Study abroad in Italy? A complete guide to the Italian school system

When I started this blog I’ve never imagined myself writing a post about the Italian school system. I thought I would just write about my experience in a Canadian college and my life as an international student. But the other day I got my first email from a reader, yay!

This email, from a girl who was interested in studying abroad in Italy for a semester, made me realize that, since I still have exactly 63 days before I start my classes in Canada, I could share a bit more about Italy. Hopefully, some of you will be inspired to come study here. Because yes, I would definitely recommend coming here as an international student. Either in high school or university.

Study abroad in Italy: a complete guide to the Italian school system

Italy has both public and private schools. Compared to other countries, the quality of the public education here is quite high.

Scuola dell’infanzia / scuola materna

This is kindergarten. It lasts 3 years. It is not mandatory. But I’ve never met anyone who didn’t start kindergarten when they were 3 years old.

Scuola primaria / scuola elementare

This is primary school. It lasts five years. There’s usually one primary school in every town (even small towns, like the one I live in). If you go to public school, you go to the closest one to your house. Usually, children stay in school from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm.

Common subjects include Italian grammar, mathematics, science, geography, history, English, and religion (which is optional in public schools). Back in the days, at the end of the 5 years, you had to pass an exam to go on to secondary education. The year after I left primary school, the government decided the exam at the end of it was unnecessary and kids nowadays don’t have to go through it anymore.

Scuola media

This is middle school and it lasts 3 years. Again, if you go to public school you usually go to the nearest one to your house. Back in the days, most public schools offered the option to have a 8 am to 4 pm school day or a 8 am to 1 or 2 pm school day. My school offered just a full-time curriculum. I used to leave the house at 7 in the morning and I wasn’t back until 5 pm.

The most common subjects are: Italian grammar and literature, math and algebra, science, geography, history, English grammar and (not so much) literature, and physical education. In my school we also had Spanish, IT, and there was also a pre-Latin elective course (which I took since I knew I was going to a liceo – keep reading to find out what it is).

After these 3 years, you get your licenza media, but just after taking yet another written + oral exam, which covers all the subjects studied during the last year.

Scuola superiore / liceo

Explaining Italian high school is not easy. First of all, we have 5 years of high school. Yes, you’ve heard right: 5 very long years!

Second, even if you go to public school, you don’t just go to the closest one to your house. In addition, Italian high schools are not tailored to a student’s interest. So, at 14 years old, you have to make a choice. You need to decide if you want to go to a liceo or to a technical/vocational school. That’s not all. There are so many different types of technical/vocational schools and there are four main types of liceo, based on how many hours of specific subjects you get: liceo classico (classics school), liceo linguistico (language school), liceo scientifico (scientific school), and liceo artistico (art school). These schools have a fixed curriculum and everyone in the same year attend the same classes. There are no electives or extracurricular activities. If you’re an Italian high school student, especially if you go to a liceo, chances are you don’t have time for anything else besides studying.

Third, during these amazing (it’s sarcastic) 5 years you get the same 25/30 classmates. The teachers are the ones who move from class to class, while the students sit in their assigned desk in the same room for the whole school year (sometimes for 3 years in a row).

Finally, there are classes from Monday to Saturday. They start at about 8 am and they can go on until 2 pm. There’s no lunch at school, but there is a somewhat long break when you can have a snack late in the morning.


I’ve attended a liceo that was a mix of liceo classico and liceo scientifico. In my liceo I’ve studied not only Latin and ancient Greek from year 1, but I’ve also studied chemistry + biology + natural sciences (which I liked very much) and physics (which I did not like at all) from the beginning (while in traditional liceo classico you get these scientific subjects just in the last 3 years). Others subjects were: Italian language and literature, mathematics, history, geography (for the first 2 years), civics (just on year 2), English language and literature, P.E., philosophy and history of art (both just for 3 years).

To get your secondary school diploma, you have to sit through a very exhausting exam at the end of the five years.


If you got through 5 years of high school, whichever high school, you’re eligible to get into any university. Here again, you do not just get into the university you like and then chose your major, and eventually a minor. You have to decide what you want to study before you apply and, then, most of the times, you have to take a test and get a good score on it to get into it.

Every university, and even every course in the same university, can have a somewhat different calendar. I always started the school year the first day of October and I had classes until the Christmas break. Then, during January and February, I had just exams. The second semester started in March and then exams were in June and July. August is the only month you get off. But there are exams in September too, so if you’re behind or if you want to have a head start on the next year, you spend it on books anyways.

Both at the end of your BA (3 years) and at the end of your MA (2 years), you are required to write a dissertation.

Study abroad in Italy

If you’re coming to Italy to study in high school, I’m not sure you can get the true Italian high school experience. Still, it will be an awesome adventure and this is not meant to discourage you. The exchange students we had in our high school didn’t get assigned to a single classroom, but they attended different subjects in different classes with different classmates. They also had extra hours of Italian language. So, if you’re coming to Italy to study in high school, you won’t be on your own.

