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Nine life-saving tips for foreign students in Germany

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Nine life-saving tips for foreign students in Germany
Photo: DPA
16:25 CEST+02:00
Studying abroad in Germany sure has its quirks and traps. Here are nine things you need to know before jumping into the deep end of German student life.

Max Bringmann is a Berlin-born writer and former student at Freie Universität (FU) in the capital of Germany. He delves into his experiences to bring you the dos and don'ts of studying at a German university:

1. Covering your bases

Could you resist those eyes?; Photo: DPA

So you’ve received your student visa and you’re set to start classes, but don’t yet know where you’re going to sleep tonight?

Hardly any German undergraduates live on campus in Berlin and the other major cities. Most of them live in a so-called Wohngemeinschaft, or WG, (shared housing), with three to four students sharing an apartment. It's on you to get your hands on one of those rooms - and the competition is tough.

Wanting to start my own WG, I was vying for a three-bedroom-flat along with over 20 other people  – and out-competing young families with doe-eyed babies is no piece of cake.

In Germany’s smaller university towns though, the scramble for housing is less messy. And if you make it, you’ll have a proper room, maybe even a balcony - your own first little home.

2. Akademische Viertelstunde - academic quarter of an hour

At the start of the semester your inner model student surfaces and pushes you to be punctual for class. If you do end up arriving on the hour though, you may be the first person there.

The “akademische Viertelstunde” is a tacit rapport among German students and teaching staff that allows everyone to come to class late and not get shunned.

It’s one of the only occasions when us Germans can escape our compulsion to be on time. You’ll soon come to appreciate those extra-15-minutes you get in bed. 

3. Attendance? Never heard of it.

Another way universities in Germany go against every German stereotype is their strictness on class attendance, or rather the lack thereof.

Last year I had at least three lecturers tell our group that “I’m not going to check attendance - if someone doesn’t want to be here, I don’t want to teach them.”

No one will e-mail or call you if you haven’t shown up in a while. Every semester, a large number of young Germans even sign up for a “Scheinstudium”, which means being registered as a student without attending a single seminar (but tapping the discount for a six-month train ticket included in being at a German Uni).

Let the lawless land of German academia set you free.

4. Studying and puking

Exam time; Photo: DPA

German students of psychology, finance, or medicine - disciplines which have traditionally compelled learners to drum endless amounts of definitions into their brains - have recently found a term to describe their agony: “Bulimielernen” (bulimia studying) – studying hard, puking it all out during the exam, and forgetting everything afterwards.

At German universities it’s common practice to schedule all exams for the end of the term and give hardly any assignments throughout the semester.

Use those first months to let the sun shine on your belly, because when the time comes, you'd better be ready to study and puke, study and puke…

5. Teaching

Which brings us to the issue of teaching (or trying to anyway). Just like at every university, teaching abilities differ greatly from lecturer to lecturer at the FU.

Be warned, not all Germans are born with an uncanny ability to arouse the masses. But that doesn’t mean they’re not knowledgeable.

Last semester I tried to engage my professors in as many conversations as possible and took more away from it than from any of their two-hour readings.

It’s also advisable to chose a class with a young instructor – many of them have studied abroad and are familiar with more innovative and engaging teaching methods than those taught in Germany.  

6. Freunde finden - making friends

Many of my international friends in Germany have told me that making friends with Germans can be a long shot.

Especially in big cities where university campuses often extend over several districts, you may meet people once and never seen them again.

While our club/association culture isn't nearly as big as those in the US or Britain, joining a debating club or political association at your German university is definitely a way to get you started.

After all we highly value our time off campus. Pick up a hobby like rowing, or improve your German reading at a book club, and soon enough you’ll be surrounded by a consistent group of fun German friends. 

7. WG-parties

WG party all the way; Photo: DPA

And once you get invited to your first WG-parties over Facebook (yes, we still use FB to organise our get-togethers), you know you’ve cast a spell on German youth.

Here, too, small town beats big city – when there are no clubs to go to, half the student body will flock to an apartment to party.

If you’re looking to host your own, you may therefore want to take a few precautions. Make sure that none of your guests is prone to tearing down walls – you’re the one who’ll have to pay for it in the end.

Also, let your neighbours know that "es ein bisschen lauter werden könnte" (it might get a bit louder).

German neighbours have a particular proclivity for calling cops on everyone who dares to disturb their beauty sleep. 

8. Mystery of the German Sunday

Since most parties go down on Saturdays, make sure you have your hangover-kit ready for Sunday.

If not, you’ll be stranded with a half-open pack of pasta and a mouldy tin of tomato soup - most grocery stores in Germany are closed on the last day of the weekend.

That’s if you go to uni in a smaller German town. The big cities often have so called “Spätis” – late-night shops that have realised there is money to be made in overcharging desperate students on a Sunday.

You may want to avoid that scenario, so stock up beforehand and make plans for a plentiful Sunday pick-nick instead.

9. Festival summer

With the sprouting of crocuses, music festivals both large and small start popping up on the lush pastures of pre-summer Germany.

And by the beginning of June, science nerds come creeping up from their laboratories while humanities students relax their furrowed brains to join in on the months-long dancing season.

While you may not dig the deep, thrumming techno beat, you may still enjoy floating in the carefree festival bubble.

Once it's over, you may finally feel ready to say a teary "Tschüss" to your time at a German university.

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