Failed my pre-master – what now?

Pre-master programs are promoted as a gateway to the dream career – an opportunity to combine a not-so-compatible bachelor with almost any graduate program. Tilburg University offers more than 30 pre-masters, and they attract Dutch and international students alike. However, not everyone makes it to the other side.

Maria, 25, fell in love with the Netherlands at first sight. She was visiting the country as an exchange student based in Belgium. It wasn’t only the biking and the laid-back lifestyle she adored, but also the high-level teaching at the universities and the bustling job markets that allured her. She had finished her bachelor’s degree a couple of years earlier and had been gaining work experience since. “I liked my job as a promoter, and got the idea of studying marketing.” She enrolled in the Communication and Information Sciences pre-master in the autumn of 2017, aiming to pursue a master’s degree in Business Communication and Digital Design.

 “I thought about quitting, but since I had paid for the program, I kept going”

Unlike Maria, 28-year-old James from the Netherlands was uncertain of his future and ended up choosing the pre-master in International Management by chance. “I didn’t really think it through. I just wanted to see if I’d like it.” After graduating from a university of applied sciences, James was eager to try a more academic approach. After two months, it was clear for James he hadn’t made the right choice. “I thought about quitting, but since I had paid for the program, I kept going.”

Anxiety and insomnia

The Tilburg University pre-masters don’t have uniform regulations on passing. In some, the students can take resits, and in others they are only given one shot. James didn’t pass three subjects on the first try, but was able to try again – to no avail. Maria failed two courses and is currently doing them again. “Academic English and statistics. What does a communications specialist do with them anyway?” Failure didn’t come to her as a surprise. In fact, her lecturers had been threatening the students with that from day one. Maria put a lot of effort into the course work, but the fear of failing loomed above her head during the whole semester.

James saw it coming, too, but the blow still hurts. When his friends started writing their master’s theses, he accompanied them at the library, playing video games. The stress made him experience anxiety and insomnia. “My sister’s been a great support. She barely passed her bachelor’s some time ago, so now it was her time to give me a hand.”

Maria, too, is struggling. The rhythm of her life has changed, as last semester her days were filled with course work. She doesn’t know what to do with all the time to herself. Gym? Cooking? Dreaming? “It’s actually harder to focus on two courses only. They’re not challenging enough, but I should still take both of them seriously.”


Neither Maria nor James blame their program for their situation, but they agree that there is room for improvement. The university wishes to expand, and admitting big numbers of students into the pre-master’s system is a means to achieve it. Admitting more students in the bachelor’s and master’s programs is an important way for faculties to secure their funding.

“Sometimes there weren’t enough tables and chairs in the classroom”, James says, “writing on a notebook lying on your lap isn’t the most efficient way to learn statistics.”

The pre-master offers a handy mechanism to test the applicants’ skills and motivation for the faculty – it’s a lengthy process of separating the wheat from the chaff. Many dreams are crushed in the process.

Various Tilburg University offices were approached for this article, asking for the pass and failure rates of the numerous pre-master programs. I was bounced from department to department and finally left without an answer. Lengthy statistics on student numbers and the university’s overall performance are easily available on the university’s front page.

“The workload is really heavy”


For Maria and James, the gateway proved to be a detour, but not a useless one. Not even a road they wouldn’t choose again.

“It really provides necessary skills for the future graduate program”, both agree.

James laughs: “Don’t be discouraged by my experience. But you should make sure that the program’s actually the right place for you.”

Maria wants to share a word of warning: “The workload is really heavy – be prepared to work hard! And remember to have a social life, too. It’s not good for you to sit in the library alone.”

Maria is still determined she has chosen the right education. “It’s taking more time, but I’ll get there. And if I fail again, that’s just life. I’ll enter another master’s program then.”

James’ gaming hasn’t proven to be a waste of time: he’s scored a part-time job at Nintendo. He’s also learning to code in his free time, and considers studying it full-time next autumn. “Or then I’ll get into the start-up hype. Maybe in the Netherlands, maybe abroad. I’ll see where the winds will take me!”

Names were changed to protect the interviewees’ identities.

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