Understanding Grades and Credits in Germany

For American students studying in Germany, understanding the credit point system can be a major headache. German universities use a different grading system and have a different way of determining the number of points per class than their American counterparts. There are also different types of credit that are awarded for completed coursework in Germany. In order to be successful in your studies and avoid making serious mistakes, it's important to understand the nuances of the German system and how it differs from what you've experienced in the United States.

The Grading System

Most American universities use a 4 point grading scale, with 4 being the best and 1 the lowest possible passing mark. In Germany, this scale is inverted, with the lowest passing grade becoming a 4 and the highest a 1. EHC adviser Courtney, who blogs at “Welcome to Germerica,” has a great explanation of intricacies of the German grading system

When you apply to a German university, you don't need to translate your transcripts to the German scale; the universities you apply to will do the converstion for you. Still, it can be useful to have a sense of the German grading conventions before you start to study so that you know where you stand when you receive the results of your first exams.

Another important difference to remember is that grade inflation is a much less significant problem in Germany than it is in the United States. According to a 2013 survey of American undergraduates, 40% of all grades awarded at the surveyed universities were in the A range. This is generally not the case at German universities. So don't worry if your initial grades seem low.

The Two Different Types of Credit

There are two different types of credit: Studienleistung and Prüfungsleistung. Studienleistung (SL) credit points are classes which can be taken pass/fail or for a grade, but the grade received does not go into your final GPA. On the other hand, Prüfungsleistung (PL) credit points come from classes which cannot be taken pass/fail, and the class grade is factored into your final GPA. A sample schedule including both SL and PL credits might look like this:

  1. 3 PL credits with a grade of 1.0
  2. 3 SL credits with a grade of 1.3
  3. 3 PL credits with a grade of 1.7
  4. 5 SL credits with a grade of 2.3
  5. 3 SL credits BE (bestanden = pass)  

In this example, what would count toward your final cumulative GPA?
Only the 6 PL credits, which would give you an average for the semester of 1.3 (A). Overall, you would have finished the semester with 17 credits.

The Number of Points per Class

In the US, the number of credits is pre-determined, meaning you know what you will receive before walking into the classroom. Classes are typically worth 3 or 4 credit points (or hours), depending on the number of hours spent in class weekly. 

In Germany, the number of credit points earned is up for discussion. In most cases, classes at German universities will meet once a week for approximately 90 minutes. This does not mean that students only earn 2 credit points because they only spend two hours in the classroom every week. The credits earned per class are determined by the amount of work completed both during and, potentially, after the course. Generally, professors will put set out expectations for credits at the beginning of the semester. For example:

  • 5 credit points for a 30-minute presentation plus a written paper of 4,000 words
  • 7 credit points for a 30-minute presentation plus a written paper of 6,000 words
  • 9 credit points for a 30-minute presentation plus a written paper of 7,000 words

This is not the case for all classes, especially at the bachelor level. Lectures (Vorlesungen) have set parameters for the number of credits awarded for work completed in the class based on the final exam.