Studying in Germany: the dream of every American teen and 20-something!
…OK, maybe not Germany specifically; any university in Europe will do. After all, it’s free, right? Bernie said so.
Well, the good news is, it is cheap. Free, though? Not exactly.
Disclaimer: I’m 35 as of writing this post, and therefore An Old™. If you’re still young and full of hope, some of your experiences studying in Germany will be different from mine. My American university experiences are also outdated; it’s been over a decade since I earned my first B.A. Finally, please remember that my experiences are also specific to the German university I’m attending and the degree I’m earning. Feel free to share your own experiences in the comments.
This guide is exclusively about undergraduate degrees, as I have no experience in Germany (yet) with getting my Masters.
Why I Decided to go Back
When I first came to Germany, I taught English to adults. It was a fun and rewarding experience, but it was entirely freelance work. For some people, that’s fine; however, I want a stable job with benefits. So, I started looking for something else.
It’s been tough (re: impossible) for me to find gainful employment in Germany. For whatever reason, I wasn’t able to find full-time work with my current degree and experience. I could write an entire post on how frustrating it has been looking for work in Germany; not just because I couldn’t find anything, but also because of well-intended, but morale-draining comments from others.
Suddenly, everyone is an employment expert. The same people who used to say “all Germans know English” are now insisting that every business will roll out the red carpet for you, simply because you’re a native English speaker.
If I hear, “you should be able to find something!” one more time, I will scream. You’re right. I should! I’m awesome. Sadly, I haven’t been able to convince German employers of that.
Since I enjoyed teaching English to adults, and I know that there’s a teacher shortage in Germany, I decided to study to become a high school teacher. If all goes to plan, I’ll be able to teach English and computer science to German tweens and teens in four or so years.
…and, no, I also don’t appreciate the face people make when I tell them it will take four more years. Yeah, guys; I know I’m old and four more years is a long time when you’re practically on your deathbed. You don’t need to remind me.
With that tangent out of the way, let’s jump into what makes studying in Germany different than studying in the USA.
Proof of Financing
If you are an American who needs a visa to stay in Germany, you will need to prove you have the funds to study in Germany. I did not have to do this, because I already have a residency card. If you do not already legally live in Germany, though, this is your first major hurdle to studying in Germany. You can find our more information here.
The Application Process
Although there are a few exceptions, Germans cannot go to university unless they have what is called an Abitur. For you, as an American, this means that you have to meet specific requirements to study in Germany.
If you want to earn an undergraduate degree in Germany, your opportunities to do so in English at a public university will be limited. If you are curious about what is available, check out this website. There are also private universities with programs in English, but private universities are more expensive and are also held in lower regard.
If you want/are willing to study in German, you will have more choices. The vast majority of universities will require that your German skills are at least at the C1 level. Some universities will only ask for B2, depending on the program.
Also worth noting: some universities that require C1 German will allow you to apply with a B2 certificate, but you need to have earned your C1 certificate when you officially enroll.
You have to check the university’s website to see what certificates they accept but, generally speaking, you can submit either a TELC C1 certificate or a Goethe C2.
If you only have a high school degree and did not pass AP exams in high school, you cannot start studying in Germany right away. Instead, you have to do the Studienkolleg (prepatory studies) and the Feststellungsprüfung (university qualification exam). You can read more at the Uni-Assist website, which is also where you will (likely) apply to university once you are ready.
Alternatively, you can get into university the way I did: by already having a bachelor’s degree. Not all bachelor’s degrees qualify; the Kultusminister Konferenz will evaluate your degree and decide if it meets the requirements.
As I previously stated, studying in Germany is not free. It is, however, much cheaper than in the USA. I pay roughly 450 Euros per semester.
Your student ID functions as your public transport card for the city in which you are attending university, as well as regional trains within your entire state, so at least some of that money is going towards your commute.
How much you pay per semester is not tied to the number of classes you are taking.
Unlike at American universities, there are no general elective courses. This means that all of your classes will be directly related to the degree you are earning.
