Always wanted to see what it was like to live and study in Germany? There are some great short-term ways to do so (Eight Hours and Change College Visits, for example). But if you're looking for a longer academic exchange, you don't have to wait until college; high school students can also study abroad in German schools and even earn the German Abitur.
Abiture und Gymnasien - The Basics
Unlike in the United States, where all students study in the same high school, Germany uses a so-called tracking system to place students in different schools based on their aptitude. Students on the university track are placed in a type of college-prep school called a Gymnasium that ends for successful graduates with the Abitur, a leaving certificate that enables graduates to enroll in German universities.
It's possible to study abroad in both public and private Gymnasien, but you need to have at least an intermediate level of German in order to enroll in these schools, and it's important to remember that while public high schools in Germany are free, you have have to pay fairly steep fees to study in a private Gymnasium. An alternative is to enroll in an international high school, most of which cater to expats by offering courses taught in English and study programs designed to prepare students to study at international universities.
For students thinking about coming to Germany for college, enrolling in a German high school before graduation can make life a lot easier. Instead of having to worry about the requirements for American high school graduates, earning an Abitur ensures that you'll have access to the German university system (although individual programs will still decide whether or not to accept you based on your grades).
In order to earn an Abitur, you'll need to plan to spend two years in studying in Germany. International schools teach courses in English, but they generally award the International Baccalaureate diploma, a degree recognized broadly throughout the world but one that will not guarantee entry to the German university system. Public schools place an enrollment limit of 11 months on international students. This means that in order to earn your Abi, you'll need to attend a private school.
The Path(s) to Germany
If you're interested in studying in Germany during high school, the best place to start is by asking your German teacher if your school has a program already set up. Thanks to the German American Partnership Program (GAPP), American high school students today have a lot of opportunities to study abroad in Germany. Although GAPP doesn't coordinate long-term exchange, the network that has been developed by the program has created ties between teachers and schools in the United States and Germany that make it much easier to locate and organize your stay abroad.
If you're not ready to spend an entire year or two abroad, shorter-term study abroad can still be a great path to college in Germany. You'll learn what life is like in Germany and make friends that you can reach out to for help with the process. Just as importantly, you'll have a chance to improve your language skills dramatically. And whether you plan to study in English or German at the college level, German is essential for success.
There are many shorter-term academic and student travel programs available. Adolesco, for example, offers three-week to three-month exchange programs to Germany that allow you to learn German in an immerse environment and attend school in Germany. Go Abroad has a list of other similar programs on their website.
Heimweh und Kulturschock
Everyone who moves abroad experiences some combination of homesickness and culture shock, but don't despair - the initial challenges will almost certainly pass with time. Studying abroad is a chance to learn, grow, and understand the perspectives of another culture, but don't be afraid if your experience comes with some growing pains.