15 June, 2015

Comparison of American and German Universities

Now that I've officially been a student in Germany for about two months, I have a fairly good sense of the differences between studying in the US and in Germany. Unfortunately for me, the advantage in some ways has to go to the US, apart from, of course, the outrageous costs of attending an American university (which I've already written about here). What follows is my assessment of some of the differences between German and American universities, some of which is purely factual and some of which is my own experience and therefore unavoidably biased.

(Note: In American English the word "class" is used to mean both the semester-long course [for example, Introduction to Psychology] as well as the individual weekly or twice-weekly meetings of a particular course. To avoid confusion, in this post I will be using the word "course" for the first meaning and the word "class" for the second meaning.)

1. The Admission Process

In the United States, the process of applying for admission to a university can be grueling. It often starts years before graduation from high school, with online research to narrow down the list of possible universities, appointments with a school guidance counselor, campus visits, interviews and standardized testing. Applications for the fall semester are usually due the preceding December or January, and applicants receive their decisions anytime from a few weeks after the application deadline to early April. The deadline for accepting a place (and turning down any other positive decisions) is May 1st, and after that date the paperwork for enrollment, housing and course registration starts. (Total time between application submission and university attendance: 8-9 months.)

The application itself includes a bunch of forms, copies of transcripts and standardized test scores, and a two-page essay written specifically for college applications that is supposed to blow the admissions committee away and convince them that out of all their thousands of applicants, YOU are the one they want! The application is also (at most universities) simply an application for admission to the university itself and is not tied to a specific field of study. At least for undergraduate students (those pursuing a Bachelor's degree), the field of study is chosen later and (usually) does not require any further applications.

In Germany, the admission process is less stressful and quicker. To compare with the American timeline, a German student submitting an application in December or January will typically have a decision in February, accept an offer and enroll by March, and start classes in April (German semesters are different, I'll get to that later). The same timeline applies for the fall: application deadline in late July, answer by late August/early September, start classes in October. (Total time between application submission and university attendance: 3-4 months.) This is done because universities require that applications be submitted with the final grades from applicants' end-of-school exams (aka, high school diploma), which are usually not available until sometime in July. My program had an even later application deadline of six weeks before classes started, which was way too short and caused me all sorts of problems.

The application itself is also different. It almost resembles a job application more than an American university application. The basic requirements are an application form, a final high school transcript (and university transcript as well, if you have already attended another university), a resume, written proof of any experience listed on your resume, and a letter of motivation explaining why you are applying. As an international student I also had to take a German language exam and submit my certificate proving that I had passed. Applicants must apply directly for their major/program of study. Very often universities have no limit for the number of students they will accept to a particular program of study, so as long as you submit all the right forms you are almost guaranteed to get in. This does not apply for things like engineering, medicine, law and certain other fields, but for something like German or sociology you are basically guaranteed a spot.

2. Semesters and Breaks

American and German universities both generally have two semesters, but they start and end at different times. At most American universities, the fall semester starts in September and goes until mid-December. Then there is winter break from mid-December to sometime in January (the break is usually three to five weeks long). After that the spring semester starts and goes until early or mid-May, followed by summer break until August.

In Germany, the winter semester starts in October and runs through March, and the summer semester starts in April and runs through September. While there are official breaks during the semesters, as there are in the US, there is nothing really comparable to the long winter and summer breaks in the United States. The German semesters are divided up into class time and exam time, with the class time running approximate the first 14 weeks of the semester and the exam period taking up the rest of the time until the next semester starts.

3. Final Exams

The differences in semester structure mean final exams are treated very differently by American and German universities. At American universities, final exams happen during the last week or two of the semester, right before winter or summer break starts. At German universities, exams may be scheduled any time during the "break"/any time after classes end. So basically that means no extended breaks like the insanely long summer break that American college students get.

And one of the most striking differences is how final exams influence the final course grade. In Germany, your grade for a course is entirely dependent on your final exam grade. Nothing else is graded, and if you fail that one exam you fail the whole course. But if you fail an exam and want to try again the next semester, you don't have to retake the course, you just have to retake the exam. This leads to a complicated system in which students have to register for the course and the exam separately (at least at my university), due to the fact that some people take the course and not the exam and some people take the exam without taking the course. This is an entirely strange concept to me, one that I haven't entirely gotten used to.

