Step 2 in "Get yourself to Holland" series: packing the packages

I know the US election result has put many of us in disbelief, anger and despair; however, as the admission application deadlines of some universities in the Netherlands are approaching, we have to put those feeling aside and try to bring home the Orange dream. Perhaps this election result just adds another reason to the list of why international hopefuls should come to the Netherlands.

Posted by Chung Thanh Le at Nov 10, 2016 11:50 PM

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to talk to an admission officer of Amsterdam University College, and I would like to share with you what I have learned from the talk with her. 


So from my own personal experience, I have written a list of what I think is crucial to the success of your application.

1)      Understand the Dutch higher educational system

Everyday I receive a number of questions from prospective students from my country and some questions clearly show that they do not understand the system. That is quite a concern to me as the type of schools you pick to pursuit your education is very important. Here I will talk about the 3 most popular higher educational institutes, in my opinions, among international applicants:

  • Research universities (Universiteit in Dutch): the bachelor programs at research universities tend to be theory-focused and 3 years long. The universities that you usually find in the world ranking lists are all research universities.  Lectures are often delivered in a big hall of 100 students and then workgroup/tutoring sessions are set for smaller units of students (15-20 students). Students are asked to read a lot of books for their exams and get familiar with a large body of academic articles to complete their assignments. Some typical bachelor programs you could find are business administration, law, biomedical sciences, linguistics, political science, psychology, economics, finance, and computer science. One misconception about research universities is that you have to do research if you study at research universities. Although a large portion of graduates continue to pursue a master and subsequently a Phd, the programs provide you with a good knowledge background and develop your critical and logical thinking ability that allows you to flourish in both academic and non-academic working environment.
  • Applied-science universities - AS (Hogeschool in Dutch): the bachelor programs at AS universities are typically 4 years and very hands-on. Most of the time internships are included in the programs. Common programs are hospitality management, logistics, international business management, programming, graphic design, life science. The programs provide the students with practical knowledge and experience that allows them to readily fit and flourish in a working environment. However, there is a common understanding that a research university degree is considered superior to an AS university degree. In the field of biomedical science, an AS student will learn a lot of lab techniques and have an internship that prepares him to be a lab technician. On the other hand, a research university student will do a research internship project that prepares him to be a scientist. Consequently, the career paths of the two graduates from these 2 types of higher educational institutes can be quite different in term of wages and job positions in a company.  However, it is important to point out that there are quite a number of programs that are only offered at AS universities, such as event management, physiotherapy, and tourism management. Hence, at the end of the day,  it all comes down to what you want to study and do in the future. Another difference that I have heard from many Dutch friends is that it is obligatory to pay AS students for internship while research university students more than often work for free at their internship. In addition, AS graduates need to complete one year of a pre-master program to be able to enroll in a master at a research university.  
  • University College: Basically because the world is advancing in such a way that different disciplines are interdependent, it is becoming more important than ever that the future workforce has a good interdisciplinary understanding. The 3-year liberal art n science programs allow students to study their interest major in combination with subjects of other disciplines. There are a set of compulsory courses that cover topics in the field of humanity, social sciences and sciences. Once they declare their major (usually after their first year) and obliged to follow a number of courses in that major track, the students are still free to select subjects from other disciplines. For example, someone who majors in environmental study can take courses in the biomedical science track, or someone with an interest in physics can also study chemistry and medical courses, or someone majoring in economics can pick courses in law and linguistics. These institutes are parts of the research universities. For example, Amsterdam University College is a joint institute of Vrije University and University of Amsterdam. As explained by Dr.Mariete Willemsen of AUC, it is an honored program with a multi-disciplinary approach of education. The workload is arguably heavier than the one at regular research universities, because of the high frequency of assessment, the various forms of assessment and the compulsory lecture-attendance policy. The vast majority of University College graduates will pursue postgraduate studies.


a research internship at the Cancer department at the Vrije University hospital
I did a research internship at the Cancer department of the Vrije University hospital, where i designed the optimal protocols to produce vaccines against tumor vasculature


2)      Make sure you have all required document pieces well before the deadlines.

