For the better part of the last nine months, I have spent most of my waking hours studying, practicing or using German in one way or another. All of that has been leading up to next Friday, when I will take what I expect to be the most difficult exam of my life. Called DSH, this stands for “die Deutsche Sprachprüfung für den Hochschulzugang ausländischer Studienbewerber” and is designed to assess non-native speakers who wish to study at a German university. As such, it falls somewhere between the SAT and an AP German exam in terms of scope, except that unlike those tests, there are no multiple choice sections, nor any English at all to guide me.
In other words, this is not a translation test, but rather an assessment of one’s overall suitability to succeed in a German university, including one’s ability to follow lectures, read and interact with texts, compose texts with a clear structure and argument, and communicate in spoken German. Grammar, breadth of vocabulary and broader academic preparedness are also measured along the way. You are permitted use of a German to German dictionary, though if you have to look up more than a few words in it, you will not finish the test in time.
DSH is always composed of the same five major sections, though each university creates its own exam on this model: Hörverständnis (listening), Leserverständnis (reading), Grammatik (grammar), and Textproduction (writing) make up the written exam, followed by the mündliche Prüfung (oral exam). By all accounts, Göttingen’s is among the most rigorous in Germany, and runs as follows:
Hörverständnis: First is a listening comprehension test lasting approximately one hour, which requires you to listen to and take good notes on a lecture in German of approximately 10 to 15 minutes. You then receive a set of questions pertaining to the lecture and are given ten minutes to familiarize yourself with them (at some other universities, you are given the questions before the first reading). The lecture is then read a second time and you attempt to take further notes focused on those particular questions. Thereafter you have 40 minutes to answer the questions. The text should be at the difficulty level of a public lecture rather than a advanced seminar, but could cover virtually any area of academic study or contemporary culture.
Leserverständnis/Grammatik: Second and third are the reading comprehension and grammar sections, which are given together. You are given a text to read of somewhere between one to two pages, with a difficulty level comparable to a major newspaper (for instance ZEIT), which could again pertain to just about any area of academic study, current events, contemporary culture or politics, and so on. This is followed by several pages of questions, first pertaining to the content of the passage, then to its grammar. You have 90 minutes to complete both sections, of which they recommend you spend no more than 30 minutes on the grammar section.
Although it appears last, a good bit of advice I’ve heard is to begin with the grammar section, which can generally be completed just as well without having read the accompanying text, as it consists of reforming sentences so that they have the same meaning with a different structure. This is, to my mind, the easiest section of the exam (though for students whose training in German has been less formal, it can be among the hardest), and I can often finish it in 20 to 25 minutes.
The reading comprehension section is considerably more difficult, demanding not only broad-scale understanding of the passage and its structure, but also attention to small details, the ability to summarize and rephrase, and grammatically correct use of language. The questions generally demand either “Stichworten” (in outline) or full sentences. The first generally means you must find and rephrase information from the text into a nominal phrase with no verbs but the same meaning. The second means you must use different words than those found in the text to express the same meaning in a grammatically correct sentence. There are usually also a few true/false questions, but far from being easy, these tend to hang on very fine details, require you to cite from which line in the text your answer comes, and demand an explicit reason be given if you select false.
Textproduction: The text production section lasts 60 minutes and in Göttingen generally requires you to read a table or diagram of some kind, describe its contents (usually a set of statistics relevant to contemporary life, culture, politics and so on), and hand-write a brief text arguing for a particular position relevant to three or four leading questions. The essay is to be a minimum of 200 words and must accurately present and analyse the most important information given in the table (but in your own words), make a clear argument with examples, and answer the questions. You are evaluated for the contents of the essay, as well as for its style and grammar, the latter of which includes varying your sentence structure and word-choice.
The most difficult aspect of this section, for me, is time management. You essentially have 10 minutes to figure out what information is being presented and what the most important trends within it seem to be (this is not generally explicit, but must be inferred or even calculated–this is one of the places they sneak in a test of basic mathematic comprehension, for which there is no separate section), and come up with reasons and examples to explain the data. If you then take 30 to 40 minutes to write the essay itself, that gives you about 10 minutes to answer each question in its own paragraph, then maybe 5-10 minutes to edit the whole. You must save the last 4 or 5 minutes to count the exact number of words your essay contains, as this must be written down at the end of the essay. If this number is wrong, or under 200, you lose points, and if you repeat yourself or make grammatical errors within the essay, these are deducted from the word total (and point total), and if this drops it below 200, you lose additional points.
