Campus & Student Life
CBS International Business School, 3 June 2024

A Guide to the German School & Education System


When living in Germany, you can expect to receive a very high-quality education from all of our institutions. This is because the German education system is very organised, accessible and focussed on creating high-performing students.

Not only do German students benefit from our high standards of education, but thousands of international students visit every year to study in Germany at German universities.

In this guide, we’ll give you an overview of how the German education system works and how it’s organised so that you can compare it to the education system in your country.

Table of Contents: 

Why is German education so good?

The German education system is considered to be very good because it’s well-organised, and easily accessible to students at all levels. Germany is often found ranked in the top 10 countries for education.

How does education in Germany work?

Education in Germany is based on a class system where all students are divided into 3 different ‘tracks’:

  • Gymnasium - for advanced students who plan to go to University

  • Realschule - for students who plan to work blue-collar jobs, or learn a trade

  • Hauptschule - for students who plan to work lower blue-collar jobs and trades

Students in the German school system will normally be put onto a specific track by the time they are 10-years old. Even if a student is put on a particular track, it is quite easy to switch tracks if necessary later on.

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How many days a week do German students go to school?

German students study at school 5 days a week, from Monday to Friday.

Lessons for students will usually start from 8.00 am, which may seem early, but they get to finish at around 1.00-2.00pm. Some older students may finish later depending on their school, but the latest school finish time is around 4.00 pm.

Each class at school runs for up to 50 minutes and there are small breaks between classes where students are able to socialise.

What’s the structure of the German school system?

The German school system starts with Grundschule, which is the German equivalent of primary school. Grundschule runs for four years and is for students aged 6 to 10 (although some primary schools may run for 6 years).

After completing primary school, students will move onto secondary school, or high school in Germany. There are 4 different types of secondary schools, that can vary depending on the state of Germany you’re in:

  • Gymnasium

  • Realschule

  • Hauptschule

  • Gesamtschule

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Gymnasium is a school that prepares students for a university education and is targeted towards more academically gifted students.

Students in Gymnasium will study a range of topics, but there will be a heavy focus on languages, maths and sciences. There’s also the option to take advanced courses.


Realschule is the most popular type of school and is attended by 40% of students in Germany. 

Even though this school is a step below Gymnasium, it still has very high academic standards and has a strong focus on students learning languages.


The Hauptschule is a school that does not have such high academic standards, and is more suitable for students who want to learn a trade or pursue an apprenticeship. 

A lot of the students who attend Hauptschule work part-time as an apprentice alongside their studies.


In some German states there are integrated schools, known as Gesamtschules, which are a mixture of the 3 types of school we’ve already covered. 

In Gesamtschule, students can switch between the different schools depending on their performance and preferences. 

Once they get to the end of year 10 they can either leave with a Hauptschulabschlus diploma or stay on for another 3 years to take the Abitur and get a place at university.

What is compulsory education in Germany?

Primary and secondary education is compulsory in Germany, this covers students aged 6 to 15-years old. 

Even though students are allowed to finish school at 15, the majority choose to stay on until they’re 18.

How does the higher education system work in Germany?

After students in Germany finish their secondary education, they can choose to apply to a University.

In Germany there are different types of higher education institutions like universities, colleges, vocational academies - and more! The umbrella term that encompasses all of these institutions is Hochschule.

Students do get a choice of what University they want to attend, but this decision may also be determined by the grades they achieved in their previous education.

Universities in Germany can be privately or publicly owned, and to get a place students must submit an application form directly to the University they want to attend.

What are the different types of German universities?

Here are some of the most common types of university in Germany:

  • General Universities (Universitäten)

  • Technical Colleges (technische Hochschulen/technische Universitäten)

  • Pedagogic Colleges (Pädagogische Hochschulen)

  • Universities of Applied Sciences (Fachhochschulen)

  • Dual Universities (Berufsakademie)

General Universities

General universities teach courses that are very academic and research-focussed across a large range of topics. 

Many general universities will specialise in a specific subject area, the 2 main types are Technical colleges (technische Hochschulen/technische Universitäten) and Pedagogic colleges (Pädagogische Hochschulen).

Universities of Applied Sciences

Universities of Applied Sciences offer programmes that are more practical and hands-on. The focus for these universities is to prepare students for the labour market, so programmes will often include mandatory work placements.

Common subjects taught at Universities of Applied Sciences include technology, economics, social work and medicine.

Dual Universities

Dual Universities offer study programmes that combine academic training with professional experience. These programmes focus on practical learning to prepare students for work after graduation, and usually focus on subjects such as engineering and economics.

Check out our undergraduate degrees 

Check out our graduate degrees

State and private universities in Germany 

The majority of German universities are run by the state, but there are more than 120 private universities too - most of these are Universities of Applied Sciences.

Although the fees at a state university may be lower, there are a lot of benefits to attending a private university like CBS. These benefits can include:

  • More focus on your career

  • More practical study content so that you can learn by doing

  • Smaller group sizes

  • Emphasis on internationality 

What qualifications can you get in the German higher education system?

