5 things I wish I knew when I decided to study in Germany

This blog post is part of our mini series on how to make the big move to Germany. Here Bartlomiej talks about his experiences with finding a university in Germany, from the application process to moving to Germany, getting settled, and seeing what Germany has to offer. He has dual citizenship with Canada and Poland while is wife is from the U.S. 

Why I decided to study in Germany

After spending over 5 years working a variety of jobs in the South Korean ESL (English teaching) industry, my wife and I decided to try something new. While we enjoyed our time there for the most part, we figured out that it’s not what we wanted to do in the long term.

So, armed with a lot of only partially relevant experience in a field we were trying to get out of, we spent our last year and a half in Seoul saving up money and trying to figure out our next move.

We settled on grad school and began the long process of trying to find someplace with a program we were interested in and had a chance of getting into. Price was also a concern, so our home countries of Canada and the U.S. were out of the question.

Canada would be pricey and the U.S. was just utterly unrealistic due to even higher costs. Luckily, I’m an immigrant and have dual citizenship with Canada and Poland. That means I have one of those coveted EU passports, making it easier for both me and my wife to take advantage of the great selection of reasonably priced (or free) universities all over Europe.

After an exhaustive search of what was on offer, Germany came out on top; both in terms of programs we were interested in and qualified for, and the almost unreasonable generosity of the German post-secondary education system.

German universities offer a wide variety of programs (many of them taught in English) and there are no tuition fees at public universities. Your student fees add up to 200-400 Euros per semester and these prices are the same for everyone; German, EU, or otherwise. That amount includes administrative fees and a semester transit pass that lets you ride all public transport in the city (and often extends regionally) for free. Considering the high quality of German institutions, this is a huge bargain.

Knowing how to find the right school

This is probably a good time to mention that I actually looked up all of the universities in Germany and went through their offerings individually.

That took an agonizingly long time and it was far too late when I discovered the useful DAAD international program search tool. Using it would have likely saved me a great deal of time and effort.

We ended up narrowing it down to English MA programs at three schools: Berlin Free University, Frankfurt’s Goethe University, and the University of Tübingen.

This is where the real work began.

Knowing how to make the application process smoother

While the paperwork for a German university application isn’t so bad, there was one piece of documentation that was a bigger pain than the rest.

Aside from the letters of motivation, university transcripts, and notarized copies of our undergraduate diplomas, we also had to include notarized copies of our high school diplomas. This seems a bit odd as since we had already graduated from university, one would assume we also finished high school. I hadn’t even seen mine in over a decade but I was lucky enough to be able to dig it out of an old box at my mom’s house.

My wife wasn’t so fortunate. She had to navigate a labyrinth of private contractors in an effort to figure out who was even able to issue her a replacement diploma as her public high school was not able to do it (cheers to outsourcing). The lesson to be learned here is that if you’re thinking of attending university in Germany, make sure you dig up your high school diploma or start the process of getting a replacement right away. Make sure you go get a notarized copy as well.

After spending a good deal of time and money getting our documents together, we finally managed to send them in. Some German universities make use of uni-assist. They collect and check application documents on behalf of the schools. Uni-assist can be a money-saver if you are applying to multiple schools that use their services, since they only charge you a major fee (75 Euros) for the first application. After that, it’s only 15 Euros for each additional school.

That’s considerably better than having to pay a full application fee for each university you want to apply for. It also saves you the trouble of having to make multiple copies of your diplomas and transcripts.

A word of caution though: this whole process will cost you a fair bit of money. Between application fees, notary fees, transcripts, replacement diplomas (if needed), and mailing fees, you’re easily looking at a few hundred dollars.

For us, Berlin and Frankfurt made use of uni-assist, while Tübingen had its own (free) application process.

Knowing what to write in your application

After many weeks of waiting and nervously checking the mailbox, one day we finally got two envelopes bearing the markings of the German postal system. They were from Berlin, and as I struggled to open mine my thoughts flashed back to the awful undergraduate grades on my transcript and I prepared myself for a rejection letter.

