Why equipping students with the skills to think independently helps them thrive at university

Let me paint you a picture: I work in student recruitment and am standing at a university fair in a high school gym. I am surrounded by excited teenagers thinking about their future. While chatting with a small group of students about the opportunities my university, University College Roosevelt, can offer, one of them asks the inevitable question: “So, what grades do I need to get in to your university?”.

As I answer the question with the ease of someone who has done so at least 20 times that day, it dawns on me that the students and I are not having the conversation we should be having. Rather than talking about what it takes to get in, shouldn’t we be talking about what it takes to stay in? And what it takes to thrive on our campus?


Before even considering what makes a student thrive at a particular university, we need to take a step back and understand the context of the university’s location. In the Netherlands, students are treated like adults. While all the services a student may need are available, it is up to the student to ask for the help they require.

As a native Dutch person, I never realised that this could be so unfamiliar to international students. It was not until The New York Times published an article about the ‘peculiar Dutch summer rite’ of ‘dropping’ children in forests that I understood the extent to which we are taught to be independent from a young age, and how this focus on independence is embedded in all parts of our society, including our universities.

So the first thing a student needs to thrive in the Netherlands is the ability to think independently, and know when and how to ask for help.

Open and welcoming

As a society, the Netherlands is quite multicultural. With many institutions and big corporations having their base in the Netherlands, we have an international outlook.

This also holds true for Dutch universities. For English-taught programmes the student body generally has 30-80 per cent international students. Therefore, international students have to adapt not only to the Dutch culture and its peculiarities (e.g. directness!), but also to individuals from many other backgrounds.

Exposure to other cultures and/or backgrounds during a student’s high school can help prepare for a successful transition to university. This does not mean that we are exclusively looking for students who have lived or traveled to many places, but we are looking for students who have made an effort to engage with ‘others’.

Collaboration and engagement

In the Netherlands, higher education programmes are taken either at Universities of Applied Sciences (which prepare students for a particular career or job field) or at Research Universities (which are focused on teaching students how to do research).

At Universities of Applied Sciences, students will often be engaged in teamwork and group projects, while students following a Research University degree are more likely to be engaged in a piece of individual study. A course like Cambridge International AS&A Level Global Perspectives & Research prepares a student well for both types of study

Students need to be able to collaborate and work with others, not only at university but also later in life. They also need to be able to ‘hold their own’ and formulate their own thoughts and questions. Universities aim to train these skills in students, but the earlier students start engaging with them, the better. After all, skill-building takes time.

Growing popularity of liberal arts education

In the Netherlands, and elsewhere in Europe, the popularity of combined Liberal Arts and Science education is gaining ground rapidly. As it is relatively new, students often do not know what to expect and whether it is right for them.

In a liberal arts programme, we are training students to understand what questions they need to ask, and to be the bridge between individuals trained in only one particular discipline. For students to take on disciplines outside their main area of interest, they need to have a genuine passion for learning.

The world of work is not divided into academic disciplines. For instance, coming up with a great technological solution to a big problem is amazing. Yet, it cannot be done in isolation from economics (is the solution financially viable?), law (do we need to patent?), philosophy (are there any ethical issues?) or sociology/anthropology (will the solution be accepted by society?).

In other words, these issues or questions can often only be resolved by looking at them from different perspectives.

Asking the right questions

Looking ahead to the next university fair where students will inevitably be asking me what they need to get into my university, while I will still give them the answer they are looking for, I will hopefully take the time to engage them in a conversation about being happy and successful at university beyond merely getting in.

I am optimistic that if we were all to engage in that type of discourse, students will end up making choices better suited to their personalities and capabilities. A joint effort should ultimately lead to students being better equipped to deal with life in an ever-changing society.


Cambridge qualifications are widely accepted at universities in the Netherlands. For advice on applying to the Netherlands with Cambridge qualifications, go to https://www.cambridgeinternational.org/programmes-and-qualifications/recognition-and-acceptance/country/netherlands/

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Denise Nijhuis
By Denise Nijhuis

Denise Nijhuis works at University College Roosevelt (UCR) as Coordinator Student Recruitment and Admissions, where she oversees the admissions process from start to finish. Outside UCR she serves as Vice-President for Professional Development of the International Association for College Admissions Counseling (IACAC) and is a member of the Council of International Schools (CIS) Webinar Committee.

View all posts by Denise Nijhuis