You want to know what’s the best German language exam for you in 2024? Read on! This post lifts the lid on the range of German as a foreign language proficiency certification options. You’ll find essential info on each to help you choose the right exam.
You may need a German language certificate as a prerequisite to matriculation at a German university. Maybe you want to live and work in Germany (or Austria) or even obtain German citizenship. Or, like me, you may simply appreciate the value of exams in providing focus and a medium-term goal to work towards.
A proficiency certificate can be a great objective yardstick of your attainments so far. You may be confused, though by the bewildering array of German certificates on offer. That’s where this post comes in.
The focus in the post below is on adults undertaking study outside a university (or people preparing towards a university application). The post is currently very Germany-centric. I hope to expand it later to cover German language certificates issues in Austria and Switzerland. There are lots of links below to help you find where to look for further information. I’ve put a lot of research to get the information right but you should always re-check (and check for subsequent changes) with an official source.
And…if you’re serious about getting from upper beginner, A2 German into the ranks of the intermediate learner, check “Dr P’s Weekly German Workouts: Into Intermediate” Focus for Fluency programme.
Goethe-Institut German language exams
The Goethe-Institut which was established in 1951 and it has its HQ in Munich. It is an independent non-profit organisation (eV) which is funded by grants from the German state and also by the fees from its own courses and examinations.
I’m a Goethe-Institut fan. When I was an intermediate German learner I did a two-month summer course at the Goethe-Institut in Schwäbisch Hall and two years ago, when I decided to start actively working on my German again, taking the Goethe advanced “C1 level” exam was an obvious initial goal to set.
The Goethe-Institut offer German language certificates at six levels, which follow the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) from A1 (beginner) to C2 (proficiency/mastery). At A1 to B2 there are also separate exams for 10 to 16 year-olds.
Approach and content
Each Goethe-Institut adult German exam consists of four parts: reading, writing, speaking and listening.
The length and complexity of each part obviously increases as you move up through the levels.
The focus is on general language. As you progress to the higher levels, discussion broadens to topics of general interest.
For more details on the content at each level, start here.
The Goethe B1, B2, C1 and C2 German exams are “modular”. You have to get at least 60% in each module.
At A2, B2 and C1 you have to get at least 45% in the three “written” papers combined (listening, reading, writing) and at least 15% in the speaking.
At A1 you have to get at least 35% in the three “written” exams before you can move on to the oral.
The requirements may change. As always be sure to check the latest on the Goethe website.
Where and when can you take the Goethe Institut German proficiency exams?
The Goethe-Institut has a worldwide network of 159 Institutes in 98 countries. There are six in the United States (Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, NYC and Washington DC, three in Canada (Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto) and two in Australia (Melbourne and Sydney) for example and two in the UK (London and Glasgow).
In areas where there is no local Institut, it also partners with established educational institutions (such as universities and commercial language schools) that meet its standards and where the exam can be taken. That expands the exam locations to six in UK (including Cardiff and Manchester), over fifty in the US, and several more in Canada and Australia.
When the exam can be taken depends on the timetable of the local Institut or other provider. In London, for example, the exams are available less frequently than in many of the GIs in Germany itself. So, check your chosen location on-line.
The fees also vary from country to country.
You can retake the whole exam as many times as you want. For the B1, B2 and C2 exams, individual modules may be retaken an unlimited number of times.
What are the Goethe-Institut German language certificates valid for?
Goethe German exam certificates, once issued, do not expire.
The A1 certificate is meets the requirement for visas for spouses wishing to join their husband or wife in Germany. I’ve written a dedicated post looking in detail at the A1 exam here and the A2 (upper beginner exam) that you can check out: here.
The B1 certificate is accepted as the minimum for citizenship. The B1 certificate also enables admission to one of the year-long Studienkolleg preparation to study any discipline at a German university. Check out my posts on what you need to do to get from A2 to B1 German skills here and my dedicated post on the B1 exam here.
