Studying in Germany: Seven unusual academic traditions

From 'academic knocking' to funny formalities, the Local guides you through some of the strangest German academic traditions.

Studying in Germany: Seven unusual academic traditions
University of Jena's quirky campus. Photo: DPA

1.  Forget the applause, you simply knock. 

Now, you may be sitting in class, waiting for a lecture to end, and as a normal instinct prepare to praise this presentation with an applause. However, you quickly stop and realize that everyone else around you are simply knocking on their table with their fists.

Strangely, this is just a normal German academic tradition, which is also called “Akademisches Klopfen” (academic knocking) and simply recognized as a more reserved way of applauding. The same rule is often applied at conferences or readings, especially If they are led by an academic institute.

Students praising the lecturer with the “Akademisches Klopfen”  Photo: Depositphotos/Wavebreakmedia  

You might find yourself making the mistake at least two or three more times, as you get ready to burst into applause after that epic biology lecture. But don't worry, you'll get the hang of it soon enough.

2.  “Sie”-ing on the safe side

In many places around Europe, such as in Norway or Sweden, your professor or tutor is just like a mate, often referred to by their first names. In Germany, however, it’s the norm to refer to your professors in a formal matter using “Herr” or  “Frau” before their surnames.

Instead of a taboo “Du”, you would stick with “Sie.” With some German professors you might get lucky and avoid being as formal, but to stay on the safe side, start out with a “Sie”.

3. Being as independent as possible

In other countries such as the UK, you often have meetings with your tutors to monitor how you are progressing in your classes or with your studies. Yet in Germany, you have to be independent, the prized academic norm. This level of independence teaches you creative tricks and techniques, which you may not learn otherwise. For instance, you learn to trust yourself enough to believe that you will nail that exam – and develop the self-studying techniques to make it happen. 

4. Please don’t be late, otherwise you´ll be met with glares. 

Punctuality is a large part of German culture, and highly appreciated by Germans. Which is why, if you are planning to be just a little bit late, you should plan otherwise. However, if there really is a convincing reason for you to show up late (such as an Asteroid falling outside of your home) you should at least write an e-mail, unless you really want to be met with some painful glares.

Easier explained, just do not be late. Or better yet, plan to be in class 10 minutes early to be sure to be on time.

Photo: DPA

5.  See you in “Mensa”

If you´re studying at any German university, you'll probably hear your friends saying they'll be chilling around Mensa or taking a quick lunch break there. Mensa is just the German word for Cafeteria. In Germany, the “Mensa” is large part of the university culture, which is also why you'll probably find some of your co-students or your German friends clustering around there between studying cram sessions. You would think that some nearby coffee shop would be much more interesting, but no, Mensa it is. 

6. Welcome week! Were you expecting loads of parties? Well, expect a bit less. 

If you were anticipating a week packed with parties and fun, well, that’s sadly not how this week works in Germany. This so-called welcome week is usually consists of five days full of information and guided tours on campus. Although there are a sprinkling of social events, the main focus of this week is for you to gather as much information as possible and to not get lost on campus. Nonetheless, when the tours and information sessions come to an end, you'll end up in a bar and socialize for a bit. If you have the energy left.

7. Who doesn’t love a bargain?

As a student in Germany, there will be one bargain after another. Lovely right? Students in Germany normally pay a tuition fees around €250 to €300. This fee, however, does not only cover your tuition. You also receive a semester ticket which grants you full access to public transportation. Additionally, this semester-ticket does not only let you roam around the different German cities, but it can score you discounts on everything from food, shopping or tickets to museums. 

Photo: DPA 

Yep, in Germany you´re one lucky student! Although there are many things to take care of as a student, the Germans are nice enough to give you something back. With all the patience of being super independent and formal, and of course avoiding the applause, you can treat yourself to a little discount at the end of the day. 

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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.