Germany for beginners from A to Z


Learning German is hard enough, but starting out at a university carries the demand of learning a whole new vocabulary. From the lecture hall to the soccer field, learn some key terms for beginning students.

Constance UniversityUniversity life is what you make of it.

AStA is an abbreviation for the campus organizations that represent German students. Each year, the members are elected by student parliaments, and they generally belong to political parties. Their aim is to get involved in the political process as it affects universities as well as running informational centers.

The Auditorium Maximum or Audimax is the largest lecture hall at a university. It may be used for transdisciplinary lectures, events and other gatherings.

Block seminars
Normally, seminars and lectures take place at times spread out during each week of a semester.Blockverantstaltungen or “block seminars” refer to courses where the material is presented all at once, on a weekend or on consecutive days during semester breaks.

Most universities in the world are arranged as relatively closed systems with the various institutes belonging to a university located close to one another. The various components of German universities, however, are often distributed throughout a city, particularly when it comes to very old institutions that have grown little by little over the years.

Credit points
Credit points are referred to as Leistungspunkte in German. They are awarded after fulfilling certain requirements in an academic program, and earning a certain number is generally a requirement for finishing a degree. One credit point corresponds to around 30 working hours.

A clockIt’s important to note whether a course or event starts c.t. or s.t.

c.t. (cum tempore) / s.t. (sine tempore)
These abbreviations are often printed next to course listings and other university events to signify when they start. The abbreviation c.t. means the event begins 15 minutes later than the listed time, while s.t. means the event begins exactly at the printed time. A lecture beginning at 10:00 c.t. begins at 10:15, and a lecture beginning at 8:30 s.t. begins at 8:30 on the dot.

At the beginning of each semester, students must formally reregister at the university. Those who miss the deadline are at risk of being removed from the roster of students (Exmatrikulation) and may have to enroll elsewhere. Upon successfully completing their degrees, students also have to formally give the university notice and are considered exmatrikuliert.

Fachschaft is a student-run organization of people within the same department or major. They organize events, represent student interests within the department and offer those in their first semester help and guidance in navigating their studies.

Fakultät is roughly the same as the English word “faculty.” Most large universities have faculties in the broad divisions of medicine, philosophy and mathematics and science. Those faculties are divided into institutes that deal with narrower topics. In turn, each institute houses a number of professorships called Lehrstühle.

Grundstudium / Hauptstudium
For degree programs like law that have not yet been switched over to the Bachelor and Master system, the curriculum is divided into the Grundstudium and Hauptstudium. The former focuses on the basics of the discipline, while the latter allows students to specialize their studies.

A hand holding booksUniversity groups and cousellors can lend a helping hand to new students

Students from abroad may have particular troubles when navigating their way through the German university system. Aside from difficulties presented by studying in another language, students have a high level of responsibility when it comes to meeting deadlines and organizing their studies in Germany. Financial problems also lead the drop-out rate to be particularly high for foreign students. There are a number of orientation programs and other resources available to help, but students may also want to turn to the university counseling center. There, they can talk confidentially with professional counselors.

Job seekers
For those who are looking for a part-time job alongside their studies, the AStA (see above) offers help finding a position. Firms and even private individuals get in touch with the office if they have both short and long-term positions they’d like to fill. The jobs are then distributed to interested students.

Leistungsnachweis / Schein
Those who have completed a course or other university-sponsored activity are eligible to receive a document confirming they participated, called a Leistungsnachweis or a Schein. The Schein shows the name of the course and the grade or number of credit points received.

Each student receives a Matrikelnummer (matriculation number) upon enrolling. It serves as the student’s identification and appears on countless documents.

The Mensa is the student cafeteria, where students can enjoy hearty meals without spending much money. Most large universities have multiple Mensa locations, and the variety of the meals corresponds to the number of students each location is intended to serve. Small private universities often don’t have their own Mensa.

A module is a series of thematically-related courses that concludes with a single exam. Each course within a module meets for a specified number of hours, known in German asSemesterwochenstunden (SWS). The phrase “2 SWS” signifies that the course meets for two 45-minute or hour-long segments each week, or around 30 hours for the entire semester. Completion of a degree often requires completion of a specific number of Semesterwochenstunden.