Unexpectedly enough, we were both accepted into the same program at Berlin Free University; one of the top schools in the country! My wife would go on to get acceptance letters from the other two schools, while I (to my slight resentment) was rejected by Frankfurt.

This is a good opportunity to encourage anyone who is thinking about going to grad school, but is concerned about grades to take a stab at it anyway.

A Note On Grades

Grades are only one of the criteria they look at (depending on the school of course), and some universities I looked at didn’t have minimum grade requirements to get into their English program. Other programs may vary of course. I addressed my grades in my letter of motivation (I was young and irresponsible!) and highlighted what I had been up to since I graduated.

Working in a related field, doing internships, and engaging in career development, and having international work experience can all help make up for a poor undergrad GPA. I decided to leave out the part where I spent more time in the campus pub than in my classes though.

Knowing what to prepare for enrolling at the school

Getting back to the acceptance letter, our joy was cut short suddenly when we realized that the slow pace of international mail left us with 3 days to get all of our enrollment documents in before our deadline.

Yes, there is even more paperwork after you receive your acceptance letter. This includes filling out an enrollment application, making copies of your ID, getting proof of German health insurance, and paying your semester fees.  

Luckily the administrators at Berlin Free University were very helpful and offered to extend our deadline by several weeks. All it took was a phone call to student services. They were actually helpful several times and didn’t seem to have a problem pushing back my registration date even further when my bank subtracted money from the fees I sent and I came up short.

Knowing how important your health insurance is

The most difficult piece of documentation to get in order for us to actually enroll was proof of German health insurance.

If you already live in Europe and have an EU health card, that should work, but for everyone else it can be a difficult and time-consuming process. If you’re an EU citizen and already pay into your national health insurance plan, you can apply for a European Health Insurance Card. It is usually possible to apply online on the website of your national health service.

We didn’t actually realize we would need insurance in order to complete the enrollment process so we intended to wait until we got there. Needless to say, my biggest piece of advice to those considering school in Germany is to get to work on the insurance situation right away! I would suggest doing it after the applications are all sent out and before you even receive any replies.

We ended up going with one of the big public companies, TK (which we highly recommend. To sign up easily AND in English with TK you can do so by clicking here), but there are a number of public and private choices available such as AOK, SBK, and Mawista.   

Student plans were offered by every company we looked at, costing around 90 Euros a month with the option to add a spouse or dependent on for free. This part was great for me because I’m too old (student plans are only for those under 30) but my wife still qualified.

There was a mishap with our applications (we e-mailed them in and they didn’t seem to get everything we sent) and we barely had everything in time, but their customer service staff was quite helpful and everything was resolved in the end.

Again, if you plan on studying in Germany, do this stuff early! TK was able to get us enrolled in a plan without any payment and no German address so that we could get the proof we needed for the university.

That about does it as far as finding and enrolling at a university in Germany goes. We paid our 300 Euro semester fees after TK sent us proof of insurance and received our student cards in the mail soon after (just in time before our trip actually).

A Short Note On Visas

One thing I didn’t talk about was getting a visa, since I didn’t need one with my Polish passport.

If you do need one, the process really depends on your nationality. Some passports (such as U.S. or Canada) allow you to show up without a student visa and get one when you are already in the country.

Otherwise, you will have to get one and provide proof as part of the enrollment process.

Future blog posts will deal with starting out in Germany, going to immigration, and other aspects of life in the land of beer and pretzels!

How did you find the right school in Germany? Or are you still in the process of applying? Tell us about your experiences in the comments. We would love to hear from you!

2 replies on “5 things I wish I knew when I decided to study in Germany

  • Pete

    Sounds great. I happen to be in the exact similar situation as this blog which I plan to head to Germany for studying after I finish my ESL teaching contract. My reasons for not wanting to go to the USA for grad school are similar to yours.


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