Life as a student in Germany

Once you pick up your studies in Germany, you will quickly realise that studying at a German university can be quite different to what you are maybe used to in your home country. Dive into this article to find out more about the study culture in Germany.

University campuses in Germany

The campus of your university will probably look a little different than you know it from American Hollywood movies. Of course, there are also campus universities with a large area where all university facilities are located, but this is a rather rare sight. But of course, then you will definitely meet many busy students, as well as lecturers standing out of the crowd. Institutions like sororities and student unions with impressive club buildings, on the other hand, are not something you will often find in Germany. Big universities often have different campuses scattered either across a city or sometimes even across different towns, with each campus having a different specification. You are also likely to find specialised university libraries, study halls, a student office, and, hopefully, a cafeteria that offers affordable food. Laboratories and other experimental spaces can often be found on campuses specialised in fields that require them. At the same time, you can also find universities in unique historic locations. There are universities teaching in old castles (for example in Mannheim) or in old governmental buildings like the former state council building of the East German government where ESMT European School of Management and Technology is based.

In most cases, you will find a place at your university that you can use for studying. This can either be in a dedicated study hall, libraries, cafeterias or in some cases separated rooms with tables and computers. Sometimes you might even be able to book a meeting room at one of your university’s buildings to work on a project or simply study for upcoming exams (be quick with that – meeting rooms tend to get booked up very quickly).

Of course, relaxing and spending some free time with friends and fellow students is also an important part of a student’s life. Many universities have either spacious meadows that can be used for picnics or just sitting together and spending time with each other outside or common areas where students can spend time. If you are lucky enough to study at one of the long-established universities, you might even be able to enjoy views of fascinating old buildings that often have a rich historical background.

Popular types of accommodation for students

An ever-important aspect for students is the topic of accommodations. In this part, you will learn more about the housing situation for students and what you should consider when searching for an apartment in Germany.

As an international student, it is likely that you will choose either a student residence, a small flat or a shared accommodation (Wohngemeinschaft or “WG”) as the most suitable option for you. All options have their advantages and disadvantages, and it is impossible to say which option is better. It all depends on what suits you best personally. However, what can be said about all options is that it can be challenging to find an affordable accommodation that is also close to your university. So, make sure to search for your accommodation way in advance.

Student residences have the advantage that they are close to your university – often also on the same campus, you are studying at. Another benefit is that most residents will be around your age, so, finding like-minded people should be easy to achieve here. One disadvantage is that the rooms are in most cases rather small and that the active nightlife of your neighbours can sometimes make it difficult to sleep (unless you are a party person as well, in which case this should not be a problem for you).

Shared accommodations, mostly referred to as “WG” in German, are a very popular way of living in many student cities. This way of living allows you to share an apartment with other people, likely to be students around your age. In most cases, you will get your own room and share the kitchen, bathroom, and living room (in case your flat has one). With this, there are both advantages and disadvantages. If you get along well with your roommates and if everyone sticks to the agreements made together, it can be a wonderful time. However, if you catch some troublesome roommates, it can become an annoyance very quickly when you are the only one keeping the apartment in shape or paying the rent on time. Luckily, there is usually some kind of interview with the potential flatmates before they move in so that both sides can get a picture of the people they will be living with in the future.

A personal apartment is a perfect solution for everyone that prefers to live by themselves and does not depend too much on other social contacts. Of course, living by oneself does not automatically mean that you become a hermit, but you will probably have less social contact close by than the other options. However, living by oneself can have its merits, especially when you are the type of person that prefers to study and work in a more quiet and homely environment. Nevertheless, it must be mentioned that this is probably the most expensive alternative of the three that have been mentioned here, although it strongly depends on the apartment you manage to find.

The journey of acquiring and applying knowledge

The core element of your studies in Germany, the reason for your stay, is acquiring knowledge that may be taught, earned, and applied differently from what you are used to from your home country. And this is not where the differences stop. There are even different approaches between state and private universities. Keep on reading to find out more about what makes studying in Germany so special and what you should be aware of before visiting your first lectures.

