A former CSE major's answers to common questions about his experiences at ETH. [back to ETH main page].
1. What's the course load like? I'm thinking about taking about 25 credits a quarter and the semester-long German class. Is that do-able? Enjoyable?
25 credits will be about right. Thirty is average, so with 25 you'll have a bit of free time to explore Switzerland, go to some parties, etc. I wouldn't worry about classes too much before you get here. Class sizes are not capped, so you can always get into a class. Most people try out as many classes as possible the first week and then drop the uninteresting ones.
2. What recommendations/experiences do you want to share about the classes you took? Anything I just HAVE to take there or classes I should definitely stay away from?
There are a few world-famous CS professors here that you might consider taking classes from. Bertrand Meyer wrote the Eiffel language and is well-recognized. Ueli Maurer is famous for his work in cryptography. They're both on sabbatical now so I don't know how good they are at teaching. I would just try out a bunch of classes and go with the best professors.
One thing you should expect is for classes to be more mathematical and theoretical than at UW. I recommend brushing up on linear algebra and statistics if you can. They're both assumed for most 400-level classes.
Generally, classes will have several hours of lecture a week, plus a section. Homework may be assigned, but it is usually not required. Your whole grade generally depends on the final, which occurs either in the first two weeks after the semester or about a month later, just before the start of the next semester. Some classes have a 15 minute oral final. You have to really know the subject to do well in one-on-one questioning with the professor. I expected to be able to travel a lot in the extremely long break between semesters, but I ended up studying for much of it.
3. Where do you live? (I won't ask if it's nice, because I've only been hearing about how absolutely wonderful it is.) On the housing application, it's asking me to select Dietikon or Woko... and I have no idea the difference in pros and cons of each of those.
WOKO is a company which owns many student housing. It's a cooperative, so the rent is much lower than market price. The ETH mobility office (for exchange students) decides tenants in one of several buildings (Bülachhof, Dietikon, and Culmanstrasse to name a few). Bülachhof is preferred by many people since it is in Zürich proper. Dietikon is slightly cheaper, but you have to take a short train in to school every day, which definitely outweighs the price benefit. Culmannstrasse is also a great option that is both a 3 minute walk from campus and in the heart of the city.
The three buildings come furnished with enough to get by - desk, shelves, closet, bed, and linens. The kitchens have pots and utensils, but are a little inconsistently provisioned due to years of breaking things, loans next door, etc. You might want to buy a lamp or bedside table once you get here, but IKEA is not too far away. There is also the Brockenhaus, a second hand store that's very cheap. I bought some skis and boots there for less than the price of rental.
One thing to consider if you selected ETH in part to learn German, is that in Bülachhof, Culmannstrasse, and Dietikon many people are more comfortable with English than German. Some people even get by here without learning any German at all. That can be nice sometimes, but it's not exactly the best environment to become really fluent. Another barrier is that Swiss German is very hard to understand, even if your High German is good. Just ask Swiss people to speak High German rather than English if you want to practice.
4. And of course, what do you wish you knew before you left for Switzerland? And other general recommendations... such as places that are particularly good to visit at a certain time of the year?
Think seriously about taking the intensive German course in September. It will really help you, not only linguistically but in showing you how to get around Zürich and giving you a quick base of friends.
Travel within Switzerland is very cheap. You should get two Swiss train cards: Halbtax (half price fair) and Gleis 7 (free travel after 7pm). Travel around Europe is also quite affordable. There are several budget airlines (ryanair, easyjet), but try to plan several months in advance for the cheapest tickets.
Try to get the multiple entrance visa so you can travel in and out of Switzerland before you get your residence permit. I recommend going up to München for Oktoberfest in late September. Another seasonal even is the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in Stuttgart and surrounding towns (Esslingen was fun) in December. Finally, you definitely have to go skiing in the Alps as much as possible. You should bring ski clothes with you, since clothing is more expensive here.