Studying in a foreign country is an enriching experience, you get to learn a new language, a new culture and you get to view things with a different lens. Germany is a beloved destination for students worldwide, due to low (if any) tuition fees, world-class education/reputation as well as a strong economy that enables highly qualified graduates to stay on after their courses. This is a short guide that has the issues that you will have to keep in mind as an international student. I have purposely structured the guide in a broad manner, so that the guide may be of use whichever city/Uni you choose but the focus is on the University of Stuttgart.
Step 1: Decide which university (-type?) you want
This might seem like an easy step, but seeing as Germany has two types of unis, about eighteen thousand different degree programmes and an extremely high education standard, this might be the toughest step of them all.
Germany, unlike several countries worldwide, has two types of Unis:
–Universitäten (University): strong focus on theory (henceforth referred to as Uni)
–(Fach)-Hochschule (University of Applied Sciences): strong focus on practical use (henceforth referred to as FH)
On paper, the two university types do not have major differences, the key ones being
a) only Universitäten are allowed to confer doctorate degrees
b) the course lengths:
- Uni 6 semesters or 3 years1
- FHs 7 semesters or 3.5 years, one semester of which is usually an internship semester
c) class sizes
- Uni can have 50-200 students per class
- FHs can have 25-50 per class
- a factor rarely considered (and mentioned!) Unis do not have a summer break. The terminology is finicky but the official term is Vorlesungsfreie Zeit which roughly translates to “no lecture period”. So if Uni is your choice, be prepared for a reduced or no summer break, depending on your exam schedule.
- FHs usually have about 6-8 weeks off
e) exam schedule
- Unis give you the afore-mentioned Vorlesungsfreie Zeit to do your exams, meaning you get the “summer break” period to do your papers, usually 6-8 weeks
- FHs schedule their exams at the end of the semester, usually over a two week period
f) lecture structure
- Unis often do not have mandatory attendance and give their students a huge amount of leeway when it comes to course plans, internships, etc
- FHs usually do and they follow a strict course plan over the 7 semesters
As you can see, the very first step of many is no small feat. I think it is important for any aspiring student to take their time on this step, so as to save time, money and regret that may arise later. It may seem as though I have portrayed FHs as a better option than Unis but one should also keep in mind the fact that there are salary differences between FH and Uni graduates (in favour of Uni graduates) that can range between a few hundred to a few thousand Euros p.a,. There is also an unofficial prestige factor involved, many a lecturer has had a few derisive words on FH graduates in comparison with Uni graduates. As mentioned above, FHs sometimes feel a bit like high school with smaller classes, premade timetables handed out at the beginning of each semester and mandatory attendance. Unis on the other hand usually leave you to your own devices and deviations from the recommended study plan are possible. I know several students who use this to their advantage by structuring their classes around their day to day life, as opposed to the latter. Proponents of Unis also tout the fact that university is not meant to teach you practical skills for on the job use, but to train you to think a certain way and to look at problems in a structured manner. This was an interesting read that highlights some good points in favour of Unis.
As an international student, the one issue that has laid thorns in my path has been point “d”, vacation. When planning a holiday or when planning a summer trip back home, one does not know early enough when one is free. The exam timetables are usually available mid-semester, which then gives you a maximum of 2- 3 months to plan your trip, meaning you might miss out on cheaper tickets etc. Another issue that arises due to the lack of a summer vacation is that the possibility to do a short internship is usually non existent, seeing as one is preoccupied with exam prep. To not completely scare you away, there are usually 3-4 weeks completely free.
There is a third option that is quite complicated in it’s own right, a dual degree. This study method is not very prevalent and involves working and studying at the same time. If this sounds interesting, Google is your best friend.
There are positives and negatives to both types of Unis, so take your time, do your research and on we go to the next step:
Step 2: what course you would like to do and which city you would like to study in
These go hand in hand, because some courses are only offered in specific Unis, which obviously means that you will live in that city or its environs. This might sound like an easy step, but something that I discovered when I started studying is that despite the general homogenisation of degrees in Germany and similar qualifications, the specialisations can be quite different. One excellent example would be the Civil Engineering programme at the Uni Stuttgart that is renowned for its Leichtbau (light structures) expertise and the interdisciplinary, close-knit work and approach that they have with Architects and the Architectural programme. The Aerospace Engineering programme also stands out for the fact that it is one of the few in Germany that offer a pure Aerospace Eng. Programme from the ground up, as opposed to offering it as a specialisation of Mechanical Eng.
My tip would be to give the module handbook and the recommended study plan a thorough comb through as well as visiting the course website.
