I went back and forth with Slate's Rebecca Schuman a few weeks ago on Twitter after reading her article about German universities. I agreed with a lot of what she had to say, and thought it was great that she was an informed perspective, rather than adding to the glut of dashed-off summaries that have come out in recent weeks. Still, I was a little taken aback by what I took as negativity on her part.
Ultimately, though, I came around to her point of view. In general, she did a good job of discussing some of the challenges that can come with the experience of studying in Germany, drawing on her personal experience studying abroad in Germany and Austria. And these challenges are very important to remember when deciding whether or not to move to Germany to study.
In her article and on Twitter, Schuman made the point that many German students commute to class, a state of affairs which doesn't exactly foster the same kind of social atmosphere that many Americans expect. Keg parties, beer pong, and all night campus ragers are rarities at most German universities. She talked about the classroom experience in German Vorlesungen, or lectures, which can take place in massive halls with 200 or more students, and can sometimes have a factory floor feel to them, churning out education in the most efficient way possible. She also touched on how different the support network is at German universities: "There is...little in the way of academic advising, which in the U.S. is now so hands-on that it has become its own cottage industry within the administration."
I discussed some of the challenges of studying in Germany with DNAinfo Chicago
Although this might sound intimidating, it's important to remember that the German system actually compares well with ours. As Schuman says, it's not better or worse, it’s just different. This is backed up by the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which place 12 German universities in the world top 200, the third highest global number. It's also important to remember that even though the university social life is different than in the states and not as wild, Germans also don't spend their weekends at home studying, and there are plenty of opportunities to let off steam.
The most important point Schuman made, ultimately, is one that I've recognized during my time here. You have to be really self-motivated to be successful at a German university. The culture of German academia requires students to both plot their journey and navigate it themselves, and several universities administrators have told me how difficult it can be to explain this to their American exchange students. If you don't have drive, passion, work-ethic, and discipline, it's unlikely you'll be successful at a German university.