Schriftliche Prüfung: Together, these four sections compose the written exam, and must all be completed together. They are then submitted and marked, with 57% being a passing grade (DSH 1), and a minimum of 67% (DSH 2) required for most disciplines (including theology). A few faculties are yet more stringent, requiring at least 82% (DSH 3). At some universities, each section is graded individually and you must get the required percentage in each and every one, while at others all the written sections are taken together and it is the overall score that matters. Thankfully Göttingen takes the latter approach, which somewhat makes up for the generally higher difficulty of its exam questions themselves.
Mündliche Prüfung: If, and only if, you pass the written exam, you will be scheduled to take an oral exam a couple of days later. This is evaluated separately from the written exam and essentially holds veto power over it. That is, while you cannot improve your score by doing well on the spoken exam, doing poorly nullifies the written score itself. For instance, if you passed the written exam at the DSH 3 level, but only received DSH 1 for the oral exam, your final mark will be DSH 1, not 2 or 3. If you fail the spoken test, you have to retake the whole thing, regardless of how well you did on the written portion.
The exam runs as follows: You are given 20 minutes to prepare a 3 minute speech on a particular topic. Some schools give you a table or diagram to work with, some a short text, some both, followed by a couple of leading questions. At Göttingen, they generally give you a text about half as long as the reading comprehension example, but of comparable difficulty. Here however, they will generally choose an example that relates to your intended area of study, though how closely it relates I do not know.
After your twenty minutes of prep time, you go before the examiners, who will ask you a few questions about yourself, your background, education, goals, home country, current events or whatever else they feel. You then must give your three minute presentation, summarizing (in your own words!) the main points of the passage and answering the supplied questions. You may or may not be interrupted with further questions during this mini-lecture, but in any case it will be followed by yet more questions as the examiners wish. The exam lasts 15 to 20 minutes, and (as I understand it) is marked based on how well you understand and respond to the text and questions, the grammatical correctness of everything you say from the initial introductions onward, your use of diverse vocabulary (you lose points for (over-)using terms drawn from the text or repeating yourself), and the fluency of your speech (e.g. responding quickly, not struggling for words, not having to correct yourself too often–though apparently it is better to correct yourself when you do make mistakes than to ignore them).
This is the section that keeps me up at night, it part because it is far less predictable, and therefore more difficult to practice for, and in part because speaking ability remains my biggest struggle. The fact that this could potentially nullify my written score also adds to the pressure, and in any case, I suspect I would struggle to speak perfectly fluently in English in such an exam, much less in German, where my knowledge of the language is far higher than my facility with actually using it. Hopefully I’m not alone in that situation, and the examiners have some grace!
Part of me wants to rebel against the test and complain (as I did, perhaps unfairly, about the GRE) that it is a frustrating and unnecessary hoop to jump though. After all, I’m in Göttingen to work on an English-language research team, and will be writing my dissertation in English. But the truth is, however difficult the exam is, the things it tests really are foundational to success in a German university context. Being able to follow a lecture, read an article, write a short text and communicate in an unpredictable and interactive setting are all essential skills to develop, and the fact that they are difficult only stresses the importance of ensuring that students can in fact do them.
Having now spent nine months here, I appreciate all the more how important such abilities are, and only wish I were better prepared for them than I am. As nerve-wracking as it is to anticipate an oral exam auf Deutsch, I face similar situations all the time here in Germany, some of which have been just as important to my future here as any test. I may not have been graded for my grammar in those contexts, but my ability to understand and be understood without recourse to English has and will continue to to be vital to success both in the university and outside it. Besides that, it should give me a tremendous advantage in reading academic German going forward (which seems relatively easy now, compared to following a lecture or answering oral questions!).
I say all this now, so that if I don’t pass next week and start complaining that I have to spend another three months preparing for the next exam (offered in September), you can all remind me that this is still true, even if I don’t want it to be!