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| Education


The oldest German universities were founded in the late Middle Ages. Now, Germany has more than 100 universities and institutions of higehr education which are administered by individual states (Bundesländer) under guidelines from the federal government.

There are two types of universities, traditional academic universities and Fachhochschulen. Traditional academic universities contain humanities and science faculties, as well as professional schools (law, medicine, dentistry, etc). Fachhochschulen, or Universities of Applied Sciences, offer subjects such as engineering, business administration, architecture and agriculture in a more practical oriented way. About one-third of all students attend Fachhochschulen. The so-called Gesamthochschulen are a combination of elements of the universities and the Fachhochschulen. Most German universities have a state charter, but the number of private, highly specialized universities is increasing.


German universities used to award the academic degrees of Diplom, Magister atrium and Staatsexamen (State examination). These were usually taken after a four-semester basic study stage and a four to six-semester main study stage. Most students spend considerably longer at university than the official norm: the average is 14 semesters. Due to the Bologna Process, German universities will all have switched to bachelor's and master's programs by 2020.

Bachelor's and Master's Degrees

The bachelor's degree is an undergraduate degree. You can choose a single or combined degree, depending on which subject you wish to study. Most bachelor's courses take six semesters (3 years) and lead to the degree of Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science. The bachelor's degree is a first professional qualification.

The master's degree is a postgraduate degree. After the bachelor's you can continue with a master's course in the same field. You thus have the chance to increase your knowledge or specialize in a field you have already studied.

Alternatively, you can supplement your bachelor's with a master's in a further subject, thus widening your knowledge and skills beyond the degree you have already taken.

Master's courses generally take four semesters and lead to the degree of Master of Arts or Master of Science.

By means of an extensive written doctoral thesis you have the chance to specialize in a research area. The thesis presents new research results and is worthy of publication. It is necessary for a doctoral candidate to find a supervisor who is an expert in their field and willing to accept them as PD student. On completing the thesis, you must present and defend your research results in an oral presentation. Depending on the subject, between two and five years are needed to complete a doctorate. In many faculties it is also possible to take a doctorate in English.

Higher education at public institutions has traditionally been free. However, most German states have begun to introduce tuition fees per semester in addition to marginal student fees for student services.

Traditional German Degrees

The German Diplom is awarded in all the engineering and natural sciences, as well as in social sciences. In most Diplom courses students concentrate on a main subject, as well as being offered the chance to specialize in certain areas. In addition, there is a wide range of interdisciplinary courses. Here two or three subjects can be combined. Nowadays, new career fields often arise at the interface between two branches. The different possible combinations aim to take changes on the job market into account, thus improving future career prospects. Interdisciplinary studies are an excellent basis for many different careers.

Magister Artium
The academic degree of Magister Atrium was usually awarded in the arts and humanities. At many German universities, students currently enrolled in Magister courses will be able to complete their studies, but new students will not be accepted. Courses leading to the Magister Artium are being converted to bachelor's/master's courses.

Staatsexamen (State Examination)
The Staatsexamen is an examination monitored by the state, which is taken in law, teacher training courses and medicine. The first state examination is usually followed by a period of practical training. After this comes the second state examination. The state examination is not an academic degree, but it is generally accepted as an entrance qualification for a doctorate. The first state examination may be taken by students of all nationalities, but you should clarify in advance wheterh the German state examination is recognized in your home country.

At most universities, the winter semester runs from mid-October to March and the summer semester from mid-April to Mid-July. The period of study is generally counted in semesters rather than years.

Teaching at the universities includes lectures and seminars. Vorlesungen (lectures) will, as a rule, take up the full amount of time designated, and the number of students is not limited. Discussion and questions concerning the lecture take place during the accompanying Übungen, small discussion groups. The Übungen usually feature homework assignments, research and the writing of papers.

The Seminar, dedicated to small-group learning, is headed by a professor. It covers a subject area in more detail and requires that each student contribute, by way of an oral presentation on a specific topic. Students are encouraged to participate intensively in two to four seminars per semester. Proseminare make up the Grundstudium (first few terms of study) until successful completion of the interimediate exam, after which Hauptseminare are taken to finish the course of study. Proseminare may also be taken in the Hauptstudium.

A common practice is the akademische Viertel. Classes are scheduled on the hour, but do not actually begin until 15 minutes past. This is signified by a "c.t." (cum tempore) after the listed time of a meeting. If this practice does not apply to a particular meeting, an "s.t." (sine tempore) will appear after the posted time. Check with other students before assuming that the akademische Viertel is practiced by individual instructors.


Independent, self-directed study is heavily emphasized at German universities. There are usually no definite assignments of a certain number of pages to read in textbooks. German students are expected to do independent primary and secondary reading during the course of their studies. Independent study is a crucial element of the academic freedom of a German institution and is designed to encourage self-motivation and promote interesting discussion, since not everyone has read the same material. While less demanding on a daily basis than study at a U.S. institution, independent study may ultimately be more rigorous in its demands.


Assessment is based on oral and written reports in seminars for which the student receives a Schein, or certificate (a grade can be requested). A certain number of Scheine are required in order to take the intermediate exam. The state exam, for which the student receives a grade, assesses the quality of his or her entire course of study. Grades are given on a five-point scale: 1, very good, to 5, unsatisfactory or failing. However, by introducing the ECTS credit system, the German „Schein“ is becoming less common.

