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EXPLAINED: How (and where) to enroll in a Master’s program in Germany

A total of 374,583 foreign students enrolled for higher education in German universities in the last semester of 2018. One recent international Master's graduate shares words of wisdom about how you can join the ranks.

EXPLAINED: How (and where) to enroll in a Master's program in Germany
The campus of the University of Jena, known for its master's in 'German as a foreign language'

Germany is a target destination for an exponentially growing number of students today. According to a recent study by the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD), it attracts the largest number of foreign students, after the US and UK. Among its high quality of education, advanced teaching resources and international networks, the cherry on the cake is the fact that there are no tuition fees.

Rather, a Semesterticket of approximately €300 goes towards covering costs of public transport, local passenger trains, and a culture ticket. Prices of theatre shows, opera and cultural clubs are heavily reduced by the culture ticket – and are often simply free to enter.

In Graphs: Number of international students in Germany quickly growing

Finding the best program

Germany boasts of its own version of the Ivy League, led by Heidelberg University and the Technical University of Munich, with Free University of Berlin and Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg following close behind. A more detailed look at the world rankings by subject is available here.

Accordingly, the Association for German Science and DAAD has put together a list of some of the top international Master’s programs in Germany.

Freie Universität Berlin (together with HU Berlin und Universität Potsdam): Master of Arts “International Relations”

Freie Universität Berlin: East European Studies Online

Universität Bonn: Agricultural Sciences and Resource Management in the Tropics and Subtropics (ARTS)

Universität Dortmund: Spatial Planning for Regions in Growing Economies (SPRING)

Universität Freiburg: Master of Arts in Social Sciences

Universität Göttingen: International Master’s “Molecular Biology“ and “Neurosciences”

Universität Jena: International Master’s “German as a foreign language”

Hochschule Mannheim: Master of Science in Informationstechnik

Hochschule Pforzheim: Master of Business Administration (MBA)

Universität Weimar: Public Art and New Artistic Strategies

Hochschule Mannheim. Photo: DPA

Each academic year in these universities comprises of two semesters, a winter semester (October 1st-March 31st) and a summer semester (April 1st-September 30th), with the exact dates depending on the university. All programs accept applications for the winter semester. Some, such as RWTH Aachen University, offer admission in summer too.

If you are yet unsure of your interests and want to explore the possibilities with an open mind, play around at this excellent portal created by DAAD for international programs available in 2018/2019.

The most important documents

Your CV is the most essential document and should make a quick, solid impression. Spruce it up before you shoot off applications – and don’t forget to proofread! Academic certificates can be uploaded as PDFs but it is important to obtain translated copies if the certificate was awarded in a local language. All such translations must, of course, be certified by competent authorities.

Other crucial documents generally include a copy of your passport, letters of recommendation, letter of motivation, and a high-quality photo. GRE is rarely requested by German universities – here again RWTH Aachen University falls through as an exception.

Proof of proficiency in German or English needs to be demonstrated depending upon the language of instruction. International programs use results from an IELTS or TOEFL test as standard documents for English. If your entire education was conducted in English, some programs may accept that as sufficient proof. Other German-based programs typically require a C2-level certificate from the Goethe Institute (or corresponding level) to enroll.

The application will then require you to answer a few questions that validate your interest in the program. Based on this elementary information, you may qualify for further written tests and personal interviews – including so-called oral exams which grill you on your language skills and subject knowledge.

Most international applications are handled via a user-friendly, online portal called uni-assist.

Funding opportunities

Germany offers monetary support to international students in the form of scholarships, grants and loans. Specialized, competitive programs such as the International Max Planck Research School (for Neurosciences, Molecular Biology and 58 others) and the Erasmus Mundus Joint Degree programs, ranging from space science to journalism, provide their own scholarships under which most to all selected students are covered. DAAD also offers scholarships to internationals who have lived in Germany for not more than 15 months.

As a talented individual, any student in Germany can also benefit from the Deutschlandstipendium regardless of their nationality. Despite its name, this is indeed a grant. With €300 per month awarded for a minimum of two semesters, it definitely does not cover basic living expenses but can be a generous bonus for student life.

At present, Germany estimates a minimum of €720 per month for basic sustenance (including rent, health and liability insurances, food, and limited luxuries) and is mandated as a legal requirement to enter the country. This amount can be shown as a lumpsum saving in a bank statement or guaranteed through a source of regular income.

It is possible to get a study loan from banks, private companies and the government. Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz (BAföG) is the primary source of such financial assistance for residents of Germany. EU citizens must therefore move to Germany before they can apply for the partial grant-partial loan – and so must non-EU citizens.

The award value is calculated on the basis of filial income and realistic needs and is determined in each case individually. The BAföG is a partial loan because 50% of its received value must be paid back without any interest, up to five years after graduation.

Popular banks, too – such as Sparkasse – have a special tie up with Göttingen University that enables students to receive €600 per month without disclosing personal income. The repayment of this educational loan can be deferred for up to two years after graduation. Similarly, a Bildungskredit can be earned atop the BAföG.