In theory, your bachelor’s degree should also be quicker; the expected amount of time is three years instead of four. From what I can tell, though, students have to take just as many classes to earn a bachelor’s in Germany as they do in America. AND they have to do at least 8 weeks of an internship and write a Bachelor’s Thesis.
In the US, full-time students do not take more than four to six classes per semester. In Germany, you will be taking more. A lot more. Since I already have credit for about half of my classes, I am still “only” taking six classes per semester. Other students in my year, however, are taking 10 or 11 at a time.
Studienleistung and Prüfungsleistung
Every class has either a Studienleistung or a Prüfungsleistung. This is not determined by your professor but, rather, by your module catalogue. The module catalogue lays out the specific requirements for your degree. Here is one of mine, for reference.
The Studienleistung could be anything. A presentation at the end of class. A paper. A “journal entry” for every day of class, where you write about what you learned. Studienleistung is pass/fail, meaning you will not get a grade for those classes. In some cases, you may have to take the same exam as the students who have a Prüfungsleistung, but, for you, it will be pass/fail.
If your class has a Prüfungsleistung, that means you have to take a formal exam. The important thing to know about the Prüfungsleistung is that you only get three opportunities to pass. The third attempt is usually an oral exam. If you do not pass on your third attempt, you not only fail the class, but you are also kicked out of your program and cannot study that subject at any other university in your state.
You have to sign up to take your exam with your university’s Prüfungsamt. If you do not attend the exam, it will not count as an attempt. So, if you sign up for the exam and then realize you are not ready, it is best to just not go to the exam. Even if your course is not offered every semester, there will likely be a test offered every semester; so, you can try again in a few months, when you are better prepared.
Perhaps things have changed since I last studied in America, but my university did not require a Bachelor’s Thesis. I had to have a portfolio, but that was a specific requirement of the English department and not the university or some larger governing body.
Everyone studying in Germany has to write a Bachelor’s thesis in order to graduate. Here is some more information (in German) about the Bachelorarbeit.
In addition to your studies, you must complete at least one internship. The length is determined by your university. At the university of Hannover, for example, I am supposed to do four weeks at a school and four weeks at a company. Students who do not want to become a teacher must do eight weeks at a company; either four at two different companies, or eight at a single company. At the Technical university of Braunschweig, as another example, students must complete 10 weeks of an internship in order to graduate.
Here are some general tips for making your experience of studying in Germany more pleasant.
Feedback at a German university can be brutal by American standards. If you are not used to a professor standing in front of a class and pointing out weak points in your paper, while inviting other students to also find your errors, it can be pretty jarring.
Similarly, presentations have a feedback round afterwards, where your peers and professor critique your work. At my American university, feedback was always written and given after class.
This is just something you have to get used to; accept that it’s meant to help and not to hurt.
Some professors in Germany have caught up to the modern world and have started recording their lectures, but not all. For the professors still stuck in the past, you will need to be sure you are good at taking notes, because German Power Point presentations are sparse. If you do not catch what your professor said the first time around, the likelihood you will get everything just from reviewing the slides is very low. Especially because (at least in my experience; your mileage may vary) there’s rarely a textbook you are being taught from that you can just study on your own.
My recommendation: before you start your studies, look for lectures on YouTube that are in German and related to your future studies. See if you can keep up and take notes. If it’s difficult, keep practicing.
Make use of DeepL and any native speaker friends/family you have. If you don’t have any native speakers in your life that you can rely upon for help with editing, you might want to consider a paid DeepL subscription.
Those are all of the major differences between studying in Germany VS studying in the US. I thought about adding a section about the little differences. For example, I can count on one hand how many presentations and group projects I had to do at my American university. Meanwhile, I’ve had four group work assignments and two presentations in my first year at a German university. I’m not sure if that is the case in all German universities, though, or just Leibniz Hannover, so I left that out.
As for student life, well…I can’t really help you with that, since my party days are over. However, I can do the lazy thing and link you to YouTube, where several creators have already made videos on this topic.