Studying in Germany: No Free Lunch


During my undergraduate studies at Miami University, I had access to an incredible wealth of resources. Academic advisers to help me map my studies, residence advisers in the dorms if I had any problems with my accommodation, counselors for stress, and innumerable other sources of help. When I came to Germany, I was a bit surprised to find many of these lacking. For students who are now considering coming to Germany to take advantage of the free tuition at German universities, the lack of these services may come as a shock. May of us expect to be pampered, to be accommodated, to be served, and that really isn’t the way universities work in Germany.

That’s not to say that you can’t expect any help. Today’s German universities have responded to the rise in international enrollment (up 5% in 2014) and most offer a wide arrange of services, including academic advising and psychological counseling. Unfortunately, the basic economics of German higher education mean smaller international offices with diminished capacities to meet the needs of students not accustomed to managing their own education.

In a recent interview with Marketplace from NPR, I said that Americans needed to be self-starters to have success in Germany. That’s been my experience, and it’s been the experience of nearly every other American student I’ve known here. The most successful are the most independently motivated, the types who push forward and own their education, whereas students who expect to be told what to do tend to fall by the wayside. This happens in the States too, the difference is that you have a well-funded counseling or advising department there to catch you when you fall.

This is generally not the case in Germany. One way that many universities are able to manage costs is automate courses. Students sit through lectures and then take tests at the end of the semester to prove they’ve adequately acquired the necessary knowledge. If you’re having trouble during the semester or falling behind on your work, it’s really on you to fix it, and if you don’t, your professor is unlikely to cut you any slack.

In my case, this wasn’t entirely true. When I had a major health scare in the middle of the semester a few years back, I was able to work with my professors to fix moving deadlines for my assignments, which took a lot of the stress off. But just as I was raving about how great things were, one of my friends was dropping his classes for a similar reason.

If you decide that studying in Germany is something you’d like to pursue, be sure to think long and hard about what type of person you are, and take that into consideration before you make the move. Many people say that the German system is lax, because so many students study for years beyond their expected graduation date. But I would argue the exact opposite, and anyone who takes their education serious should keep this in mind.