School systems can differ drastically between different countries, but you might not often be aware of how many differences there can actually be. As I have had the privilege of going to school in more than one country, I thought it would be an interesting post to compare my experience of the two different types of schools and just how many differences there are. So here is a list of 25 differences between German and American High Schools.
Of course there are also lots of differences between the schools in different counties or states within a certain country and I certainly can’t speak for that.
Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that this post is mostly based on my own personal experiences, studying in Baden-Württemberg, Germany and Ooltewah, Tennessee. Of course, these points will probably not apply to all schools out there and some things might be different.
Also, when I refer to German High School I am referring to the highest level: “Gymnasium.” I am also referring only to public schools in both cases, as I don’t have any experience with private schools in neither of these countries.
So now that all these disclaimers are out of the way, let’s get started with the actual post!
1. School System in the US vs. Germany
First of all, let’s talk about the school system itself. Because they are just completely different.
Let’s start with the USA. There is Elementary School, Middle School and of course High School. Elementary School is up to 5th grade, then Middle School from 6th to 8th grade, and then the last four years you will spend in High School. Other than that, there are no separations (other than maybe public and private school) and students of all levels will go to the same schools.
In Germany on the other hand, the school system is a little different. You first start off with elementary school, which is pretty similar and will last from 1st to 4th grade. In the end, you will get an evaluation from your teacher to see which level of school you will attend after that. There are 3 different ones. The highest level is called “Gymnasium”, which will last until 12th grade and after that you can study at a university.
The second school type is called “Realschule”, which will last from 5th to 10th grade. After that you can add on some more education to get the same qualification as the Gymnasium students to study, but usually graduates from the Realschule will start doing a vocational training.
And then, lastly, there is “Hauptschule”. It will last from 5th to 9th grade and is the lowest level out of the three. Then there are some additional schools like “Gesamtschule” which is for students of all levels but the are three school types are much more common.
2. Choosing Subjects
In the US you have a lot more freedom when choosing your classes. Also there are a lot of classes that are a lot more fun. When I was in the US, I had classes such as Interior Design or Sports Marketing.
In Germany you don’t have any say in what classes you will take until around the last two years (Only some minimal choices like in my school you had to choose between French, Old Greek and natural sciences in grade 8). Everyone has to take the same subjects like Maths, Physics, Chemistry etc.
Only in the last two years I got to decide which one’s I wanted to take for more hours and choose between a few electives to add to the schedule. (And I got to get rid of Physics, which is the most important part overall).
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3. High School Dress Code
German schools don’t have a dress code or uniforms. You can wear whatever you want to school. Some girls in my school even came in high heels.
Now moving on to US schools, I am aware that there are huge differences in dress codes or what people can wear. Some people I know who went to school in different states said that they could wear whatever they wanted as long as shorts/skirts have a minimum length.
My school, on the other hand, had a dress code. That one was khaki or navy pants with polo shirts in either white, grey, red or navy (The school colours were red and white). And also no handbags allowed, just backpacks.
4. High School Class Schedule
In the US you have the same schedule for every day of the week. The schedule will usually change every semester.
In Germany, you will have the same schedule, only for the same day of the week. Therefore, you will have a lot more subjects in a year, you just don’t take them every single day.
5. Extracurricular Activities
In Germany, extracurricular activities and school are separated. So usually if you are doing sports or play music after school, you will do so with people from all sorts of schools instead of the people you go to school with. There is no connection between school and your sports clubs.
Other than one gym hall maybe for P.E. class, there won’t be any sport equipments or places for sport activities in school. There are sometimes a few exceptions of course. My school had one dancing group that was only for younger kids though, and I was a member of the chess club once when I was like 8, that met once a week before school.
In the US on the other hand, I’m sure we are all aware of the fact that sports and extracurricular activities play an important part in the American school life.
There will be a football field, basketball courts, baseball fields and even wrestling rooms on the school campus. And much more. I was a member of the swim team, which met every day after school.
6. Learning Foreign Languages in American and German schools
In German schools learning English is mandatory. You usually start with that around 3rd grade. Then in 5th grade (at least in the higher level schools) you will get a second language, usually Latin or French or both. And then it depends on the school what other languages they teach. My school also had Old Greek (which I did not take).
American schools do have foreign language elective classes like Spanish or German but they are not mandatory. Therefore, most people only speak one language unless they speak a different language other than English at home. This is kind of sad but there are no mandatory language requirements.
But it’s never too late to learn a new language! Italki is a great resource for language learning as you can speak with a bunch of native speakers! 🙂
7. Missing Classes
If you miss a class in Germany, you usually just need to get a paper signed by your parents that says that you were sick. Or get a paper from the doctor if you are sick for a longer period of time. As soon as you are 18 you can sign your own papers.