In the US, the final exam is only part of the grade for the course. Students are also graded on attendance, participation in class discussions, homework assignments, papers, quizzes and mid-term exams. It is also required to take the exam if you are registered for the course, and if you don't complete the exam for a course in the semester for which you are enrolled, you will fail the course, which means a zero factored into your GPA (grade point average, or average of the grades for all the courses you've taken). If you want credit for the course, you have to take the entire thing again, including all the homework, quizzes, class participation and exams. This leads me to...

4. Workload

As I mentioned above, most courses at German universities are graded solely on final exams and no other criteria. It is completely possible to never attend the classes at all and still pass with flying colors, as long as you study what you need to know on your own. Some courses have a practical component, such as a portfolio or a research paper that may take the place of the exam, but the general model is one exam, one grade.

In the US, there is much more structured work that is required during the semester. I had homework of some sort every single day, which could range anywhere from a few pages of reading, to reading a whole book, to a short writing exercise or an entire paper. During the week, when I wasn't in class or eating, I was usually doing homework. I went to sleep too late, I woke up too early, and I generally sacrificed many other free-time activities in order to get all my homework done on time. In addition to doing homework, students are almost always expected to attend every class, lecture, lab, etc. and are graded poorly if they don't. At my university in the US each student was allowed two unexcused absences from each course, and every subsequent absence after that which was not excused (via a doctor's note proving illness, for example) resulted in a reduction of the final grade by either a certain number of points or a certain percentage.

These differences in semester workload combined with the differences in semester schedules result in a much different distribution of academic work for American and German students. While many German students consider the regular semester (the part of the academic year when the classes happen) the easy part, they have to study hard for their exams during the time that Americans would consider the breaks. American students, on the other hand, have a lot of work during the regular semester, take exams for a week, and have the rest of the time until the next semester starts to do other things, such as work, do an internship, or just be lazy.

5. Organization of Coursework

This is a hard section to title because my point hinges on a specific pet peeve I have about German university courses: there is no such thing as a course syllabus.

In the US, the professor of each course hands out a syllabus at the beginning of the semester, which is a document (usually several pages long) which outlines the important information about the course. Included in this document is a description of the course, how the course will be graded, the required books or other materials, and a detailed calendar listing every date on which the course meets, the topic of each meeting, and the required reading or written work which must be completed before each meeting. Professors stuck very closely to this schedule, and it was incredibly helpful to have this document because I always knew exactly what I had to do for the course and when the deadlines were.

Not so here. There seems to be no concept of a syllabus, and I often have no idea what we will be doing in my classes from week to week. For a few of my courses this is not such a big deal, because I just sit there and take notes anyway, but for my translation courses, for example, it's very frustrating to never know when we will be starting the next translation. I very often feel off-balance and overwhelmed because I don't know how to plan out when to do what.

6. Student-Professor Relationship

Perhaps as a result of the attendance requirement at my university in the US, the professors always knew the students' names and called on them in class by their first names (this may be different in other places). How the students were expected to address the professor varied from professor to professor, but some allowed and even expected the students to call them by their first names. Those who didn't like this approach were called Professor [last name] (and there was one professor who insisted on being called Dr. [last name] in recognition of her Ph.D). The classes were usually small (15-30 students) and many were discussion-based, which also contributed to a familiar relationship between the students and the professors.

In Germany, I have only one professor (out of six) who even bothered to learn the students' names at the beginning of the semester. Other professors know a few of their students' names, but most likely because they have interacted outside of the classroom at some point. And it wasn't the first names that this professor learned, it was our last names. Professors refer to students as Herr (Mr.) or Frau (Mrs.) so-and-so, and students are expected to refer to professors as Herr/Frau or Professor. The German language also lends an additional layer of formality: German has a formal and an informal version of the word "you" (and the associated pronouns "your" and "yours"), and students and professors address each other with the formal version. (One of my courses is taught by a Ph.D. student and he is the only one of my "professors" who addresses us informally.)