The Goethe C2 certificate or “Großes Deutsche Sprachdiplom” is recognised by all German higher education institutions as evidence of the language competence required for university entrance.
You may also hear reference to the Zentrale Oberstufenprüfung (ZOP) and the Kleine Deutsche Sprachdiplom (KDS). There were abolished when the The GDS was revamped in 2012. The ZOP, KDS and old-style GDS are still valid to satisfy university language requirements.
Some institutions accept the Goethe C1 or even the B2 certificate. The Institut has produced a useful overview .pdf. (link is to October 2021 version).
For more info on German language requirements for university matriculation in Germany there is a useful overview website (not from the Goethe-Intsitut) at sprachnachweis.de. Also, check individual university websites: for example Heidelberg university.
To my mind, with the Goethe-Institut brand signifies quality and their German exams seem best for worldwide recognition. A Goethe-Institut German exam may not the cheapest option but I look on that as the flip-side of the quality.
There is a wealth of further information on the Goethe-Institute website, including sample papers (with audio files and videos of the speaking part of the exam). This is certainly my exam board of choice.
Telc German language exams
Telc stands for “The European Language Certificates”. Telc is a non-profit company (gemeinnützige GmbH) based in Frankfurt-am-Main and belonging to the German Adult Education Association. The exam begin in 1968 as the VHS Certificate. Although telc started with German there are now exams in nine other languages as well.
The CEFR levels are used. For German, in addition to the general adult exams, there are also separate exams at various levels focussing language in the workplace, medicine and carers, for university admission and for migrants.
In addition to the general C1 exam, there is one aimed specifically at university entrants (“telc C1 Hochschule”). There are also exams aimed at children.
Approach and content of the Telc German exams
The approach and feel of the tecl general exams seems very similar what you get with from the Goethe-Institut.
The general telc German exams for adults consist of four modules (reading, writing, listening, speaking) with the length of time for each part increasing as you move up the scale.
There is an additional vocab and grammar section in the B1 and B2 exams.
The oral exam is in a small group (except at C2 level).
Like the Goethe exams, the emphasis is on everyday language, with the range of topics becoming wider and more sophisticated – but still mainstream – as you progress up the levels. You have to pass all four sections.
Where and when can you take the Telc German exams?
There are over two thousand test centres in over 20 countries (including in community colleges and in commercial language schools).
The fees are set by each centre. If you fail you can retake as often as you want. At A1 and A2, you have to retake the whole exam.
At the B and C levels, if you pass the oral but fail the “written” part overall (i.e. writing, listening, reading and (at B1, B2) the grammar test), you have to retake the whole written part. If you fail the oral you do not have to retake the “written” part.
The certificate is valid for an unlimited period.
What are Telc German certificates valid for?
The general telc B1 certificate (known as the Zertifikat Deutsch) is recognised as proof of sufficient language competence for a German citizenship application.
Check out my post comparing German upper beginner (A2) with lower intermediate (B1), where I explore what the difference is and what you need to get there.
Telc Deutsch C1 Hochschule is recognised by members of the German Rectors’ and Cultural Ministers’ Conference as proof of the level of German needed to matriculate at university.
Many Austrian and Swiss universities also accept telc as proof of the level of German needed to matriculate at a university.
Telc seems to be well-known in Germany and telc exams are well-respected.
However, telc is less widely known abroad, especially outside Europe. There are three exam centres listed for the UK on the website none of which I had ever heard of (which, of course, should not be held against them (!).
It is not clear whether they just offer the telc exams in English. There is no US, Canadian, Australian or NZ centre listed. Tecl has produced an overview of the exams (including FAQs and practice materials) which you can find here.
TestDaF (formally Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache) German exam
This exam is organised by the TestDaF-Institut, which is supported by the Hochschulrektorkonferenz, (Council of Higher Education Institutions), the DAAD and the Goethe-Institut.
The exam has been running since 2001.
The TestDAF was developed specifically as an exam for foreign students wanting to study in German universities and needed to provide evidence of their language competence.
