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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