If you’re coming to Italy as an international student in university, that’s a completely different story. Italian universities, compared to Italian high schools, are huge. Most of your classes will be lectures and you can share a classroom with like 300 people, or even more. Group projects are not that common. You won’t get grades throughout the semester, but your grade for a class will be the one you get in the final exam. Especially during the first few years, professors do not make an effort to get to know you. Most of the times, you don’t get reminders when you have to pay your fees or when you have to register for classes. You are completely on your own.

Fun facts:

  • Our high schools don’t have sport teams. Some universities have teams (mine did), but none really pays attention to them. There’s no such thing as school spirit.
  • We don’t have lockers in high school, but we leave our books under our assigned desk.
  • Up until university, we get almost three full months of summer holidays (June, July, and August).
  • Standardized tests are pure evil, neither the teachers/professor nor the students like them. The only standardized test I’ve ever taken in my life as an Italian student is the one I took to get into university.

Did you noticed many differences between schools in your country and schools in Italy? Have you ever studied in Italy? Or do you think you would enjoy school here?

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  • Maikel Kerseboom

    I love italy. It is such a lovely country. I think going abroad can be such a great experience to develop yourself.

  • This is a good post and great for parents thinking about allowing their kids to study abroad. I am surprised about no teams, but each school and country is different. I have lived and studied abroad all my life, so I highly recommend it.

  • mstomilola

    I’ve always wanted to study abroad, I think my time has gone (already have a BSc and MSc) but it’s something I will definitely encourage those younger than me to consider. Plus who doesn’t love Italy??? Lol x

  • Katja Knox

    I went to uni in the UK after going through compulsory education and then college in Finland. It was SO different. I’d love to study in Italy and have considered Rome for my masters degree.
    Katja xxx

  • I studied abroad in Spain in college, but now I wish I tried Italy! Guess I’ll have to plan a vacation there soon…CLOSE to studying, right??? Ha!

    Coming Up Roses

  • Kitty Limon

    wow sounds really interesting, i would have loved to study abroad but never had the courage to do it, hopefully one day but i imagine by then it would be too late since i’m in my last year of university as it is : very informative and quite different from British schools that i’ve been to

  • Jasmin N

    Wow that sounds so interesting! They have such a long days in primary school, when here in Finland primary school days lasts from 9am to 1pm, or max. 2 pm 😀

  • Denise M

    It’s really interesting to find out other countries school systems, your school days are much longer than ours here in the UK as they tend to finish around 3.30pm and Mon-Fri. Also you are at school until you are 19, you can either leave at 16 or stay on another couple of years to gain additional qualifications before going to college/university. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • I love the concept of studying abroad. It’s a great way to expand horizons and see more of the World.

    • It definitely is. Thank you for reading, Ellie!

  • This was very informational and interesting. I think it will be very helpful and understandable for those interesting in attending school in Italy. Thank you for taking the time to share this ❤️

    • Thank you for reading, Brittney!

  • It’s so interesting to see the differences in school systems!

    • Thank you for reading, Amy!

  • Thuli Mac

    Two years ago I was thinking of going to study in Italian in Italy! I just remember being very confused when I searched for the info. Thanks for this article, if I think of it again, I will definitely send you a message with questions if you don’t mind! Great post!

    • Yes, it can get so overwhelming looking for accurate info about another country. I’ve been there! Anyways, sure, shoot me an email if you have any question or need any help.

      • Thuli Mac

        Thank you! I will keep you in mind! 🙂

  • I don’t know why but it seems like you go to school for way longer than we do in Canada lol. Our days are usually 9-3 throughout elementary and high school. And we do kindergarten for two years, elementary for six, middle school for 2 and high school for 4. It’s so interesting how different countries’ school systems work!

    • I didn’t know middle school there was just for 2 years! And I’ve always envied that you got just 4 years of high school there.

  • This was so interesting to read!! I always knew school systems outside the US were very different, but I had no idea they were that different! Starting kindergarten at age 3 is insane to me!

    Caitlyn |

    • Here literally everyone start it at 3, even if it’s not mandatory. I guess it mostly has to do with the fact that the parents work and wouldn’t know where else to leave their child. Anyways, I am not completely sure what you do in kindergarten in the US, but it seems like here it’s maybe less formal. For the first year or two it’s just a lot of games and fun activities and you also get to nap there during the afternoon.

      • In kindergarten here it’s like playing games, crafts, naps and little things like the alphabet and numbers. But I mean, before that we do have pre-school!

  • Such a great article! I think it’s very helpful for those, who’re looking any info to study abroad! Thanks for sharing.

    Cheers, Eliza |

    • Thank you for reading, Eliza!

  • Holly

    This is so interesting! I LOVE Italy, and so wish that I had the time to study abroad there. xx

    • Thank you for reading, Holly!