What level is TestDAF?
There is one exam, but the mark shows you are at one of three levels “Niveaustuefe” 3 to 5 (which correspond to CEFR B2-C1 and have also been developed with reference to the levels set by the Association of Language Testers in Europe).
There is an online placement test on the TestDaF website which will help you assess your current level and whether you will need additional work to be in with a good chance of passing.
Approach and content of TestDAF
The exam covers reading, writing, listening, speaking. The focus is on using the language in the context of higher education.
For a descriptive breakdown of the abilities required for each level, check here.
The oral exam is based on recordings and your answers are recorded.
Unlike the DHS (see below), there is no specific grammar test. The subjects and tasks therefore reflect what students need to do when studying other subjects at this level through the medium of German.
There are model papers (Modellsätze) and sample tests (Musterprüfungen) on the TestDaF website.
Where and when can you take the TestDAF?
At licensed test centres in around 100 countries and at one of over 170 test centres in Germany. The test centres are usually universities, the local DAAD office or Geothe-Institut (with which TestDAF co-operates closely).
In Germany the test is also offered at Volkshochschüle adult eduction centres or private language schools. The exam runs six times a year with the same dates worldwide (in China: different dates and just three times a year). You do not need to be a university applicant to take it. Everybody has takes the same questions/tasks and it is marked centrally. It takes six to eight weeks for you to get the results. You can re-sit as often as you like.
The fee varies from country to country.
What’s the TestDAF certificate good for?
The certificate is valid for an unlimited period. The certificate shows your results in each sub-test as well as your overall result. Level 4 in all four sub-tests is sufficient to meet the language requirements of all universities
in Germany. Some admit applicants with a lower score. Each paper is graded some universities require a certain grade in all parts of the exam while some just count the total mark.
This German exam is a specialist test, only really of interest if you need to prove your level for university matriculation. It is also potentially useful for students and academic who want to prove their competence in German at home, in advance of an academic visit to Germany or at the end of a study-abroad period in a German university (as a visiting student rather than fully matriculated).
As noted above, the higher Goethe-Institut and telc certificates are universally recognised, though, so why would you bother with TestDAF (or the alternative DSH exam, discussed below).
The answer is that you may prefer content more narrowly focussed.
Also, as against telc, you will often be able to take the exam at a Goethe-Institut or elsewhere (without having to travel to Germany).
For more info, check the website. TestDAF has also produced an overview video:
DSH Deutsche Sprachprüfung für den Hochschulzugang
The DSH is organised by each individual university within an overarching framework “Rahmenordnung für die DSH” Fassung vom 8. Juni 2004). This means that there is quite a bit of variation in the rules (as you will see in the summary below).
Most, but not all German universities offer the exam.
I took this exam at Heidelberg University years ago in order to matriculate there (then it was called the “Prüfung zum Nachweis deutscher Sprachkenntnisse” (PNDS)).
DSH German language exam: what levels?
There is one exam level but three grades (see below). Many universities require you to already have a C1 certificate from another body BEFORE you can sit the exam (!).
Approach and content of the DSH German exam
A “written examination” which, besides writing, covers listening and reading comprehension and a grammar section.
A German-German dictionary is often allowed.
The “Hörtext” is read out (50 to 100 lines) and you have to answer comprehension checking questions/reproduce the text.
The emphasis is on testing comprehension not on linguistic accuracy (so the exam is very much focussed on your practical ability to follow lectures).
You have to pass the written examination to take the oral.
The oral lasts 20 minutes.
The levels correspond broadly to TestDaF 3 to 5 (so B2 to C2) According to the DSH central website you get DSH-1 for a mark between 57-67%, DSH-2: 67-81%. DSH-3: >82%.
As a legal draftsman, the obvious question for me is where 67 is in band 1 or 2 and what would happen if you get 82. Pedantic? Moi?