When it comes down to city choice, there are several factors to consider. These include and are not limited to; rent prices, living costs, availability of student jobs and pay, future employment prospects and student life. Some internationals students at the Uni Stuttgart also state that the number of international students at an institution also plays a role, seeing as it can be used as a barometer for how international students fare. This can be in regards to all the previous points as well as to certain things like how well international students are integrated; this can be in the form of welcoming/mentoring programmes, open door policies, counselling and help specially targeted to international students as well as how open-minded and international a city and its inhabitants are.
Some rules of thumb are that South Germany is richer but also more expensive, and that major cities are more expensive but on the other hand also offer more in terms of student jobs, be it in variety or in pay.
Step 3: Applications
First and foremost would be the Uni application.
Most Unis have an online application system, saving you the need to do it the old-fashioned way (by post). Uni Stuttgart’s can be found here and most application portals are easy to use and offer lots of help. The two main questions when it comes to applications are “is my high school certificate equivalent to the German high school certificate?” and “what German level do I need?”
For the former the answer can be found at the same link as above (applies to Uni Stuttgart) and as for the latter the Uni Stuttgart offers conditional acceptance when one has 500 hours of previous German knowledge, which would be equivalent to the A2 level. Conditional acceptance means that you are accepted for your desired course and can start as soon as your language skills are up to par. It is then possible to do the B1, B2, C1 and TestDaF preparation in Germany, which usually takes 6 months per level (3 semesters/one and a half years) and in Stuttgart would happen at the “International Centre” (IZ)
To all high school students: if you want to save time, find a way to do as much as possible before you apply, which then reduces your language “prep time”.
I cannot stress this enough, take your time and double check all requirements!
While doing the uni application, it would be wise to start the house-hunt early to avoid the September rush. Finding accommodation in (big) cities is a headache to say the least. Apply as soon as possible to the “Studierendenwerk” who are in charge of University dormitories, but also make sure to have a backup plan. In Germany, most students stay in shared apartments due to the lack of space in Uni accommodation. In Stuttgart for example, the “Studierendenwerk” provides roughly 7,000 places while there are roughly 28,000 registered students at the University of Stuttgart alone. Shared apartments are known as “Wohngemeinschaften” (WGs) and a quick Google search will lead to you some search engines. Make sure to exhaust all options (Uni notice board, newspaper ads, facebook groups etc) that might lead to some success.
This is a step that requires patience and meticulousness as dealing with most Embassies can be quite… demanding. Make sure to have all necessary papers, copies, confirmations and any other documents stipulated in the visa application. Also make sure to enquire about the possibility of applying for a “student applicant’s visa”. A student visa can take a few months to process and a requirement for the visa is an acceptance letter. You can apply for a “student applicant’s visa” that does not need a confirmation letter and is valid for a few months, to enable you to travel to Germany to sort out everything. I remember in my case, I set my visa appointment after I received my confirmation letter and that processing my application was done about a week before classes started. I then had about 5 days to fly to Germany, find accommodation, enrol at the Uni, get registered at the bank, insurance office, “Einwohnermeldeamt” (citizen registration office) etc, which was quite stressful.
So as to not be on the back foot when it comes to finding a place as well as ensuring a good start to your studies, make sure to travel here with ample time to do all the above, as well as acclimatising to a new city, situation and lifestyle. If possible, find out if you can travel in time/participate in the Uni pre-courses that usually happen a few weeks before the semester starts and aims to refresh your high school knowledge. It can also be a way to get to know a few people and make some friends before the semester starts.
Find out if your Uni offers mentoring or welcoming programmes that aim to promote intercultural exchange and ease your start in Germany.
Step 4: In Germany
As mentioned above there is a ring of hoops you have to jump through once you are here. It starts with a bevy of registrations; uni, bank, insurance, “Einwohnermeldeamt” (registering your address) and “Ausländerbehörde” (foreign citizen’s department) and sorting out your train ticket for the semester.
Also make sure to inform yourself about your course, be it from students in higher semesters, the module handbook or the recommended course plan. A quick heads up on which classes have a high degree of difficulty and require more work can prove to be invaluable.
Some classes and tutorials also require prior registration and those with the best timings sell like hot cakes (the dreaded 8 am tutorials are usually easy to get).
If possible, attend the “Einführungsvorlesung für Erstsemester” (introductory lecture for freshmen) which usually outlines the most important information for the course.
Step 5: What Now
Congratulations on passing the unofficial first test at Uni, getting there!
Now comes the obvious, show up. As stated in my first point, Unis do not have mandatory attendance. Many students therefore show up at the first and last classes for the course password and exam tips, but that is not a recipe for success. I can attest to that fact!
I shall pen a piece on the day-to-day life of students in the near future.
My final piece of advice would be collect as much information as possible and make a checklist. Good prep saves you time, money and stress. If you have any questions, do not be afraid to contact the admissions office, who are more than willing to assist.
1 = a semester is typically 6 months long