Versatile teaching culture

First off, German universities will not “take you by the hand”. Even though universities usually hold inaugural ceremonies where the basic rules of the university are laid out and provide help through student’s and international’s offices, you will have to find your way through daily life by yourself. When enrolled at a university, you are supposed to organise yourself independently and develop a solution-oriented approach to things.

Please note that the following tools are perceived as popular in general. There is no guarantee that you will encounter them during your educational journey through Germany. It also strongly depends on the fields of studies you are attending classes for and whether you enrol at a traditional university with many lectures or a university of applied sciences, where you will have more hands-on approaches. However, the likelihood of you being confronted with at least one of them is very high.

Probably the most popular tool that is commonly used in lectures is group work. This can either be for a small task that has to be solved during class or within a couple of hours or as a full-grown assessment, where the end result is graded and part of your final grade. Whether you can choose your group or are assigned teammates differs from university to university and often also is up to your lecturer to decide. Group assignment are used for you to learn how to work in an (international) group and solve conflicts and disagreements yourself. Maybe even establish first leadership qualities. It is desired to nurture an environment where discussion is encouraged, listened to, and acknowledged. A form of group work that is more commonly used in creative fields is role play, where you are given a task as well as a setting to familiarise yourself with within a limited time and then perform an appropriate act or reaction to it.

Presentations are also fairly regular, at least in smaller study groups. You will have to create a presentation, either as part of the lecture or as your final grade and hold it either in front of your classmates or in front of your lecturer and a few selected judges. Be aware that presentations are often combined with a group assignment, where everyone must take over a specific task to achieve the group’s goal. The main objective of this approach is for you to learn how to present yourself, how to react to questions spontaneously (which usually await you at the end of every presentation) and how to improvise on the spot.

Less of a tool and more of a pillar of the German teaching approach is the encouragement of independent thinking. Universities try to provide an open space where everyone can share their own opinion on the topics relevant to their subject and discuss it with other people of the same or even of different fields of expertise. To further emphasize that, tasks are often asked as open questions, that request you to bring a point across in your own words, rather than simply selecting any of the given answers on a sheet. You are encouraged to challenge already existing concepts and beliefs and create your own. As long as you justify your opinion with good arguments, you will score high grades in most areas.

A popular approach at universities of applied sciences is to gather the students in a laboratory and either conduct an experiment that the students have to imitate or set a task based on previously imparted knowledge that the students have to solve themselves. Depending on the size of the task, this can also be done as group work.

As you can see, there are many different approaches you can experience during your studies in Germany. Which ones you will encounter in detail depends very much on your institution and your degree programme. Whether one of the approaches mentioned or something completely different will be the subject of your studies is ultimately irrelevant. We are sure that it will be an exciting experience for you in any case.

Strict academic standards

In an academic context, you are required to be able to apply the knowledge you have gained in the lecture in an academic paper or written assignment (Hausarbeit), an exam (Klausur) or a presentation (Präsentation). Especially in written papers and presentations, you must correctly cite the original source from which you have taken the information. It is not allowed to claim memorised knowledge as your own contribution. Whenever you use knowledge or information that is not your own, you must mark it as an outside source at the appropriate places in a written paper and in the appendix of a presentation. The exact citation style you have to use depends on your university. They usually have guidelines on what is expected in a term paper, and it is recommended that you read them thoroughly to ensure that your work is not considered plagiarised and also meets all other university guidelines (some universities can be very strict about this). Please note that most German universities are very strict when it comes to plagiarism and have the right to exmatriculate students if they extensively declare outside sources as their own contribution.

