The ranking evaluated the number of visits by 6082 top international scientists and young scholars who conducted research in Germany sometime in the past five years as a fellowship or award winner of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München reached third place and Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn fourth.
Broken down by groups of subjects, Freie Universität Berlin improved its position in the life sciences from place 5 in the 2009 ranking to first place in 2012. In the humanities and social sciences, Freie Universität remained at first place. In the natural sciences, Freie Universität reached place 9.
The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is an important source of funding for researchers from abroad intending to work in Germany. According to the AvH Foundation, each research stay made possible by the foundation's support is based on a decision made by the researcher that the level of research conducted in Germany in that person's field, is good enough to compete in the international competition for the best researchers. The decisions also indicate which researchers in Germany have particularly intensive international contacts because the Humboldtians, as they are called by the foundation, select their host based on his or her academic qualifications and international visibility. A high position in the Humboldt Ranking is therefore an important indicator of international contacts and reputation.
According to statistics from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) at the end of 2011, Freie Universität is also by far the most popular destination for students from abroad. Also according to DAAD statistics, Freie Universität reportedly sends significantly more students to study abroad than any other university in Germany. Further, according to statistics from DAAD in 2011, the number of doctoral students from abroad at Freie Universität in the period between 2005 and 2011 was 1139, which was higher than comparable figures at all the other eight German Universities of Excellence.