Higher Education Admission in Germany

University entrance qualification
Students wishing to attend a German Universität must, as a rule, hold the Abitur or a subject-restricted qualification for university entrance (Fachgebundene Hochschulreife). For Fachhochschulen, the Abitur, the Fachgebundene Hochschulreife certification or the Fachhochschulreife certification (general or subject-restricted) is required.

Lacking these school leaving certifications, in some states potential students can qualify for university entrance if they present additional formal proof that they will be able to keep up with their fellow students. This may take the form of a test of cognitive functioning or passing the Begabtenprüfung ("aptitude test", consisting of a written and oral exam). In some cases, students who do not hold the Abitur may enter university even if they do not pass the aptitude or cognitive functioning tests if they 1) have received previous vocational training, and 2) have worked at least three years and passed the Eingangsprüfung (entrance exam). Such is the case, for example, in Hamburg.

While there are numerous ways to achieve entrance qualification to German universities, the most traditional route has always been graduation from a Gymnasium with the Abitur; however this has become less common over time. As of 2008, less than half of university freshmen in some German states had graduated from a Gymnasium. Even in Bavaria (a state with a policy of strengthening the Gymnasium) only 56 percent of freshmen had graduated from a Gymnasium. The rest were awarded the Abitur from another type of school or did not hold the Abitur certification at all.

High school diplomas received from countries outside of Germany are, in many cases, not considered equivalent to the Abitur, but rather to a Realschulabschluss and therefore do not qualify the bearer for admission to a German university. However, it is still possible for such applicants to be admitted to a German university if they fulfill additional formal criteria, such as a particular grade point average or points on a standardized admissions test. These criteria depend on the school leaving certificate of the potential student and are agreed upon by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs. For example, holders of the US high school diploma with a combined math and verbal score of 1300 on the SAT or 29 on the ACT may qualify for university admission.

Foreign students lacking the entrance qualification can acquire a degree at a Studienkolleg, which is often recognized as an equivalent to the Abitur. The one-year course covers similar topics as the Abitur and ensures sufficient language skills to take up studies at a German university.

Admissions procedure
The process of application depends on the degree program applied for, the applicant's origin and the university entrance qualification. Generally, all programs of study follow one of three admissions procedures.

Free admissions: Every applicant who fulfills the university entrance qualification will be admitted. This is usually practiced in subjects in which many students quit their studies, e.g., mathematics, physics or engineering. Sometimes, the number of students who fail a course can be as high as 94 percent in these programs.

Local admission restrictions: For degree programs where only a limited number of places are available (numerus clausus, often abbreviated NC), criteria by which applications will be evaluated differ from university to university and from program to program. Commonly used criteria include the final grade of the university entrance qualification (which takes into account the grades of the final exams as well as course grades), a weighted grade point average which increases the weight of relevant school subjects, interviews, motivational letters, letters of recommendation by previous professors, essays, relevant practical experience, and subject-specific entrance exams. Such restrictions are increasingly common at German universities.

Nationwide admission restrictions: In the subjects medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, and pharmacy, a nationwide numerus clausus is in place. In these subjects, applications of Germans and foreigners who are legally treated like Germans (e.g., EU citizens) are handled centrally for all universities by a public trust (Stiftung für Hochschulzulassung). The following quotas are applied in this procedure:

20 percent of available admission slots are admitted by the final grade of the university entrance qualification
20 percent of slots are granted to students who have the highest number of so-called waiting semesters in which they were not enrolled at university
60 percent of slots are awarded by criteria at the university's discretion. Criteria universities commonly apply are: 1) final grade of the university entrance qualification (used most often), 2) interviews, 3) essays or motivational letters, and 4) entrance exams.
some additional slots are reserved for special cases and do not count into the previous three quotas: For example, up to 2 percent of slots can be so called hardship cases (Härtefälle), which are granted preferential admission. An applicant may be counted as a hardship case only if there are exceptional circumstances making it impossible for the applicant to wait even a single semester for a place at university, e.g., because of a progressing disease.
According to German law, universities are not permitted to discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to persons on basis of race, ethnic group, gender, social class, religion or political opinion.