-up: The Fulbright Scholarship application window has one deadline per year (sometime in August), and each application cycle is for the award of the scholarship in the following year. In other words, if you apply in summer of 2021, you’re effectively applying for the scholarship starting in autumn of 2022. Taking into account that you have to gather all of the required documents well before that, you should probably start planning 1.5 to two years in advance. Fun, isn’t it?
One of the program’s downsides is that you only have little power over which university you’ll eventually go to (unless the universities approach you). With the support of the Institute of International Education (IIE), you will apply to four or five US universities, going through the regular application process just like all the US students (AKA even more paperwork). As everyone knows, getting into some of the “better” schools in the US is extremely competitive. It is said that the prestige of the scholarship does help with your chances, though.
I also wanted to cover a second special case, namely going on exchange for study and research in England. It is fascinating to me how institutions like Cambridge and Oxford basically defy the entire higher education system with some of their structures and systems. But I’ll leave that for next time and end with some final summarizing thoughts instead.
What does one do with all that information?
In conclusion, I would say that one of the biggest hurdles in applying to scholarships is the administrative side. You have to see how you get to the relevant information yourself (at least initially), you have to think far ahead, you need to be able to manage and keep track of many things, and you have to be ready to hand in piles of documents on a regular basis, all without a guarantee that it will pay off.
Now, of course this isn’t me criticizing the scholarships themselves––without them, many would not even be able to study let alone leave their country. As some of them award very large sums of money, there should be certain barriers and hurdles. This is just to say that you should keep all these points in mind when deciding to take on all that work.
On the upside, the process of applying for single exchange semesters, for example by support of SEMP (the Swiss equivalent of ERASMUS), is much more straightforward, although not to be underestimated either. I may cover that in a later text.
Once more, I recommend starting the process by going through the webpage of swissuniversities. Besides that, YouTube and Google are your friend when looking for personal tips coming directly from scholarship recipients!
I was fortunate enough to be selected as a principal candidate for the Fulbright Scholarship in September 2021. If you have any questions regarding the application or placement process, feel free to shoot me an email!