7. Living Quarters

The stereotypical, and very common, model for American universities is the residential campus where most or all of the students live in dorms directly on campus that are run by the university. This is how most American universities are, and that leads students to have a very strong connection with their university. It is not just where they do their academic work but it also becomes their home.

This is very much not how it is in Germany. While dorms exist, the vast majority of students live in apartments with other students which may be quite a distance from the university. There are even students in some of my courses who live a 30-minute train ride away in the next large city. And the dorms that do exist are not incorporated into the campus the same way they are in the US. I live in a dorm right now and it is a 10-minute bus ride away from the nearest of three or four university campuses. This combined with the lack of unity with students of the same graduation year means that German students do not view their universities with the same type of pride and solidarity that American students do.

8. Length of Study Time

By "length of study time" I mean how long it typically takes students to complete their degrees. In the US, a Bachelor's degree is designed to take four years to complete, and the vast majority of students complete their degrees in this time frame. Some take a semester longer or a semester shorter, but for most students taking longer than that is not financially feasible because of how ridiculously expensive higher education is. Taking longer than five years would be both downright foolish and very likely impossible, since after five years most sources of financial aid are no longer available.

In Germany, the Regelstudienzeit (the time a degree is expected to take to complete) for a Bachelor's degree is three years, and most students don't finish within this time. (The Regelstudienzeit for my Master's degree is two years and I'm already expecting it to take two and a half.) There are several factors contributing to this tendency to study for longer than planned. The first is that, in many subjects, it's very hard to pass the exams, and large numbers of students fail and have to retake courses the following semester. Some students may also simply decide not to take an exam or two, and this pushes back completion of the degree. And the biggest reason that students remain students for longer than the Regelstudienzeit: because they can. Higher education is so affordable here that there is no panic about how to pay for it and therefore no urgency to finish on time.

9. Amount of Staff

At American universities, there is an office for every occasion and there are always people in those offices ready to assist you (at least during normal office hours of approx. 8am-5pm). I never had any trouble when dropping by any university office unannounced; the staff people were always friendly and helpful. Emails and phone calls were returned immediately and everyone was happy.

At German universities, the staff is minimal, basically just enough to keep the university from shutting down. I have already had more than my fair share of troubles with this lack of administration, including trying to deal with a registrar's office that only allows students to come in two days a week for a few hours. Even if you are able to show up at the right time and wait your turn, you will then be confronted with staff people who simply tell you they can't do anything for you in the hope that you'll go away and they won't have to do their job. If you want anything done for you around here you have to argue for it, which does not endear me at all to this university or the German university system in general.

10. Summary

As this post probably makes clear, there are things about the university system in Germany that drive me a little (or a lot) crazy. When I get frustrated I just have to remind myself that it's a different system; it's not good or bad, just different. In general, being a student at a German university involves much less "hand-holding" than being a student in the United States. Students in Germany are expected to learn the course material and pass their exams, and providing the resources to achieve that is the full extent of the university's involvement with students' lives. Everything outside of academics is the student's responsibility, and much of the academic side is as well.

In the United States, the university system guides students much more through their student years. As I mentioned in points 4 and 5, students are assigned much more specifically what academic work they are supposed to do when, and there is not as much of an expectation to "figure it out yourself." The same goes for every other aspect of student life. The university provides dorms, dining halls (where most students eat because the dorms don't usually have kitchens), a huge variety of extra-curricular activities, health services, various types of counseling, athletic facilities, and staff members (whose offices are open!) to help if anything in any of these areas goes wrong.

In many ways I really miss my American university experience, and I wish that my experience here in Germany could mirror that. As a student in the US, I felt comfortable and I knew what was expected of me. I was good at being a student, and I wanted that feeling to return when I started studying again. Unfortunately that hasn't been my experience so far. I feel like I'm still stumbling around trying to get it right, and I won't know if I've succeeded until after my first round of final exams in July and early August. I will, of course, keep you all updated here. In the meantime, wish me luck!


  1. I am interested in attending grad school in Germany (perhaps Berlin) after I finish my undergrad, so this was very helpful! I observed many of these differences while in Heidelberg during the Universit├Ąt Heidelberg semesters.

    1. I'm so glad this was helpful for you! If you have any questions about anything don't hesitate to contact me :)