Studying at university in the Netherlands – Everybody is given a chance, but surviving is your responsibility

Lecture room - UvA

I graduated from a university in South Korea 2 years ago, and started another bachelor course in Communication Science at the University of Amsterdam in September 2016. Naturally, there are differences that I noticed between studying in the Netherlands and in South Korea: different education system, cultural differences, atmosphere in classes, and student life. Among many things, I am going to describe 5 major differences I experienced.

1. Easy to get in, hard to graduate

Dutch universities’ entry requirements are not particularly picky in choosing students compared to South Korean ones. If you hold a Dutch vwo diploma – or a high school degree equivalent to it – as well as reasonable level of English certificate (e.g. IELTS 7), you generally gain an admission. Considering getting into a good university in South Korea is a life-and-death competition (high school students stay at school for more than 12 hours a day to study), I was quite surprised that it was relatively easy to get accepted, even though the international rankings of Dutch universities are generally higher. Quality differences among universities are small in the Netherlands as well, so Dutch students choose a university they want to go to, whereas universities choose students in South Korea by their grade.

However, the hard time started from then on. We have dreadful deadlines almost every day, with massive amounts of scientific articles and literature to read. Before starting the course, I thought it should be a bit easier for me because I already have a bachelor, and therefore I should be able to perform better. I was completely wrong. Just like other students, I got lost. Chances of getting kicked out were wide open as well. Many students quit the course already during the first semester, many of whom were actually forced to do so, because they failed too many exams. Seeing all that, I realized that a chance is given to everyone, but you have to work tooth-and-nail to survive.

2. A lot of texts to read

When studying in university in South Korea, I never really had to read any scholastic thesis written by others for classes. My major back then was Chinese language and literature, which is Bachelor of Arts, so maybe the course didn’t need that. In retrospect, it felt more like a language school with learning Chinese literature. However, when I got into the Dutch university, they started off with giving us two scientific articles, 30 pages each, with chapters of a textbook to read to do the assignments. The colorful language they used in the articles made it even more difficult to read them all. It took some time to get used to reading theses for all of us.

It is a lot of work, but reading literature about how others contemplate about subjects is a good way to learn. You get to specify your thoughts on the matter, which you normally wouldn’t really think deeply about. For example, we all kind of know that media has an influence on our lives, but it is very interesting to think more about how media shapes our way of thinking, behavior, and culture, for example by reading articles about ‘cultivation theory’.

3. Plan your work, work your plan

The workload gets threatening at times. The university notified us beforehand that they expect us to spend 26 hours per a week for studying aside from lecture and classes. They were not joking. I didn’t exactly understand what that means when I first started, but they meant it quite literally. The assignments they give us each week are expected to be finished in 26 hours. Studying at least 3 hours every day apart from 14 hours of lectures and tutorials was something we were supposed to get used to.

But of course, you can’t possibly spend every day only studying. You need to balance out study time with other activities – such as socializing with friends, working out, and visiting parents. For that, you need to really think about when to do what. You need to make time for studying as well as for other things you want to do, and once you make plans, you really have to stick to it. I was used to procrastinating, but soon realized that I could really get kicked out if I keep postponing my work. Naturally, you get a busy schedule, but I guess that’s how university life in the Netherlands is.

4. Lots of group work

One thing I noticed was that group works are the most difficult tasks that we have to do. One of the reasons is that tasks are usually difficult to figure out how to do, and it needs all the group members’ 100% efforts, which is sometimes unlikely. Even though the university system makes sure that students really study their workload, not everybody sticks to the 26-hours-a-week rule. Some students who studied more, know better about tasks, whereas the other students who procrastinated a bit have no clue about what they are supposed to do. Logically, students who know better get to do more work, which can be deadly for them. Individual workload is already a lot to digest, and if you have 2-3 persons’ work added to that, this can easily lead to a conflict among group members.

Another reason that the group works are hard is because everybody has to compromise their way of getting things done. Of course, group works are all about cooperation, but most of the students are non-native English speakers and everybody has their own style of doing assignments. Some students are slow, some students are fast. There are a lot of misunderstandings when communicating with each members as well about the way to write reports.

5. So many students fail

Universities in South Korea have a bell curve system: 33% of the students get A’s, 33% of the students get B’s, and the rest get C’s. If you are never present in classes or didn’t take exams, then you fail the course, but usually everybody passes. However, Dutch universities have a pass/fail system. If you get more than 5.5, you passed the course. If you fail, you take a re-sit. At first, I thought it should be doable since it’s not a competition with other students. I was wrong again. When we first took our partial exam for the statistics course, 48% of the people failed. 52% of the students then failed for the second exam. More than half of the students took a re-sit exam, which shows how hard it is to pass all the courses.


Studying at a university in the Netherlands is not easy. During the first four weeks of the course in last September, every student had to learn how to manage the pressure. In the process of doing so, some students got hospitalized, some students broke into tears in the class, and some students never came back. There were students who did manage time pretty well from the beginning as well. The important thing is that whatever the starting-line of each one of us was, students who stay, either comfortably or struggling, get to slowly learn how to manage workload, and themselves. In my personal opinion, I like studying in the Netherland despite all the difficulties, because the system makes sure that you really learn something from your major. It’s your choice to stay, otherwise you can quit. Once you chose to stay, you really need to learn how to manage your time, manage yourself. During the first semester, I could actually see how Dutch students learn to stay liberal, but at the same time keep themselves under control in their own way.


Eindhoven News author: Chae R P

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  1. Hi! I just wanted to ask how were you able to fund your studies? I am also planning to apply for another bachelor’s degree in the university, however, upon researching there are only limited scholarships available. There are student finance schemes available but it’s only for EU/EEA students.


    • In my case, I’m married to a Dutch person. That got me to be considered as a Dutch student. So I pay for the same amount as EU/EEA students.

  2. Hi there,
    Im planning to study in holland, do you know which university that have high acceptance for international students? Thanks.

  3. Hey, I came across your article it was so informative. I would like to share a worthy article about the Study in Germany from KCR consultants, this may change your career pathway in Germany.

  4. Hi Chae,
    Reading your article is an encouragement for me.
    My situation is somewhat like yours, got my Masters degree in South Korea n having my PhD right now in the Netherlands.
    It’s quite a shocking experience for me about the grading.
    Like “whoaaa, I never get this low grade in mylife”. Then, I learned from other articles, we cannot simply compare the 90-100 grade system with 9-10 grade in the Netherlands, where their average grade is between 6-8.
    Another struggle for me is when making reports of the assignments. There are often misunderstanding.
    I was thinking it might be cause by the high-context vs low-context perspective.
    We from eastern are built in high context society, while in the Netherlands it’s totally the opposite.


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