This is actually a pretty easy thing. But people are overstating both the degree to which grammatical gender and biological gender are separated in German and also how hotly political it is.
So here is an actually practical answer that actually answers the question how it was likely intended, minus prescriptive grammar and political polemics.
I will start with some context because of the rest of the answers, but if you don't care, just skip to the bold "BUT", below, and then read only until you get bored.
There is ambiguity. Grammatical gender in German is only partially distinct from biological gender, in that in mainstream use people often both use the grammatical gender to imply a biological gender or understand it as an intention of the speaker to denote a gender. Since language is an inherently cooperative activity, this cannot be ignored if one wishes to understand or be understood correctly. While it is true that the grammatical gender usually does not technically specify a biological gender, that ignores how the language is used by the vast majority of people everyday.
Fact is in the lived experience of a non native speaker: if there are multiple gendered words, the majority of people will correct you if you use the one that doesn't correspond to the gender of the person or thing you are referring to even if it isn't linguistically necessary. This demonstrates that at the very least, grammatically gendered words carry a connotation of biological gender both historically and in mainstream practice.
There are multiple ways of dealing with this that have not really achieved consensus, and new ways being invented all the time. Some of this is slightly politically charged, but not to the "culture war" levels that some of the answers seem to suggest.
BUT the everyday reality is that there are only really three (broad) ways to do this:
- List both gendered words explicitly (with or without some form of abbreviation)
- Use only one word (and either explicitly mention you mean both, or ignore the problem and potentially be misunderstood in a way that you might not have intended)
- Use an adjectival noun derived from a verb for gender neutral plurals
In the real world (almost exclusively):
Academic works usually follow the second approach, and often include a disclaimer once at the beginning that no gender implication is intended. (i.e. Student)
Job postings use all approaches. If the second approach is used it is almost always accompanied by a parenthetical (m/w) or something similar. (i.e. Student (m/w), Student/-in)
Every day usage is almost 100% the first approach or the third approach. (Studenten und Studentinnen, or Studierende)
There is almost never a practical need for a gender neutral singular. It just doesn't really come up that often, but the easiest default is the first approach (Student oder Studentin), since unambiguous use of the second approach is context/audience dependent and you have to be able to read the room to know if doing that without explicitly mentioning is a problem or not.
I know for example, that if I personally ask my boss about internship applications from "Studenten", that they know I mean all applicants. In other contexts (especially if I don't personally know the person) I might choose to explicitly mention both alternatives, because communication with strangers is inherently more ambiguous if you haven't yet established a rapport. Like anything in language, context is important. If you are in a situation where you are confused as to the appropriate word to use, usually the best course of action is to actually express that confusion explicitly.
If I had to guess, the reason for the high insistance that this is extremely political comes from people who alternatively:
- can't read the room
- have very prescriptive notions of language
- or think the various abbreviations look stupid or are cumbersome
Yes if you fall into one of those categories, you are going to have a hard time.
And generally unless you fall into one of those categories yourself, whatever you decide to do will be fine with 95% of the German speaking population, and the people you do piss off will likely be in one of those categories.
And if you do actually step into a Fettnäpfchen, people tend to be forgiving as long as it isn't on social media. Even then, most of the time backlash is based on how people respond to being "called-out" and not to the original (perceived) offense. If you respond to criticism like a tone-deaf idiot, people are likely to assume you are a tone-deaf idiot.
For context, I have lived for over 10 years in the German speaking world and over 20 years before that in America without ever even once attempting to be explicitly "politically correct", and literally never once had a problem. If you act like a nice, respectful person people will generally treat you like one.