The Harsh Reality of Studying at a European University

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Kees Lynch
April 28, 2024

Study abroad is a magical time for students. Many students travel extensively throughout Europe and dive deep into the lifestyle and culture of their host cities. It can be such an exciting experience with so much anticipation for the exploration and fun to come that students lose sight of one of the fundamental aspects of your semester away: studying. Certain study abroad programs are essentially just three-month long vacations, where students are expected to do minimal work and instead spend their enormous amounts of free time doing whatever they please; I have a friend studying in Copenhagen this semester through a different abroad program who is quite disappointed at the lack of education and structure. For some students, this is perfect, and that’s fine–to each their own–but I and many other students think it’s a waste of money and time to spend one precious semester of college not engaging in any academics. That being said, the academic culture at European universities is quite different than at American ones. 

School in America is criminally expensive; some top schools at full tuition will gut a parent’s bank account by six figures. Additionally, there is such a pressure in the states to go to college straight out of high school and promptly finish in four years so that young college grads can go straight into the work force. These qualities are simply not present in European universities. Great education costs next to nothing for all European students, and there is not this pressure to have graduated college at 21 or 22 years old. I have some German family friends who are quite a few years older than I am and in the same year of university, simply because they have taken their time with their education, opting to break up their semesters with work and travel experiences all across Europe and other parts of the world. As such, the design of many courses at European universities (or at least the University of Amsterdam) is quite different than those of American universities. 

The biggest difference is that the stakes are much higher in European classes than American ones. Because American students (really their parents) are paying so much for education, and because there’s an expectation to finish within four years, it is pretty difficult to fail a course in the states. There are always multiple tests or papers, projects, homework assignments, and participation credit that ensures that, even if one receives a low grade on a larger assessment, showing up to class and doing busy work can secure a passing grade. At European universities, many of the courses have only one test as the whole grade, with minimal to no graded homework and no participation credit. I took two courses last semester, one of which had only one exam, and the other consisted of an essay and an exam. For the latter course, I did not pass the exam, so I did not pass the class. A friend I made was in both of the same classes and did not pass either of them. This is not an issue for European students, as they can simply sign up for the same course or a different one the following semester for pennies on the American university dollar. This is the harsh reality for American students studying in Europe: because of the academic culture, the courses and the professors might not be as forgiving as you’re used to. This doesn’t mean that American courses are super easy or that European ones are insanely challenging; there is just a different attitude towards obtaining a college degree, and this coupled with the excitement of being abroad and the ease with which you can travel and experience Europe firsthand complicates the academic process.

My advice? Know where you stand academically at your home university and recognize what you want to gain out of studying abroad. I disagree with those students who do nothing but travel, party, and spend money, but partaking in this cultural immersion to a degree is in some ways a greater learning experience than anything a classroom could provide. If academics are very important, then gear your semester around that: find the best cafes, libraries, and parks to study in, and make friends in your courses with whom you can study with. If you plan on travelling and exploring extensively, make sure your academics can be put on the backburner. This doesn’t mean neglect them entirely, as, like I’ve said several times, this is a waste of money and time, but do let some of that stress and pressure go. For several semesters in America I took 18 credits as opposed to the standard 15 at my college, so getting 12 credits last semester in Europe has not negatively affected me in the slightest. Also, to turn what was a frustrating experience into a rewarding one, I learned quite a bit about myself in failing a class. I recognized that I let my academics slip a little, and also recognized that I would at that point rather prioritize other aspects of my life. I learned to let go of the intense academic pressure I put on myself in the past; of course I was upset, but ultimately, I was at peace with the fact that I hadn’t passed a course. C’est la vie. I still learned from the course, learned just as much not passing it, and learned the most immersing myself from head to toe in Dutch culture. 

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Kees Lynch

Despite being a history major and studying history at the UvA this year, I am a passionate musician. I have been playing piano for over a decade, focusing largely on jazz, but I love to play guitar, banjo, and mandolin in my free time!

2023 Fall
Home University:
Skidmore College
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