Looking at advantages of German universities

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When I came to America from RWTH Aachen University in Germany for a year abroad, most of my expectations for Carnegie Mellon were met. I was amazed by how much time and effort Carnegie Mellon put into organizing events for incoming students and introducing them to their new environment. After the first two years in Germany, where I felt like one out of many, the warm welcome at Carnegie Mellon was a nice change. However, as the semester progressed, I got a more realistic image of what studying in America was really like and I realized that there is also room to improve here. Away from home, I recognized the strengths of my home university.

In America, I started to appreciate the freedom that every student is given at RWTH Aachen University. While it is true that in Germany problem sets come up each week, and it is a good idea to do work during the semester, you can decide to what extent you want to study the material. Since your grade does not depend on submitted homework, it is less likely to see students staying up all night to finish problem sets. That makes it more likely for people to appreciate the world outside of the university, since they have more time to do so. In Germany, it is more likely for people to join clubs that are not affiliated with the university.

Furthermore, a day off at RWTH makes one feel less guilty because there are no immediate consequences of unfinished work. Having the discipline to catch up on material that one has not yet understood is crucial to succeeding in the German system. With one year of Carnegie Mellon experience under my belt, comprehensive final exams worth 100 percent of course grades will not scare me much anymore. The stress at RWTH University during the semester is not as immediate as in America. Carnegie Mellon has made me familiar with what stress really means.

While I appreciate the campus culture at Carnegie Mellon, it is amazing how much time students spend on campus daily. Unsurprisingly, one day a friend’s smartphone attempted to relocate his home address to 5000 Forbes Ave.

Working in a university environment and being around people with similar passions foster ideas. Yet, this constant proximity to peers contributes to the much-quoted stress culture at Carnegie Mellon. It might sound simplistic, but leaving campus can make one understand that there is more out there than grades and research success.

That said, I admire how much Carnegie Mellon is already doing to relieve the pressure. Skiing and paintball trips help, but at the end of the day, students often do not take advantage of those offers; work piles up too quickly.

While in America, a valuable skill I was taught at home also became apparent: self-motivation. The professors who I started my academic career with never gave many instructions. Offering the resources for students to succeed in their studies, professors at RWTH did not interfere much in learning course material. Especially for first-year students, this freedom feels unnatural. However, being thrown in at the deep end teaches students how to overcome obstacles. For many students, this freedom coincides with them leaving their parents’ house, causing adult life to start very abruptly.

Carnegie Mellon follows quite a different paradigm. Giving more guidelines on how to attack problems, professors demand more work. I was irritated when a professor banned collaboration on certain problem sets. While the benefit of specified collaboration was apparent to me, I saw this practice impinging on my freedom. From my current standpoint, the German system is less protective and wants its students to learn what works by themselves. Undoubtedly, university graduates will be asked open-ended questions in their professional lives. Being self-sufficient will then be invaluable.

Another interesting difference between RWTH and Carnegie Mellon is grading. Today, I know that the grading system back home is hard but fair. In Aachen, I often complained about how hard it was to get an A. As I hoped to finally see better test grades, I was looking forward to my exchange year in America. In Germany, past exams handed out by professors clearly show what is expected. Even though it is hard to admit, the test results are closely related to how well you understand the material. It becomes apparent to every student where he or she stands in comparison to their peers. If a whole class at RWTH underperforms on a test, there is no curve to make everyone look better. Professors only curve exams when the percentage of people failing the exam is too high, not when too few people get A’s.

In most Carnegie Mellon courses, professors seem to have guidelines concerning what percentage of students must finish with A’s. That makes some courses impossible to fail. I even heard of an exam where a zero was cureved to a C. To me, that seems incredible and self-deceiving. Another downside of Carnegie Mellon’s grading system is that suddenly, helping your peers becomes detrimental to your own grade.

Luckily, most of the people I have met here are exceptional both in their academic performance and in their willingness to help. However, the fact remains that your grade may depend on whether or not you outperform your friends.

Juxtaposing both systems, it becomes apparent that American and German universities each have individual strengths and weaknesses.