In US schools (well at least in my school) there were 5 days in total per semester that everyone was allowed to miss for whatever reason. Then, when you missed an additional day you have to do detention for every day that you miss. Like what, seriously?
I had been away on an exchange student trip to California for five days and I was actually sick on one additional day. So I had to do detention for that additional day, how does that make sense? What happens if you are sick for a few weeks?
Anyway, this still confuses me. I hope it isn’t like that in all American schools. Let me know how it was like in yours please.
8. Police Presence
In the US it is normal that there are police officers and security guards at the school. At my school there were some near the entrance. In Germany, there are definitely no police officers in the school and also not needed.
In the US, people have lunch at the cafeteria at the same time every day. The lunch options were pretty unhealthy, including fries, grilled cheese sandwiches or pizza with ranch (That was back in 2011, I hope they made some changes since then).
In German schools there usually is a cafeteria but you maybe only eat there when you are in like 5th or 6th grade. Usually, students just walk to the nearest bakery or kebab place or supermarket to get lunch. Or even to the German Christmas market when it is that time of the year. You also don’t have the same lunch break every day. Sometimes you have 3 hours in between classes or sometimes you already finish school at 1pm and don’t need a lunch break.
10. The Class Rooms
In the US, the teachers have their own classroom and students will move around. In Germany, students will have their own classroom and the teachers will have to switch classrooms instead.
Also read: 30 Things to Know Before Travelling to Germany!
11. Students of Different Ages
So like I mentioned earlier, German higher schools start at 5th grade when people are like 10 years old so there are a bunch of different people at a school from usually like 10 to 18 years old. But then again, you only ever have classes with students from your grade. You don’t really have anything to do with kids in higher or lower grades.
In American High School you might only have students from around 15 to 18 years old. But classes are so mixed that sometimes you will have sophomores (10th grade) and seniors (12th grade) in the same class which was really weird to me at first.
There are also classes that are specifically for students of one grade like “English 11” or something like that. But in general, most classes just have students of all different grades and ages in it.
12. Transportation to School
Of course in the US, people usually drive to school by car or some take the school bus as well. (I have been told that taking the school bus is not a cool thing at all but coming from Europe school busses always seemed to be the coolest thing ever).
In Germany people either walk or bike or take public transportation. Instead of walking to the parking lot after school, people might walk to the tram stop together.
13. The American vs. German Grading System
The American grading system ranges from A to F. With A being the best score and F being a fail.
German grades are a little different. From 1st to 10th grade the grading system ranges from 1 to 6. 1 is the best and 6 a fail. Then there are also grades just as 1-, 2-3 or 4+ etc., similar to A-, B+ etc.
In the last two grades, you have a different grading system ranging from 1 to 15. In this case 15 is the best grade and 1 a fail. 14 is kind of equal to a 1. A 11 equal to a 2 and so on.
14. Start and Finish Times
US school starts and ends at the same time every day. It is probably different for different schools but my school always started at 7:15am and lasted until 2:15pm.
Because of the different schedule of German schools, they usually start and end at different times every day for different students. But even so, my school would never start earlier than 7:45am but would sometimes last until 5:30pm and then another day just until 1pm.
15. College Fairs
In US schools they seemed to be doing a lot to prepare students before going off to college. They had college fairs or there are tests such as the SAT’s that you have to take. German schools don’t really give you any information on universities or seem to prepare you for life after school at all.
Of course, the actual holidays will differ based on the states and counties. But in general, in the USA you have a long holiday in the summer for a couple of months and then less days off throughout the year. You might have Spring break or a Christmas break but the main holiday is in the summer.
In Germany, the summer holiday is shorter, usually six weeks. But therefore, students in Germany will get more time off throughout the year. There is Christmas, Fall Break, Easter Break, Spring Break etc.)
17. School Clothing Items
US schools have a lot of school clothing, like shirts, hoodies or other clothing item with the name of the school on it. German schools don’t really have that. They might have one shirt with the school name on it but nobody would voluntarily wear that. School spirit is not really a thing.
18. Taking Exams in German vs. American High Schools
In the United States it was common to have open book exams and exams with multiple choice questions. That probably would never happen at a German High School. At least not in the higher schools.
Therefore, when I once had an exam in the US where the teacher said we could use our book, I thought that was a joke which it wasn’t.
19. Toilet Pass
In US schools you need to get a Toilet Pass from a teacher if you want to go to the bathroom during class. In Germany you still need to ask permission usually when you want to go to the bathroom during class but you definitely don’t need to have a toilet pass.