Student Life

German universities typically do not have central campuses and the classrooms, libraries and administration buildings are usually scattered around town. Students are housed in some university-owned dormitories, in privately owned or church-affiliated student houses, or with private families, while many continue to live with their own families or join fellow students in rented accommodations (Wohngemeinschaft).

School spirit as known in the United States does not exist at German universities, and U.S. students may feel a lack of community and comradeship. Much of this may be due to the fact that German universities do not have sports teams; there are, however, many intramural sports opportunities such as aerobics, basketball, volleyball, soccer and swimming. Look for signs on lobby bulletin boards or ask around for Hochschulsport. International students who are interested in joining a sports team can do so by joining a local club. (Sportverein, or Fussballverein)

While often friendly and helpful to foreign students, professors may be far more formal and less easy to approach than their U.S. counterparts. Advice on courses and almost anything else is available from the ISEP coordinator and the staffs of the Akademisches Auslandsamt ("AA" or Foreign Student Office) and the DaF (German-as-a-Foreign-Language Office).


European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) is a standard for comparing the study attainment and performance of students of higher education across the European Union and other collaborating European countries. For successfully completed studies, ECTS credits are awarded. One academic year corresponds to 60 ECTS-credits that are equivalent to 1500-1800 hours of study. One ECTS cedit corresponds to 25-30 hours of work.

The new Bachelor and Master’s degree programs increasingly use the ECTS to reard academic credits. However, German universities are still in the transition phase and many have not completely adopted the new system of awarding academic credits. Therefore, the old credit transfer procedures outlined below are still applied at many universities in Germany.


German universities do not have centralized or departmental registration, primarily due to the law governing the protection of personal data. In addition to the lack of centralized registration, there is no centralized recording of grades and transcripts are not automatically produced at the end of each semester. To obtain a transcript containing a record of courses taken and grades earned, you need to follow the procedures outlined below and any specific procedures required by your host institution. It is extremely important that you complete all the required steps before you leave your German host university. Transcripts cannot be prepared after you have left the campus. The process includes two essential steps:

1. collect "Scheine" for your coursework from professors, and
2. secure an ISEP transcript.

Earning a Schein

To receive credit for courses taken at a German institution, you must earn a Schein in each course. At the beginning of the course, the professor will explain what is required to earn a Schein in that particular course. The requirements may be different for each course:

  • You may have to submit a paper, or Referat, at the end of the course or at the beginning of the next semester (usually six weeks later). You may also be asked to present your paper in class. Often several students join together to prepare a single Referat, with each student responsible for a particular section. In most cases, the paper accompanying the speech must be at least 10 pages long.
  • You may be required to take a final exam. This is often the case with foreign-language courses. The final exam may be oral or written.
  • You may be required to prepare a Hausarbeit, or term paper. Although group efforts are sometimes permitted, as with a Referat, a Hausarbeit is usually written by one student. The information presented in a Referat, however, often serves as a foundation for the Hausarbeit. Frequently, the paper is not due immediately at the end of the term. Many German students work on their Hausarbeit during the semester break.

Please keep in mind that students at German universities are expected to do independent reading during the course of their studies. If required to take an oral or written final exam, you may be expected to be more conversant in the topic than is possible from just memorizing lecture notes. Ask the professor for a suggested reading list to complement the course in order to prepare for the exam.

A Schein is not usually awarded in a lecture course, or Vorlesung, but the professor will administer a final exam or allow a student to submit a paper if a request is made. You should therefore explain that, as a U.S. ISEP student, your performance in class must be assessed in order to allow you to receive credit at your home institution.

Obtaining the Schein

Once you have completed the requirements for a course, you must obtain the Schein yourself, directly from the secretariat of the appropriate faculty. When you pick up the Schein, it should already have been signed by the professor. The secretary will validate it with the university seal.

The Schein will contain the following information:

  • your name
  • course title
  • your professor's name
  • year and semester
  • number of hours per week
  • how you earned the Schein (e.g., by term paper, final exam, etc.)
  • your grade (may be on a pass/fail basis, or on a German scale, where 1-4 is considered passing)


Obtain a Transcript

After you have obtained all of your Scheine, complete the transcript form provided by your host institution ISEP coordinator and present this, along with your Scheine, for verification and validation by your host institution coordinator. This form will serve as your official transcript, and will be sent by your host institution coordinator to ISEP Central for forwarding to your home institution. Please keep a copy for yourself along with the original Scheine. Do not carry the original transcript back to your home institution. Note: Some German universities have slightly modified procedures for issuing transcripts. Please refer to section #17 of the Institutional Information Sheet (IIS) of your host institution.

Please note that the ISEP transcript is not intended to replace Scheine. It is designed as a mechanism whereby record of your academic work is reported through official channels back to your home institution. Even with a properly validated transcript, you should produce Scheine for back-up verification at your home institution.

Take Proof of Course Hours

Credit is usually granted at U.S. institutions on the basis of hours that the course met each week. For example, two credits may be granted for a two-hour lecture course. More credit may be awarded for a higher-level course such as a Hauptseminar. You may want to bring the semester course catalogs home with you to use as proof of the number of course hours. You should also save all written work, course outlines and any other written materials to facilitate credit transfer.


If you have any questions about obtaining Scheine, contact your host institution ISEP coordinator, your professor or the faculty secretariat. Questions regarding the actual transfer of credit should be addressed to your home ISEP coordinator.