Cease & Uni-Desist: Apply to University in Germany

It’s getting towards that time of year again where students everywhere are contemplating applying to Masters programmes in a desperate bid to avoid getting a job. I can sympathise because in 2012, when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in London and getting exactly zero interest in my CV which was a memorandum of a youth pulling pints and preventing people from drowning (I was a lifeguard for a long time), I was doing exactly the same. Things are tough right now for people finishing at university, and as such, I thought I would offer my insider advice on applying to, getting accepted and graduating from Berlin universities.

I’m a Brit, and we Brits are unlucky enough to have a government keen to extract every possible penny from my generation (I owe them ~30,000GBP) and a Masters degree would have set me back another 10,000GBP that I didn’t have, so I started to look at my options. Between pulling pints for perpetuity or pursuing a career as a professional job-applier, I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with exciting prospects in London. So like you, (you’re reading Berlin Logs, I assume you’re foreign too) I asked myself why I didn’t look abroad. And by abroad, obviously, I mean in Berlin.

And the wonder of this plan, of course, is that it has that veneer of respectability about it. It isn’t like you’re moving to Berlin to just bum around, no! You’re a graduate student – that’s the kind of thing your Mum can tell her friends, bonus. So, my bright eyed, bushy tailed Berlin virgin, how, I hear you ask, does one get into a Masters programme in Berlin? The answer is: with difficulty. If you already live in Berlin, you already know how brain-meltingly incomprehensible German bureaucracy is to a foreigner, but if you’re not, and you’re thinking of applying, you’re about to learn.

First things first. There is not a plethora of Masters programmes offering in English at Berlin universities (caveat here: if you are well-endowed both with money and a lack of sense, there are plenty of private places willing to take your cash in exchange for a degree of dubious value). Public universities in Germany are, rightly, catering to German students, so English-language programmes are few and far between – but they do exist. And for a Brit used to education at eye-watering prices, the wonderful free German universities are like a balm for a stressed out new graduate. So your first job is to find a programme you fancy (I found the Masters Portal really helpful) and then go through the entry requirement with the finest of fine toothed combs.

Here is your first potential stumbling block: Germans take their entry requirements really, really seriously. Now, in most countries a person in possession of an undergraduate degree in anything humanities-y can apply to a grad programme in more or less anything (scientists, I know nothing of your struggle) – this is not how we play ball in Germany. In Germany, most programmes are designed to build on your undergraduate degree (because the Bologna Process is mostly a myth here) and as such, if you want to do a Masters in International Relations, you’re almost certain to need at least some modules in IR on your undergraduate transcript.

Then comes the real fun. Enter: Uni Assist.

Uni Assist is among the least accurately named organisations I have ever had the misfortune to deal with. It would be lazy to describe it as a Kafkaesque nightmare, but the again I’m going to because I’m still knackered from dealing with them three years ago, so: It’s a Kafkaesque nightmare.
Now, to what extent this is Uni Assist’s fault, and to what extent I should be blaming the universities themselves, it’s hard to tell. But if I were a betting woman, my money would be on Uni Assist. Their role in this process is to ready foreign students (and German students with foreign
degrees) for submission to the various admissions departments.

This is the part of the process where what you want is a real-life German to help you, there are lots in Berlin (although fewer than you might think) so if you’re here and you know one – offer them beer and get them onboard. If not, commiserations, your life is about to get worse. What follows is inexplicable, but I’ll do my best. You’re going to need your secondary school leaving certificates (originals, naturally) notarised, as well as your degree certificates in the same state. Usually, Uni Assist will only accept documents in German or English, so if you’re unfortunate enough to have documents in other languages you’re also going to need a sworn translation of every single piece of paper. Also, you’re going to need two or three passport pictures, a CV, a letter of motivation and whatever else your university might need to assess your suitability. With me so far (and out of pocket to the tune of 100EUR just to get hold of all this paper)? Good. Next you have to submit that online (another 75EUR) and then make copies of everything and submit that too. Via post.
My absolute favourite part of this whole rigmarole though, and I’m taking this verbatim from the website, is this:

“If you are asked for your grade on the application form, please provide your foreign grade as stated on your certificate. The conversion of your average grade via the German grading system will not be carried out until uni-assist actually processes your application – therefore you cannot know what this German grade will be when you submit your application form and so do not have to enter it.”

Yep. You will have no idea whether your degree actually meets the standards required to be admitted to the degree in the first place. Kafkaesque, oder?

Now, I went through this special hell a while ago (complete with letters getting stuck in Frankfurt, documents being wrong and missing signatures all over the show) and was told that they were unable to forward my application to my preferred university. I was furious. I knew I was right for the programme and I was desperate to get in. So, here’s my super insider tip for this end-of-the-world scenario.

Uni Assist’s job is to provide a pre-screen of your documents before they reach the admissions office. As such, Uni Assist’s refusal to forward your documents is not the same as being rejected by the university. If, like me, you get a letter saying that your application won’t be forwarded to the university, and you act quickly, you can fix it. You have 14 days to make a complaint (and another, yes, two complaints) to Uni Assist and ask them to forward your documents to the university regardless. In the end, that’s how I got my documents on the admission tutor’s desk.
Next time: What to do once you get in.

By Sarah Coughlan
Sarah Coughlan is a Berlin-based British writer, proofreader, editor and book reader. She has lived in Berlin for around three years. You can find her at: www.bulletproofed.org where she hides her academic proofreading business.

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