Good to Know - The Basics

a group in the lecture hall

If you are studying in Germany, you are given a good amount of freedom to personalise your study experience. In return, this also means that you must take care of more tasks yourself such as registering for classes or exams. This may be a new experience at first. To help you find your bearings quickly, especially at the beginning, we explain below how studying in Germany is organised and who you can turn to if you have any questions or problems.

What type of courses are there?

Which grading system is used?

What are the different exam types?

What is the workload and how long will I study?

How do I select my courses and set my schedule?

How do I register for courses and exams?

The main contacts at a higher education institution

What type of courses are there?

At German higher education institutions, you will encounter two types of courses: compulsory courses (Pflichtveranstaltungen) and compulsory elective courses (Wahlpflichtveranstaltungen). You must attend the compulsory courses and pass the examination as well. There isn’t much of a choice here. However, in compulsory elective courses, you are relatively free to choose from a pool of courses that pique your interest. Also, you can attend courses that are not necessarily part of your degree programme if you want.

In your , you will notice various designations for each individual course. You are likely to come across the terms lecture (), seminar (), tutorial (), exercise (Übung) and lab rotation () particularly often. But what do they mean? In lectures, you sit with many other students in large lecture theatres and usually listen to one-and-a-half-hour lectures by a teacher. There is little room for discussions. That's what the seminars are for. Far fewer students take part in them, which makes them much more informal and interactive. Here you can discuss extensively academic issues and topics with the lecturer and other students. In the tutorials, you deepen your knowledge from the lectures. They are led by students who have been studying longer, the so-called , who not only answer your questions but also give you tips on what content might be tested in an exam and how you can best prepare for it. The exercises supplement the lecture and seminar content with a practical part. Here you will solve exercises under expert guidance and apply the scientific methods you have learned. If you are studying for a degree in the natural sciences or a technical subject, you might also have to attend lab rotations. These courses often take place in a laboratory or a workshop of your higher education institution and will allow you to gain some practical experience.

You can find out how your particular degree programme is structured and which courses you have to attend in the , which are published on the website of your degree programme. You will also find out a lot more about this at the introductory event for first-semester students. For this reason alone, it is worth attending.

Which grading system is used?

A while ago, the so-called Credit Point System (ECTS) was introduced in Germany, which applies throughout most of the European Union (EU) as well as in some non-European countries. For you, this means that your academic achievements from Germany are also more easily recognised in these other countries. In the ECTS, you receive a certain number of credit points for each successfully completed course. Over the course of a typical Bachelor's degree programme, you will therefore achieve around 180 credit points.

The alternative to ECTS is a credit certificate or a points system. However, you will only encounter these variants in specific subject groups, such as law, teaching and medicine.

What are the different exam types?

To obtain ECTS points, you must take some form of examination in most courses. Depending on the course format, such an examination is usually a written exam (), an oral presentation (Referat) and/or a term paper (). But what is the difference between these types of examination?

In written examinations, you answer questions on the content of the course. In most cases, the content of an entire semester is tested. In a presentation, you deliver a lecture on a specific topic that you have discussed in advance with your higher education institution teachers (professors). Term papers are longer, independently written documents in which you critically analyse an academic topic. Even though they are usually much shorter than a thesis, you should give yourself plenty of time for this. Finally, you will complete your studies with a final thesis (Abschlussarbeit) or – if you are studying law, teaching, medicine or pharmacy – with the state examination (Staatsexamen). You should prepare particularly thoroughly for this.

The specific examination requirements vary from degree programme to degree programme. You should therefore look up the details in the . They are usually published on the website of the faculty or institute.

What is the workload and how long will I study?

If you want to complete your degree within the , you will have a busy time ahead of you. After all, not only will you need to attend courses but also prepare for and follow up on them. There is also an examination in each module (see section What are the different exam types?). You usually have to plan several weeks of studying and preparation time for them. As a basic rule, you can remember the following: to obtain one credit point, you need to put in about 30 hours of work. In most cases, 30 credit points per are required to complete the programme within the planned amount of semesters. As you can see, you will have to invest a lot of time in your studies if you want to finish within this time. If you don't know exactly the standard period of study for your degree programme, you can find it in the study regulations.

How do I select my courses and set my schedule?

A degree programme is usually divided into modules, which in turn consist of courses that fit together and summarise a subject area in terms of content and organisation. If you are studying a modular degree programme, you should pay particular attention to the correct composition of the modules when selecting courses and planning your studies.

