In my school information seminars, one of the most pressing questions participants usually have is about the entry requirements for high school (Gymnasium/ecole de maturité/liceo). Depending on whether the seminar takes place in Zürich, Zug or Geneva, the answer to that question might be quite different.
Your canton of residence determines whether your child might have to sit an entrance exam, get a teacher recommendation and/or require high marks or a combination of both. And in those cantons that require an average grade, the minimum average required might range from anything between 4.8 to 5.3.
St. Gallen, Thurgau and Schaffhausen are the 3 cantons which solely rely on entrance exams. Zurich is one of 14 cantons with a combination of both grades and entrance exams (also Basel Stadt, Berne) and a number of cantons in Central Switzerland (Luzern, Zug) and other cantons in the western part of Switzerland (Geneva, Neufchâtel, Jura) do not have entrance exams at all.
It is not black and white but in general, cantons with an entrance exam tend to have a more challenging admission policy that those cantons without entrance exam. As a rule, students in in the Italian and French part of Switzerland find it easier to enter Gymnasium than pupils in German-speaking Switzerland and in particular in the eastern cantons. As a result, Gymnasium rates in the Italian and francophone part of Switzerland are higher than in the German part. Also, not all cantons offer 6 years of Gymnasium. For example, the Italian and most of the French-speaking cantons only offer 4 years of Gymnasium, as does canton Schwyz.
There has been a lot of discussion about the hidden hurdles to Gymnasium admission. Interestingly, in cantons with an entrance exam such as Zurich and St. Gallen, it tends to be the same number children passing the exams every year, nicely matching the number of available places and the percentage of children from academic backgrounds.
But even cantons without an entrance exam have their hidden selection mechanisms. For example both Zug and Zurich are committed to keep the overall Gymnasium admission rate below 20%. Considering that the number of pupils entering Gymnasium is on the rise in both cantons, it is to be expected that requirements will get tougher. However, whilst admission might be easier in cantons without entry exams, drop-out rates have also be found to be higher (Source: NZZ).