Every few months or so, the same news story begins to pop up, declaring how thousands of Americans are moving to Germany to study for “free”. Following this, the same comments are made about how terrible the university system in the US is and how amazing it would be to skip the crippling debt from student loans. And then of course the questions on the forums appear: American students asking how hard it would be to move to Germany and find a room. But the question that rarely gets asked is, “how hard is it to complete a degree in Germany as an international student?” Now for the record, studying abroad is a fantastic experience. I highly encourage everyone to do it if they feel up to the challenge. But speaking as an American who went through the experience of completing a 4 year program as an international student, here’s five things I wish I had known before even applying.
Your grades probably aren’t good enough
This one was surprising to me as a typical A+ student, but thankfully I was able to avoid most of it. See, that article you read about, telling you how it’s free to study in Germany? It probably didn’t tell you that to the German education system, your high school diploma is crap. Unless you’ve taken AP classes, your application will likely get ignored. Moreover, a GED is not considered acceptable- flat out. You CAN apply with a high school diploma, but you need to be planning that often years before applying.
There are other options- you can take part in a Studienkolleg (basically a crash-course in German education) or transfer credits from a university degree. But even if you have managed a Bachelor’s from an accredited university, you still almost certainly have to have your official transcripts processed by an acceptable institution to get a Statement of Comparability. It’s then up to the school to decide if credits can transfer- that’s how I ended up having to get a third Bachelor’s rather than a Master’s. And while it may turn out that none of your credits are recognized, the process to determine that will still take time- and yes, even money. Oh, speaking of which…
Money will still be an almost constant problem
Probably the biggest argument I hear from people wanting to study in Germany is that it’s free, and that it’s an alternative to the traditional American university tuition that requires tremendous student loans. First, let me dispel the rumor that it’s free. It isn’t free- it’s just cheap. My tuition was about €300 each semester, and about €100 of that was for the semester ticket (which was a fantastic ticket, let me tell you). Other schools will be about the same, but some charge TONS more; these are “administrative fees”.
Second, and this is important, the tuition fees in the USA are exorbitantly high- but they also offer a TON of scholarships. You probably won’t find these offers for you in Germany. I applied to numerous programs and was rejected. You could find a brief stipend here or there, but rarely anything long term. And this isn’t even taking into account the costs of living- rent, health insurance, food, phone plans, etc. It’s hard to find a job, and you will have to make that money stretch. Planning to visit a different European country each month? Sure- but just remember that your visa has caps on the amount of hours you can work and the amount of money you can earn, not to mention restrictions on the jobs you can even take.
The advisory system is almost completely different
This was a big shock for me. When I was studying in the USA, my university was almost too involved in my education. They found housing for me, I had regular appointments with advisors to make sure I was on track, any questions I had regarding which class I should take was immediately taken seriously, etc. I was even able to find work through the university boards. All I had to do was show up to class, study, and pass exams. Oh, and drink copious amounts of beer on the weekend.
Then I attended a German school. We had one orientation meeting- and that was it. I was given half translated documents telling me how to enroll in classes, but it was mostly out of date. The international office was a joke- they were there to help process paperwork for the exchange students and had little help to offer for actual international students completing a full program with their school. When I had questions for the advisory team, their office hours were significantly fewer than anything in the USA. One time I was told that due to an error, I wasn’t enrolled in a class and since it was past the deadline, I had to pay a fee to be enrolled. I asked where the money should be transferred and was told that no- I had to pay the advisor in person. In cash. I received no receipt and am still not 100% sure how legit that was.
Many of the perks do not apply to you
My program drew a ton of interest from German and EU students because it included a year abroad as part of the degree. This meant that partner schools would accept students from the program with little to no fees involved. Some of my German and EU friends got to attend universities in Brazil, England, Australia, and Tokyo. They had an amazing time- but I never got the chance.
See, part of attending this school as a non-EU student meant that I was last in line for perks like a year abroad or the previously mentioned scholarships. Two years after spending time with friends that became a large part of my life, they were sent off to far-away places to have new adventures while I was left behind. My world was flipped upside down- I wasn’t making new contacts, having new experiences, or any of the perks of studying in a brand new country. To my program, I already had all that as an international student in Germany. Other perks, like student public health insurance and so on, also didn’t apply.
You’ll become incredibly independent
Many readers might take away a very negative experience from this article. And honestly, that’s not the whole story. Because the number one thing I learned from all this was how to rely on myself- something that the American system probably won’t teach. Many recent college graduates in the US expect to find work right after graduation, and that’s simply not true. Yes, the network you build while in school is important, but if everyone in your network is unemployed, what does that mean for you?
My time studying as an international student in Germany taught me how to budget my money, how to make the most of my experiences, and how to grow outside my comfort zone. I took jobs I would have otherwise never considered because I was desperate for cash. I had to look for networks and connections apart from school since most of my friends were gone for that year abroad. I learned about a foreign country’s culture firsthand, figured out how to work as an international, and gained a unique perspective that will (hopefully) be valuable to an employer someday. Yes, it was an incredible pain in the ass being an international student in Germany- but the experience will certainly last a lifetime.
Looking to study in Germany, but don’t know how?
Check out the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) for a rough guide, or perhaps the Kultusminster Konferenz for in depth details on the requirements. You can also look at Uni-Assist, Study-In-DE, or comment below for more info.
If you’re from the US and want to study in Germany, then visit Eight Hours and Change for an unparalleled experience (and expert advice!).
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