Secondary school: Choosing the right pathway

Secondary school: Choosing the right pathway

In primary school in group 8, students receive a recommendation about what educational pathway might suit them best when it comes to secondary school: VMBO (formerly MAVO), HAVO or VWO. Wendy van Dalen and co-author Jacqueline Naaborg of StudiekeuzeTop3 provide information about the available options.

The options

Your child will be able to choose from the following:


VMBO stands for preparatory secondary vocational education. This pathway lasts for four years. Pupils are prepared for an MBO education. It is possible to move on to HAVO after completing VMBO.


HAVO stands for senior general secondary education. This pathway lasts for five years. With a HAVO diploma, your child can study at universities of applied sciences (hogescholen), where they can get a bachelor’s degree in applied sciences (HBO). They can also first move on to pre-university education (+ 2 years).


University preparatory education (VWO) lasts 6 years and prepares your child for academic education (WO) and makes it possible to study at a research university.

Choosing the right level

It is important that your child enters secondary school at the right level. You want them to be sufficiently challenged, but you don’t want them to be stressed out and barely getting by. Of course, it is possible to change levels if it turns out your initial choice wasn’t the right one. But it is more pleasant to make the right choice right away, because a lot has changed already in your child’s life, such as their place of residence, country, friends etc.

The secondary education guide features a handy step-by-step plan to help your child with the selection process by asking a number of questions:

  • Step 1: What are your strengths?
  • Step 2: Which school suits you?
  • Step 3: How do you learn best?
  • Step 4: What extras does the school offer you?
  • Step 5: Are you ready to start?
  • Step 6: Go!

Learning pathway or profile

Once in secondary school, students must make a learning pathway or profile choice at some point. VMBO students will choose a learning pathway at the end of the second grade. HAVO and VWO students make a profile choice in third grade. This period is called substructure. If the students have chosen, they are in the superstructure.

VMBO learning pathway

Students can choose from four learning pathways at VMBO:

  • The theoretical learning pathway (in particular general subjects): VMBO TL
  • The mixed learning pathway (mix of theoretical and professional): VMBO GL
  • Framework-oriented learning pathway: VMBO framework
  • The basic vocational pathway: VMBO basic

These routes offer a certain level and a certain programme: from very practical to theoretical. At the end of the second year, students will have to make a choice. Sometimes that choice, for example between two learning paths, can be postponed until just before the final exam.

Many schools offer variants to the TL and GL, such as the GL+ (GL + extra course) or TL+. TL+ often refers to a TL with a profession-oriented course. Just before or after the final exam, it is determined whether the student will receive a GL or TL diploma.

HAVO and VWO learning pathways

There are four profiles students can choose from for HAVO and VWO:

  • Economics & Society: Mathematics A, Economics, History
  • Culture & Society: History, Modern Foreign Language (HAVO), Mathematics C (VWO)
  • Nature & Technology: Mathematics B, Physics, Chemistry
  • Nature & Health: Mathematics A, Biology, Chemistry

The chosen profile forms the basis of your follow-up study, an important but difficult choice to make. Fortunately, the profiles do have several options. You can find more information about each profile choice online.

Compulsory subjects

There are compulsory courses in both the lower classes and upper classes. In the upper years, students receive the following compulsory subjects, in addition to their chosen learning pathway / profile: Dutch, English and Social Studies.

Wendy van Dalen


Wendy van Dalen

Drs. Wendy van Dalen. Mother, entrepreneur, and traveling addict. Psychologist, teacher, and director of Dutch for Children and Online Dutch for Expats. Living my best life with our expat family....

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