Learning German

While most schools of higher education conduct their programs in English, the German language is an integral part of interacting with the locals. While it is entirely possible to get by in bigger cities and university towns without learning much of the language, be aware that it will limit the extent of your interactions, and cap your potential to integrate with German-speaking friend circles.

All forms of official correspondence occurs in German too: letters from the bank, health insurance company, Rathaus (town hall), Deutschlandradio (contacting you to pay the broadcast fee, or GEZ) and doctors (with medical bills and test results).

A collection of 'Rathäuser' from Braunschweig, Wolfsburg, Göttingen and Hannover. Photo: DPA

Knowing this well, all universities run language courses beyond office hours. If you want to get a head start learning German from home, there are lots of different apps or sites that offer fun and comprehensive small-group classes for all levels. Additionally, slow news reporting podcasts and freely available cartoons on YouTube can help master the basics too. I personally recommend exploring children’s books to learn the art of constructing basic sentences.

SEE ALSO: 8 simple reasons why learning German is really worth your while

Find the expats before you

As a researcher who came to Germany to do a Master’s, I strongly advise connecting with the alumni of the program you are applying to. Extract the wisdom and experience of people who have been through this process to make a smarter choice.

SEE ALSO: Foreign students in Germany: Why they come and if they plan to stay

Most universities are connected to an international office which can help you get in touch with other students hailing from your country. Find out about local expat communities, funding opportunities, the international nature of the city, where the program of interest has led past students and whether it was an enjoyable experience. After all, living in Germany is as much about reveling in the culture as it is about advancing your career.

It is also important to inform yourself on a city’s tendency for racial violence (eg. recent attacks in Chemnitz), though know that thriving international student communities can exist beyond the headlines. And as a closing caveat: While it might be tempting to rush away from the threads of your own ethnic community, maintain cordial connections for they will go out of their way to help you in your times of need.

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STUDYING IN GERMANY

EXPLAINED: Can foreigners apply for student finance in Germany?

Germany has a system of financial support for students known as BAföG. In many cases foreigners are just as entitled to apply as Germans. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: Can foreigners apply for student finance in Germany?

What is BAföG?

Bafög is an abbreviation for a word that would surely be the longest in pretty much any other language expect German: Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz. This tongue twister breaks down to mean Federal Training Assistance Act. 

Ever since the 1970s it has helped Germans from poor backgrounds to take up a place at university to at a training colleague, with the idea being that financial hardship should never prevent someone from entering higher education.

In its current form the law provides for students form poorer families to receive €853 a month, half of which is a stipend and half of which is a loan that you will need to pay back once you’ve entered the workforce. 

The maximum you are expected to pay back is €10,000.   

Some 460,000 students were being assisted with Bafög payments in 2020, the last year for which there are numbers.

READ ALSO: How to finance your master’s studies in Germany as an international student

Who is entitled to BAföG?

There are two basic conditions attached to BAföG: you have to be under the age of 30 to apply and you parents have to be low-wage earners.

There are some exemptions for the age restriction. If you can show that you were not able to start a course of study before your 30th birthday due to health or familial reasons then you might still be eligible later. Also, if you are applying for support for a Masters degree then you can apply for Bafög up until the age of 35.

According to German law, your parents have an obligation to financially support your education. This means that German authorities ask for evidence of their income to assess whether you are in need of state support.

And this applies whether your parents work in Germany or abroad, the Education Ministry confirmed to The Local.

“Income calculation under the BAföG rules takes place regardless of whether one’s parents live in Germany or abroad. This applies both to German nationals and to people with non-German nationality who are eligible for support under BAföG,” a spokesperson for the ministry confirmed.

What about foreigners?

Bafög is by no means only available to Germans. A whole variety of foreign nationals can also apply.

The rules on which foreign nationals are entitled to financial support are fairly complicated. But the following list on eligibility is somewhat exhaustive:

  • If you are an EU citizen, or from an EEA country, and you have lived in Germany for at least five years
  • If you are married to, or are the child of, an EU citizen who has lived in Germany for at least five years
  • If your are an EU citizen who lives and works in Germany and whose intended course of study is connected to your current job
  • If you are not an EU citizen but have obtained permanent residency in Germany
  • If you have received refugee status
  • If you have lived in the country for at least 15 months as a ‘tolerated’ person (ie you applied for asylum and weren’t given full refugee status)
  • If at least one of your parents has lived and worked in Germany for three of the past six years
  • You are married to a German national and have moved to Germany.
  • You are the spouse or child of a foreign national who holds a permanent residency permit.

Due to the relative complexity of these rules it is advisable to speak to local organisations that support students such as the Studentenwerk Hamburg, the StudierendenWERK BERLIN or the Studentenwerk München.

READ ALSO: Essential German words to know as a student in Germany

How do repayments work?

The Federal Education Ministry states that you are expected to pay back your loan even if you return to your home country after completing your studies.

Repayment begins five years after you received the last installment of the loan at which point you are expected to pay back €130 a month. Although this amount can be reduced if your salary is low.

If you haven’t paid everything back after 20 years then the rest of the debt is dropped.

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