Apart from the requirements of your study and examination regulations, you are free to choose your courses and put together your own timetable. However, it is important that you inform yourself beforehand and choose your courses skilfully. This will help you to avoid wasting time during your studies. You should also bear in mind what your lifestyle is like and what your workload outside of your studies looks like at the moment. This will prevent you from taking too many or too few courses.

The best way to select courses is to use the online portals offered by most higher education institutions. They allow you to view the courses on offer and put together your own personalised timetable.

How do I register for courses and exams?

You must register, usually online, in advance for most courses. In seminars, sometimes more people are signing up than places are available. In such cases, places are either allocated by lottery or on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you would like to attend a particular seminar, you must make sure you register early.

Remember, you are not automatically registered for the exams but will have to sign up separately. Again, separate deadlines apply. You can find these in the or on the website of your degree programme.

If you are thinking this is all very complicated and you will never be able to do it on your own: You don't need to! Very few students organise their studies completely without outside help and support. So don't hesitate to contact a higher education institution if you have any questions or uncertainties. We have reviewed the most important institutions for you in the following section.

The main contacts at a higher education institution

International Office

The International Office (Akademisches Auslandsamt) is the most important point of contact for international students. Among other things, it answers all organisational questions about studying - for example about or the necessary language skills.

Some higher education institutions also have special buddy programmes. These programmes bring international students together with experienced students who can help them deal with authorities, problems in everyday life and questions relating to their studies. They are often organised by the International Office, but sometimes also by the city in which you live.

You can also contact the International Offices to find out which international student groups exist at your higher education institution. These groups support new arrivals and bring students from all over the world together by organising excursions, parties, city tours and film evenings, for example.

Student Counselling

There are special counselling centres at every German higher education institution that will provide you with information on various aspects of your studies. Central course guidance (Zentrale Studienberatung) at your higher education institution provides answers to general questions relating to e.g. selecting a degree programme, applying for a place, or the . If you have questions about the content of your degree programme or need help compiling your timetable, you can contact the subject-specific course guidance counsellors (Fachstudienberatung). If you have questions about (deadlines, procedures, etc.), the Examinations Office (Prüfungsamt) is the right place to go. It is located either at the individual faculties or the larger .

Registrar’s Office

The Registrar's Office takes care of everything to do with applications, and certificates of enrolment. You can therefore or for a degree programme there or take a leave of absence or . If you ever lose your , you can receive a new one here.


You can contact your lecturers in the respective courses at any time. Professors (Professorinnen und Professoren) usually have a weekly consultation hour during which they answer students' questions about , examinations or seminar papers. You can also ask them for a letter of recommendation, for example, if you would like to apply for a scholarship. The same applies to academic staff (wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterinnen und Mitarbeiter). Apart from official office hours and course times, you can also contact most teaching staff by email - this may allow you to clarify some urgent questions more quickly.

Tutors (Tutorinnen und Tutoren) are tasked with giving first-year students practical tips and support. If you get stuck, get in contact with them so they can answer your questions. Since they are still students themselves, they know and understand the challenges of everyday student life.

Student Services

Student services fulfil important tasks: for example, they run the cafeterias at higher education institutions, provide places in student residences and offer psychological counselling. They have developed a specific service package for international students that makes it easier for you to get started with your studies and life in Germany. Which services this package includes depends on the respective higher education institution. Usually, it covers a room in a student residence, your , cultural events and excursions, and arrangements for taking out health insurance. The number of packages per organisation is limited, so you should contact student services at your higher education institution well ahead of time if you are interested.

Student Self-government

The student representatives (Studierendenvertretung), often also known as the or Studierendenrat (student council), represent the interests of the entire student body vis-à-vis the higher education institution, its management and the public. For example, they ensure that there are sports and cultural programmes at higher education institutions and campaign against discrimination in everyday student life. At some higher education institutions, they also offer help with finding accommodation or arranging language tandems.

Another student organisation is the departmental student organisation (Fachschaft), which is a good point of contact for specific questions about your own degree programme. It also represents the interests of students in the respective subject and often organises leisure events. At the beginning of the , it also often offers an introduction for first-semester students. Find out more about planning your studies at the departmental student organisation. It is also a great opportunity to network with other students.

If you wish, you can also get involved in both organisations yourself or be elected to them.

DAAD - Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst - German Academic Exchange Service