If you get one in one paper and two or three in the other, you get one overall. If you get 2 for the written paper and 3 for speaking, you get 2 overall. If 3 for written and 2 for speaking, your total is only 3.
Check out the weighting table in the Q&A section of the website.
Where and when can you take the DHS German exam?
Some colleges and universities require you already to have a study place on your subject course before you can take the DSH German exam. Others run and “open” DHS exam.
The exam is usually held before the beginning of the semester. Some universities run it twice a year, others – four times.
Some institutions charge, others do not. Those that do set their own fees, usually between 708 and 150 euros. Some limit the number of retakes and require a time gap between them, others have no such restrictions.
What is the DSH German language certificate valid for?
Level 1 enables you to matriculate provided you take additional language classes and retake the exam.
Otherwise, it only admits you to courses which are taught bilingually (usually German and English) and for some technical subjects.
For most courses of study DHS2 is the minimum requirement. In a few institutions medine or dentistry require DHS3.
With the exception of the University of Stuttgart, your results from one institution’s DHS will be accepted by other institutions which are in the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (notwithstanding the variations in the exam from institution to institution).
If you want exam content which focussed on the sort of language needed to study through the medium of German, it’s a choice between the DSH and the TestDAF (see above).
While TestDAF can be taken elsewhere, for the DSH you’ll have to come to your chosen destination. This could either be an inconvenience, or a great way to start getting into university life, depending on your perspective.
There is more info on the dsh website and from the individual HE institutions. Check this out carefully if you’re considering the DSH, given that the detail of the exam varies from place to place.
Other German language certificates you may hear about
The Deutsches Sprachdiplom (level II) of the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (Kultusministerkonferenz der Länder).
This is an exam only offered to children at participating secondary schools, of which there are more than 11,000 worldwide. These were traditionally outside Germany but the exams are now sometimes offered in the country as well.
There are two levels of the exam.
Level 1 is recognised proof of adequate knowledge of German for admission to a Studienkolleg (year-long university preparation course in Germany with a focus on language and knowledge about German society and culture).
Level 2 proves that you have adequate knowledge of the language to study at university (but always check with your university of choice). For more information check here.
The German Test for Immigrants “DTZ” (“Deutschtest für Zuwanderer) was developed by telc GmbH with the Goethe Institut for the German government. Telc also developed a test for the Austrian Integration Fund (ÖIF). There is only one exam. If you are graded at A2 it is considered a pass but you have the option to extend the course to reach B1. There’s a brief overview on the Goethe-Institut website and more detail on the German Ministry for Immigration and Refugees website.
That, then, is the field that I see before me.
I hope that his survey has helped you to find your bearings.
Don’t forget to check for the latest information on the relevant websites.
Have you any experience of any of these exams and, if you’ve taken one or are planning to, what has influenced your choice? Have I missed any exams out? Let me know in the comments below or drop me an email!
For some great general exam tips, check out my general series on exams: Post 1: Foreign language exams for adult learners: for and against Post 2: How to pass a foreign language exam Post 3: Ten brilliant ways to beat exam nerves
Crushing B1 German with Dr Popkins’ “Weekly German Workouts: Into Intermediate” Programme
If you’re serious about getting from upper beginner, A2 German into the ranks of the intermediate learner in 2024, you’ll want to take a closer look at my “Weekly German Workouts: Into Intermediate” mentored self-study Focus for Fluency programme.
In “Into Intermediate German”, it’s you who has to do the work, but this is may way of helping you make sure that you do it right.
I’ve partnered with some great native-speaker teachers to create interesting and realistic conversational materials (text, audio, exercises). They’ll be at just the right level so you don’t feel overwhelmed as you acquire masses of new vocab and learn and practice new structures.
There are to-the-point, jargon-free explanations of key new structures and phrases and a simple and incredibly effective “brain-savvy” interactive study routine that you can apply.
Add to that my unlimited personal one-to-one email support and you’ll be all set to make real progress over the ten weeks of the course.
Head over to the enrolment page to find out more.