A pile of formsBe sure not to miss the registration deadlines

Students who wish to continue their studies after the first semester must reregister in each following semester. Usually paying the tuition and other fees is considered sufficient for reregistration. But those who miss the deadline risk being removed from the student roster.

The Rigorosum is the oral exam that accompanies the completion of a doctoral thesis. It’s a prerequisite for receiving a doctorate.

Schwarze Bretter
Even in the age of Facebook and Web 2.0, universities still house a number of Schwarze Bretter – large bulletin boards where students can put up ads about vacant apartments, books to sell, club meetings and so forth.

The year is divided into two semesters at German universities. The summer semester runs from April to September, and the winter semester from October through March.

Semester ticket
Students receive a semester ticket that allows them to use all means of local public transportation at inexpensive rates. The fee for the semester ticket is paid with any tuition fees that may apply. However, not all universities offer the ticket.

Seminars differ from lectures in that the teacher doesn’t use the majority of the time to speak. Instead, students actively shape the discussion by presenting papers, questions and opinions during each class. Seminars are generally limited to a small number of participants to enable everyone to take part in the discussion.

Being physically active is an important complement to education. That’s a fact that nearly all universities and colleges in Germany have recognized, and opportunities to take part in courses and sports associations abound. Offerings in everything from yoga to soccer can be found on university homepages.

The Registrar’s Office is known in Germany as the Studierendensekretariat. That’s where students can get all the necessary forms and information relating to applying, enrolling, reregistering and concluding one’s studies at the university. The admissions requirements for specific programs can also be obtained at the Studierendensekretariat. It is the administrative center of the university and is often one of the first offices students will encounter.

Student ID cardStudent ID cards differ from university to university, but be sure to hold on to them

Every student receives a Studentenausweis (student ID card) showing that he or she is enrolled at a given university for a given semester. The ID card is good to hold on to at all times, since it can be used for discounts at theaters, museums, concerts and more.

Some courses are accompanied by a tutorial section known as aTutorium. There, the course content may be reviewed or discussed in greater detail. Students take advantage of tutorials particularly in subjects like law that involve difficult concepts. The teachers in tutorial sections are generally doctoral students in the field or students who have recently graduated or will soon complete their studies.

Each large university has its own library known as the Unibibliothek (UB). It’s common for teachers and professors to request that a selection of books be set aside for their students so that the books are easier to find. Many university libraries are now networked with each other. So if a book doesn’t appear in the catalogue of a student’s home university, then it can be ordered from another library’s collection and promptly delivered.

Lectures are referred to as Vorlesungen. Generally, lectures in Germany are not limited to any specific amount of students. As such, they are often very full and may draw several hundred students. In lectures, professors speak about a specific topic, while students take notes and may ask questions.

vorlesungsfreie Zeit
Breaks between semesters are called vorlesungsfreie Zeit (literally, lecture-free period). But just because lectures don’t meet doesn’t mean the students are off the hook. Most use the time to catch up on papers and exams, while some complete internships required for their degree or attend block courses.

The university course schedule is called the Vorlesungsverzeichnis and lists the topic, time and place for each course or event as well as the teacher and the hours it’s worth. The Vorlesungsverzeichnis is generally accessible online to students and non-students alike. Individual departments typically publish a more detailed course schedule with longer descriptions about course content, limitations on the number of participants and prerequisites to enroll.

Who’s who at school?
The rector is at the very top of the university hierarchy, followed by the chancellor, who oversees the institution’s administration and financial affairs. Each faculty also has a chairperson responsible for administration in the department and representing the other faculty members. Professors within university institutes handle teaching and research of a specific subject. There’s a distinction between professors and docents in German universities, though, with the latter generally having completed a doctorate or even post-doctoral research projects but not yet having been conferred a formal professorship at the university. Docents offer seminars and lectures.

Students will also encounter wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter (research assistants), who are either earning or who have completed their doctorates and are assigned to work with a specific professor.Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter may assist with research, teaching or both. Finally, students nearing completion of their undergraduate studies may also find positions as assistants to professors. They take on assignments from the professors and wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter and may serve as tutors.

Author: Gaby Reucher / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen,,6379030,00.html

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