Dominating the DSH: Successfully Preparing to Study in German

After meeting his now wife in Israel, Hillel Lowinsky decided to move from New York City to live with her in Germany two years ago. After struggling initially due to cultural differences, language barriers, and the legacy of his family's struggles during the Second World War, Hillel now speaks German fluently and is preparing to study for his Master's in Psychology.

When I decided to move to Germany, I knew that learning German was important. Learning German was required for me to continue my studies in psychology and would help me understand and adjust to my new environment and make friends.  Depending on the context of your life and why you’re here in Germany, your motivations for learning German may be different. But whatever path you plan to take, know that learning German is no walk in the park, and requires a real time commitment if you are going to reach your goals. If I were to do it all over again, I would exclusively speak German and make very few exceptions. And if you are planning to study in Germany in German, prepare yourself to work even harder than you expect to get ready for the tests you’ll need to take.

In order to study in Germany, foreign students have to take either the TestDAF or DSH to prove their proficiency in the language. I took the DSH, which is a pass/fail exam with passing grades of I, II, and III. DSH I is roughly equivalent to B2 in the Common European Framework for Languages (CEFR), DSH II is equivalent to C1, and DSH III is equivalent to C2. In general, if you want to study in Germany, you need at least a DSH II.

As you learn German and prepare for the DSH, I highly recommend studying German all the way through C1 in the CEFR before taking the test.  I’ve had friends who skipped C1 because they couldn’t afford it or they thought that they were advanced enough to pass the exam but who inevitably failed.  In addition to learning German until C1, taking a DSH crash course was one of the wisest investments I made.

Passing this exam also has to do with understanding the structure of this exam.  In the DSH crash course, one learns how different parts of the exam are graded and weighed.  Instead of struggling to answer the question that’s worth 5 you should focus on the one that’s worth 40.  Understanding how much time you have for each section is also important.  It’s of utmost importance to do as many practice exams as possible in order to see what your strengths are and to see if you’re able to manage your time wisely.  My weakness was the grammar section.  They give you sentences with an underlined fragment.  They expect you to look at what was underlined and word it differently in such a way that the sentence still makes sense grammatically.  Instead of struggling and suffering with one question, move to the next one. Go through the whole section and answer a few easier questions so that you become confident.  Staying stuck on a question will stump and frustrate you.

While taking the exam remember to own it.  You are not only equal to the exam but capable of destroying it and showing it who’s boss.  This is the mindset that you need to have.  Passing this exam means being able to continue on the path to achieving your goals.  For this one exam you have to focus for three to four hours and push all unnecessary thoughts aside.  Coming from a strong, focused and centered place will enable you to answer clearly.  

For the oral exam they test you on your field of study.  My article was about a psychological study.  They gave me ten minutes to read, understand and summarize the article in my own words.  Of course being able to speak grammatically correctly will help you get a better score, but I also did extremely well on the oral part by owning the room with my presence.  Introduce yourself to each judge/evaluator and shake their hands.  They will ask you to summarize the text in your own words.  Your job is to convince them that you not only understand what you read, but to go above and beyond that.  If you’re able to come up with arguments for and against the study -- you are displaying a mastery of not only the language, but showing that you can think outside of the box.  

I was a point away from getting a DSH III before I took the oral exam.  After blowing them away with my presentation, they asked me to sit outside while they assessed me.  After a period of waiting nervously, they explained to me that I did so well on the oral exam that they had decided to speak with the head of the department to see if I could be awarded a DSH III.  A week later, I was surprised to learn that the rules had been bent in my favor and I had been awarded the coveted DSH III.  

I was able to get the highest grade possible (DSH III).  This was due to hard work, forcing myself out of my comfort zone, sounding silly speaking German, taking many practice exams and honing in on my weaknesses.  There were many times in which I took the grammar section of a practice exam and totally bombed it.  Remember this when you are preparing. Whatever your weaknesses may be, reading comprehension, writing, listening comprehension, grammar or speaking, if work on them and stay the course you will succeed.