School attendance is compulsory in Germany. School starts at about age 6 and usually lasts nine to ten years – depending on the federal state. Provided that you have good grades, you can continue your schooling and sit the examinations for the certificate of aptitude for higher education (Abitur) after a total of twelve or thirteen years – for example at a higher secondary school (Gymnasium) or a comprehensive school (Gesamtschule/Gemeinschaftsschule) with senior classes. This certificate entitles you to study at all universities.
The Abitur does not restrict you to studying, you can also take part in vocational training. Most vocational training does not require a specific school leaving certificate. However, with the Abitur you have a qualification that usually gives you very good chances with companies.
Qualified vocational training usually lasts three years on average. There are two types of vocational training in Germany:
In dual vocational training, on the one hand, you will learn practical work in a company. For example, if you take part in vocational training for a craft trade, you will learn there how to handle different tools. In commercial vocational training you will learn how to use specific computer programs, or how to behave towards customers. But this is only one half, the other is the vocational school (Berufsschule). Here you will learn the theory for your occupation – for example maths, English, economics or law, always in relation to your occupation.
In some types of vocational training you work three days per week in the company and on the other two days you attend vocational school. With other types of vocational training you alternate for several weeks between the company and vocational school. As you work in the company you will receive vocational training pay, which increases with each vocational training year.
School education takes place above all at a specialised vocational school. Typical occupations with school education are, for example, healthcare professionals (nurses), occupational therapists, preschool teachers, medical-technical assistants or foreign language correspondents. You acquire occupational experience here above all in internships. You will not usually be paid for your vocational training. To finance it, you can work part-time or your family can support you. Or you can check whether the state can support you, for example by means of Schüler-BAföG (grants for school students).
Nebras Nassar (25) is taking part in vocational training to be a tourism management assistant for private and business travel.
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Mohammad Zaghnoon (23) is being prepared for vocational training as a specialist for labour market services.
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If you want to study, you have to apply first to the university of your choice for the study course of your choice – you can usually do this via the homepage. This is possible twice every year, for the winter semester (October to March) and in part for the summer semester (April to September) as well.
Many subjects are very popular, which means that there are more applicants than places. In this case, universities have to select who they want to admit. There are study courses that have restricted admission at every university (nationwide). This means that there is only a specific number of places available, for example, medicine and pharmacy. Other study courses have restricted admission at some universities only (local), at others admission is not restricted. Depending on this, different deadlines apply by which you have to apply. In addition, you have to satisfy different requirements to be admitted, depending on the study course and the university (You will find more on the subject “Admission to studying at university” in the article “Wege in den Hörsaal” (“Paths to the lecture hall”).)
Most study courses that you can take up directly after the Abitur are concluded with a Bachelor's degree. In addition, there are study courses ending with a so-called state examination (Staatsexamen) (for example, Medicine and Law), and a few study courses in which students are awarded a “Diplom” or the degree of “Magister”. A Bachelor's degree usually takes six to eight semesters (three to four years). Many students then go on to study for a Master's degree, which takes another two to four semesters (one to two years).
There are no fees for studying in Germany – unless you attend a private university. At state universities you only have to pay a fee once each semester for administration and possibly a ticket for public transport. The university sets the level of the fees. Some demand 50 euros, others 300 euros.
Many students have part-time jobs, for example in catering or call centres, to pay for their rent and food. In addition, you can apply for BAföG, i.e. government-supported financial assistance. This is a monthly grant that you can obtain in certain circumstances – for example, if your family is unable to finance you. You must repay half of this money after completing your studies. The other half is a gift. (For more on the subject of financing studies go to finanzen.abi.de.)
Ayat Alkadri (28) is studying International Management at Deggendorf Technical University.
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... and anything else?
There is also a special form of vocational training: the dual studying system. Here you take part in vocational training or practical phases in a company and study parallel to this. There are two types: one type combines vocational training and studying, and graduates receive two final certificates. The other provides for studying and practical phases in a company, with a university degree at the end. Dual study courses take between three and four and a half years. (For more on the subject of dual studying go to duales-studium.abi.de.)
Sara Manzari (33) is starting her dual studies soon at the Dual University Baden-Württemberg.
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If you have brought your school leaving certificates with you from your home country, you can have them recognised in Germany (more on recognition in Step 4: What is my certificate worth?). If it is then found that you do not yet have the qualifications for studying here, you can still sit the Abitur in the second-chance education system. This is provided in evening classes or in a special preparatory institute (“Kolleg”). (You can find more on the subject of acquiring the Abitur in the second-chance education system in the article “Mit Beharrlichkeit und langem Atem” (“With perseverance and stamina”).)
And even if you are qualified, you will of course still need to learn German. You can do this, for example, in a language course that the employment agency or the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) sends you to. Many universities offer language courses as well and have also established additional places in their preparatory institutes and other preparatory courses. Depending on the university, a preparatory institute takes between six and twelve months.