You first need to make big notes for the application deadlines in your agenda. Then you should obtain all the required document as instructed well before the deadlines. Study-abroad paperwork for first timers can be quite daunting and you don’t want to let the time pressure stress you out even more. All universities always have an application instruction file to guide you step-by-step and a clear check list of what you have to submit for your application on their websites. You just need to follow the instructions and SAVE YOUR MONEY by doing it yourself, instead of going to an agency.

Do pay attention to the admission requirements as some high school diplomas and bachelor degrees are considered not equivalent to their Dutch counterparts. Nuffic Neso has offices in several countries around the globe, so take advantages of their free services and contact for immediate help if you run into problems with your paperwork. If you email the admission officer, do expect around 5 working days for a reply.

3)      Take the required standardized tests as soon as possible

By now I expect that you should already have the results for IELTS and other standardized tests (for ex, GMAT). In case you think you won’t be able to have the test results by deadlines, then you should immediately email the admission office of the school to ask if you can submit it later. Some universities actually allow their applicants to submit these test scores after the deadline.

Still I want to bring up an issue that I frequently see mostly with Asian students. A lot of them study how to ace the IETLS test, instead of studying to achieve a proficient level of English. That shouldn’t be the mindset to start with when you want to study abroad. So my advice is to really try to improve your English as much as you can before catching a plane to go anywhere to study, otherwise you will have a really tough time there.  

4)      Write a killer CV:

I have been taught by several Dutch recruiters that the CV should be maximum 2 pages long (better at 1.5 pages). Content-wise, it is crucial to keep it simple and focused by leaving out or grouping things that you think contribute nothing to little to your case. Format-wise, I realise that a lot of high school students tend to make their CV very fancy-looking, which more than often just makes it hard to read. A good CV allows the readers to get the information they need with just a scan through the paper. A lot of recruiters tell me that they spend approximately 5-10 seconds on a CV, so layout needs to be well put to highlight the important information. Here are some more tips and templates for you.  

lab session at AMC
A practical lab session at a research lab of the Academic medical center with a small group of students in my Biomedical science master.


5)      Write a truthful and passionate motivation letter:

The motivation letter is your chance to let the assessors learn about who you are as a person and what your dreams are. So be authentic and honest about yourself, it is in a way a form of self-reflection/self-assessment. Usually in the motivation letter, I reflect on my experiences, strengths and weaknesses, how those things make me a good fit for the program, and how the program will then help me achieve the goals I have. Don’t forget to proof-read your CV and motivation letters. These items create the first impressions the admission officers will have about you, and you don’t want to leave in their mind the image of you as someone who is careless and messy. Ask at least 2 people to proof-read your writings, preferably an English teacher to be one of them.

6)      Choose wisely on whom to write the recommendation letter:

Pick teachers or whoever that knows you well and can say something interesting about you as a person and as an achiever. For my bachelor application, I asked one science teacher and one social science teacher. When I applied for the master program, I picked one teacher and one internship supervisor. I believe these choices would provide the admission officers different but complementary views on who I am and how I perform in different environments. If you have a hard time finding a suitable person for this job because you don’t have a close connection with any of your teacher, then 1) you should from now on always try to build a connection with your teachers (it holds so true in the Netherlands and it will certainly benefit you tremendously), 2) I guess it is safe to pick the teacher that teaches the subject that you re best at, and provide them with a bit of guidance on what points and how you want him/her to evaluate you. And you should contact the person at least 3 weeks before the date you want to receive the letter or have them send it to the school. You are asking them for a favour here, so try to avoid giving them any unnecessary time pressure. 

That's it for this Step 2 in the series "Get yourself to Holland". The blog is pretty long, but i hope the information is helpful. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment section below. I am more than happy to discuss or help you out. Next time, i will share my experience as a scholarship recipient, so stay tuned.  

If you are new to the series and the idea of studying abroad in Holland, my Step 1 in the series "Get yourself to Holland" will hopefully provide you with a bit of guidance on where and how to start this journey.  

Posted by Chung Thanh Le at Nov 10, 2016 11:50 PM
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