Bachelor's degree

A Bachelor's degree is what students will go for after finishing their secondary education. German students will choose a specific subject they want to study over a total of six to eight semesters.

Sometimes students are able to choose 2 subjects they want to study, or they can choose a major and a minor - but this can change depending on the university they’re attending.

There are different types of Bachelor’s degrees depending on the subject you choose. They can either be a BA (Bachelor of Arts), BSc (Bachelor of Science) or a BEng (Bachelor of Engineering). 

At CBS, the majority of our courses are BA’s that are taught in English and German.

You can find out about the different Bachelor’s courses we offer here

Master's degree

A Master’s degree is a degree that students in Germany can choose to do after completing their Bachelor’s degree - having a Bachelor’s degree is usually a prerequisite to being accepted onto a Master’s programme.

A Master’s degree allows students to deepen and expand the knowledge that they learned in their Bachelor’s degree. 

At CBS we offer a range of MA and MSc Master’s courses that are taught in German and English. If you want to find out more about the Master’s programmes that we offer.

Visit our Master’s page for an overview

PhD Degree

After finishing a Master’s programme, students in Germany can then go on to study a PhD degree, which are offered by a lot of German universities.

PhD degrees take around 3-4 years to complete, with academic years that run from October to September. 

What languages do German universities study in?

There are more than 400 universities in Germany, some offer only German programmes and some offer only English programmes - and of course, there are some Universities, like CBS, that offer a mixture of both.

At CBS a lot of our courses are taught in English and German.

Find out more about all of the courses that we offer at CBS

Grading system in German universities 

The German grading system is a point-based system that ranges from 1 to 5. The highest grade you can get is a 1, and the lowest grade is a 5.

Here’s what each of the points in the German grading system means:

  • 1 to 1.5: Excellent

  • 1.6 to 2.5: Very good, but there is room for improvement

  • 2.6 to 3.5: Good, but there’s a lot of room for improvement

  • 3.6 to 4: Sufficient to pass, but a very poor grade

  • 4.1 to 5: Fail,  you didn’t meet the minimum points needed to pass

At CBS, we use a 1-100 grading system for exams, but at the end of the year, you’ll receive a certificate that uses the 1-5 grading point system above.

Check out our undergraduate degrees 

Check out our graduate degrees

How do German grades compare to British and American grades?

The German grading system is quite different from the grading systems in Britain and America, but it’s easy to convert your grades.

If you’re applying to German Universities, your grades will be assessed on the German equivalent of your grades so it’s important to know how they may be converted.

Here’s a table that shows how British and American grades compare to the German grading system:


What are ECTS grades? 

ECTS stands for European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System and is the common grading system used to exchange grades between EU countries.

The ECTS system assumes that 60 ECTS credits are equal to the workload of a full-time university student during 1 academic year. This means that 1 ECTS credit is 25-30 study hours.

The ECTS credits system is good for students wanting to study abroad as they can easily transfer their grades between EU countries, even if the national grading systems in their countries are different. It’s also a good system for Universities as they can easily assess and compare student’s scores.

Here’s a table that shows how ECTS grades compare to the German grading system:


Admission requirements for the German higher education system 

The admissions requirements for German universities will vary as most universities have their own application process and entry requirements.

Here are the general things that may be required of you when applying to a German university:

  • Evidence of qualifications that are recognised by your chosen University

  • Take an entrance exam

  • Show proof of language proficiency of the language you plan to study in

  • Provide University application documents like an application form, academic certificates, copy of a valid passport etc.

For more detailed information on the requirements you need to meet in order to study at a German university, you can visit our ‘How to study in Germany’ page.

University selection process 

To get selected for certain university programs in Germany, you need to achieve what's called the Numerus Clausus (NC). It's essentially a fixed number of spots available for a specific program, and admission is based on your grades. Those with the highest grades get accepted until all spots are filled. 

However, at CBS, we offer both bachelor's and master's degrees without the need for Numerus Clausus (NC).

Check out our NC free bachelor and master study programmes.


As you can probably tell, choosing to study in Germany as an international student is a great idea. The German education system is one of the best in the world so you can be sure that you’re going to get the best education possible.

If you’d like to read more about the German education system or study at CBS as an international student, you can visit more of our pages:

You can also find more information about the courses we offer at CBS by visiting our undergraduate courses and postgraduate courses pages.

If you need more help choosing a course or applying to CBS, you can schedule an appointment with one of our helpful student advisors, or attend one of our virtual info sessions.

Here are 22 tips for living in Germany as an international students

CBS International Business School

CBS International Business School is a state-recognised private university of applied sciences for business. We offer accredited Bachelor's, Master's and MBA degree programmes in German and English on a full-time or part-time basis. Throughout Germany, the university is represented at three locations in Cologne, Mainz, and Potsdam.

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