Understanding German School Systems

For anyone considering a program in Germany, it is important to know beforehand that their school system functions very differently than ours in the United States. I mean that their grading system, early and high school education systems, and college application as well as college education processes are different. Many of you will probably only care what their grades equate to in the U.S. system but the other factors may be important as well. Such as understanding the work load you will be expected to deal with and the attitudes of full-time German students.

Firstly however, I will go over the grading system as it is the easiest thing to explain. German students as well as anyone taking courses from a German institution will receive a grade from 1 to 5. Each level is broken down by 10ths, for example 2,5 or 3,7. 1 is the best grade you can get and means you have complete mastery of the subject to the point where you could teach it. It might be easy to think a 1 is the same as an “A” but while A’s are often attainable a perfect 1 is almost never. However, in Germany receiving a 2 or a 3 or even a 3,5 is acceptable. A 4 is considered the lowest level of passing and anything below that is essentially failing the course.  Generally 1-1,9 is an A 2-2,9 is B and so forth but this is different at each U.S. University.

German students are tested and placed into one of three schools secondary schools around 10 years old. From highest to lowest they are Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule. Gymnasium is designed for those students wishing to go to University. In order to attend a student must have nearly the highest grades possible. Students graduate around 16 or 17 and take a test called the Abitur which is a comprehensive exam much more involved than the SAT or ACT. Students may spend an entire year studying for it. Next is Realschule. Students here received above average grades and study the same subjects as those in Gymnasium but generally seek a career that requires academic knowledge but not a University degree. They achieve this by going to career specific schools or internships after graduating at 16 or 17. An example of a career here would be one in nursing. Finally there is Hauptschule where students who received average or below average scores will study. They study the same subjects but at a slower pace and generally graduate at 15 or 16. They will look for careers that require a lot of practical skills such as construction workers, mechanics, and service workers.

Students are however allowed to move between the schools if they take additional tests. The idea behind this system is first that college in Germany costs around 500 dollars a year for tuition and the second but related reason is that if everyone were allowed into college the strain on the Government would be to high financially.  Third is that society cannot function without all levels of workers and starting earlier in the job market is beneficial.  A side effect of this is that as an American student you will find that teachers expect you to be much more independent and to work harder at the university level. There is generally one exam for a course at the end of each semester and it counts for your entire grade. Attendance is rarely mandatory because you are expected to take interest in the subject on your own.

In closing, remember that when you meet a German student at college they have likely worked much harder than you to get there and that when teachers perhaps seem “unfair” in their grading it is only because of cultural differences. You will be held to the same standards generally as your fellow German classmates. So work hard and don’t take the lack of work during the semester as an indication of an easy final exam.

Photo from


Elden Winkelman is a senior at the University of Kentucky studying Foreign Language (German) & International Economics. Elden participated in a academic year-long Exchange program in Heidelberg, Germany in 2014-2015.