Higher education providers need to deliver graduates with the conceptual understanding required for professional life. Conceptual understanding entails a synthesis of relevant facts, theories and practices that influence occupational performance. To help align curricula with individual student differences, this study investigates differences in international business undergraduates’ conceptual understanding with regard to study progress. Seventy-four international business students of a bachelor’s programme in the Netherlands participated. Students were presented with a complex business problem. They then wrote essays in which they explicated their conceptual understanding of the case. Using a rubric, six components of conceptual understanding were graded on a 5-point scale ranging from negligible to extraordinary. Results indicated three types of conceptual understanding: limited, developing and extensive. Their relationship with study progress was nonlinear, indicating that effects other than curriculum may account for differences between students. Suggestions are made to account for differences, and recommendations are made regarding curriculum development.