20. Mascots and School Colours
In American schools you will have school colours and a mascot which contributes to that whole school spirit. It is pretty great!
My school had an owl as a mascot and the school colours were white and red.
German schools don’t have that and they have no school spirit which is really sad.
21. Getting to Know People at High School
Like mentioned in a part above, in US schools you often have classes with students of different ages so you kind of know more people in the whole school. But you don’t really know them well.
In German schools you just have your class of like 30 people that you have lessons with and that’s that. Only in the last two grades where you can choose a little which classes you want to go in depth in you will mix with the other students from your grade.
So while in German schools you don’t know that many people you know people that you do know way better if that makes sense.
That made school to me a lot less uncomfortable to be honest because in the States I was so anxious always starting a new class with a bunch of strangers were I knew nobody.
22. Private and Public Schools
This point might be a little bit influenced by my own opinion rather than a fact so you might disagree on that one.
In the US I feel like going to private school is a good thing if you can afford it as you get better education.
But I then I wouldn’t know I have never been to any private school.
In Germany private schools for me just have the reputation that you get good grades for not knowing as much so that’s where you go if you wouldn’t do well enough at public school. They don’t have a good reputation for me.
23. Honours classes
Because in German schools you already separate students based on their grades at the age of 10, everyone at the same school will study the same content.
But in American high schools, students from all ages are in the same school so therefore there are some options to take easier or more difficult classes.
There are honours classes which can allow you to graduate honours.
At least that’s how it was like at my school. There were classes like “English 10” or “Honours English 10” etc.
My school had made me take English 10 and they made me take a test about grammar!!! Like insert was/were etc. And that test was for everybody!! And they spoke English, as a first language!! People were taking a grammar test in their own language!! I’m still hoping that was a joke up to this day.
Then in the second semester I took “Honours English 11” which was a bit more normal. We were analysing literature so a bit more what I would expect in an English class.
24. Graduation Gown
In the US, graduation is a big deal and everybody wears graduation gowns and hats. In Germany you just wear whatever you want, pick up your diploma and bye.
Also (and this is just my personal observation) in the US it felt like graduating High School is something special like it is a big achievement. In Germany I feel like it is just something necessary to go to university but it’s not like a big achievement.
25. Teacher Relationship
In Germany the relationship between teachers and students is pretty formal. I didn’t even know the first name of most of my teachers. In the US this can be the same for some teachers but some other teachers would have a less formal relationship with their students.
Especially since some teachers were also coaching the sports teams. Some teachers would also share some stories about the personal life which I didn’t think was appropriate but in general it is a little more casual.
One of my teachers constantly talked about the handbags she bought and how she went to Las Vegas with her friends and kept showing us pictures of her dogs. (The dogs were cute but still a little weird to share that with your students).
Bonus: The size of the paper is different in Germany and in the US
Now this one is pretty insignificant but the size of the paper is different in the two countries. In Germany the international standard DINA4 is used. Whereas in the US they use their own paper size. Therefore, your American paper won’t fit in your German folder and the other way around.
Another bonus: Student take notes differently
Don’t take this one too serious, it’s only based on personal observation but either way it is not really significant. But in the US most people take notes with a pencil whereas in Germany you will always use a pen. Also, at German High Schools its is way more common to bring a lot of colourful pencils and make your notes look pretty whereas in the US that was not as common.
Which school system do I prefer? Is the German or the American School System better?
Now, this is a difficult question. I have to say that there are some things that I liked and disliked about schools in both countries.
School in the US is definitely a lot easier, I barely ever had to study and I loved the school spirit and the facts that there are so many extracurricular activities. US school definitely was a lot more enjoyable. I liked having a dress code because it saved me so much time in figuring out what to wear.
But overall, I didn’t always feel to comfortable in school but maybe it was just the fact that I didn’t know many people. I didn’t like all the security and the facts that you can’t even walk along the hallway during lunch. There was just a lot less freedom than in Germany.
In Germany, we would walk to the city centre to eat during our breaks or I would go home often in between if I had two hours off. There are no security guards and even when you are like 8 you can walk to school by yourself, whereas in the US everything was so much more monitored.
The subjects in the American school where a lot more fun but I don’t really think I learned much. I don’t like the fact that people could have a better GPA than others by just taking easier classes.
But to conclude this post, I am really happy I got to experience school life in both of these countries. Even though it has been many many years ago.
And these were 25 differences between American and German high schools! Would love to hear your experiences and thoughts in the comments!
Talk to you later x
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