Learning culture

Good grades at German universities are often achieved by working together with other students. It is common to share and compare notes from lectures with fellow students, organise sample exams from previous students or form study groups to prepare for the next exam. Joining forces with other students can thus help you to accelerate your learning pace and achieve good grades. For many courses, you also need to prepare by reading articles or solving assignments that are then discussed in class. Follow-up work is also a task that students are required to do in order to retain the information taught in class and better understand the material overall. How much time you spend on this depends on how quickly you learn and memorise the material, but the general recommendation from most universities is to spend as much time on preparation and follow-up as the class itself takes. This means that for a 2-hour lecture, you should also plan 2 hours for preparation and follow-up.

If you are more of a solo learner but do not want to sit around all alone, you can also visit one of the most popular places to study: University libraries. Here you will not only find literature that will help you in your studies, but you will also meet plenty of other like-minded students, which can lead to one or two fruitful exchanges. Please note that university libraries can be very crowded, especially during exam periods. Shortly after the library opens or the last hours before it closes (if it does close) are usually the best times to find a free place.

Peculiarities of some universities

You probably already know that there are more than 400 higher education institutions in Germany, which come in many different shapes, forms and specialisations. Consequently, this also means that there are many different approaches that institutions use to organise their study programmes. Please note that sometimes you have the freedom to design your own schedule (to a certain extent). This means that you have a set number of courses that you have to attend, but they are offered at different times and you can choose at which time you want to attend the courses. In contrast, some other universities have a rigid schedule where you have to show up for lectures when they are scheduled.

Another important point is also compulsory attendance. Again, there are universities that do not care about attendance and leave it up to you if you want to show up or not, while others require a certain attendance rate, otherwise, you would have to repeat the course. Lastly, you should note that it is common that you must register for an exam. So, make sure you have done this in good time. There are only a few things more annoying than showing up for an exam you have been preparing for only to find out you cannot take it because you missed the registration.

Food

There is one crucial topic that we have not talked about yet. The food. Student life is not always easy, and money is a limiting factor for most people. Finding tasty but inexpensive food is therefore an essential factor for a student. Most larger universities and usually all state universities offer cafeterias (often called “Mensa” in German). Here you can get a small selection of affordable food if you show your student ID or a similar document. If you do not have your student card with you, you will have to pay the prices that external guests also must pay. Therefore, always carry your student ID with you. The quality of the food depends a lot on the refectory that is in charge or sometimes also on the special dishes that are served. You will find stories of excellent good refectories, but also of barely edible dishes in other places. So, it is up to you to find out which category your cafeteria belongs to and which dishes might become your favourites.

If your university does not offer a cafeteria, or only a very remote one, or if you are not one of the lucky students to enjoy a good cafeteria, you will have to find other ways to keep your stomach full throughout the day. The options you have for getting food depend largely on the location of your university. Finding a supermarket nearby where you can grab something to eat either on the way to your lectures or during breaks has proven to be a good idea. Fortunately, many supermarkets offer salad bars and a small snack bar where you can get small hot meals at good prices.

Alternatively, you can look for some good local restaurants that can prepare the food in a reasonable amount of time (the breaks are over faster than you would like). However, this is also a more expensive solution.

The last and probably cheapest option is to prepare the food in advance at home and bring it to the lectures. In most cases, you will also find a microwave in your university, where you can heat up the food you have brought with you.

Getting food as a student can either be a challenge or the easiest thing in your life. A lot depends on the dining hall that your university offers and the options that cheap and accessible restaurants and other food stalls around the university campus offers. Therefore, we recommend doing a little research before you go to university for the first time, just to check out the surroundings and possibly find your new favourite bar or restaurant where you will have memorable times with your fellow students and friends.

Summary

As you can see, there are a lot of things that make studying in Germany special. It is not just the world-class education you can enjoy here for little money. It is also the environment that nurtures talent and inspires and challenges people to achieve great things. So, what are you waiting for? Make your way to Germany so that you can experience and confirm (or falsify) for yourself all that is written down here. We will welcome you with open arms.

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Last update: January 26, 2021

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