Hands‐on simulations are increasingly used in vocational oriented curricula to create meaningful, occupation‐related learning experiences. However, more insight is required about precisely what characteristics in hands‐on simulations enhance outcomes that students need for their future occupation, such as competencies. This study aims to examine how constructivist pedagogical–didactic design principles affect competence development of senior vocational education and professionally oriented bachelor's degree students in a wide range of hands‐on simulations. For this purpose, 23 hands‐on simulations were studied. Teachers rated the degree of authenticity and self‐directedness of the hands‐on simulations. Student perceptions (N = 516) of value, authenticity and self‐directedness (operationalized as choice), as well as their competence development, were gathered using questionnaires. The results of the hierarchical regression analyses showed that: (1) authenticity and self‐directedness did not automatically lead to more competence development; and (2) student perceptions of perceived value, authenticity and choice of how to perform tasks were the main predictors of competence development in the simulations. Nonetheless, the additional mediation analyses suggest that it is still important for teachers to invest in learning activities that stimulate self‐directedness as these activities indirectly predicted competence development, through student perceptions. Several reasons for the results are discussed, among them the mismatch between teachers and students of what was considered authentic, complexity of the simulations, the teacher's role as facilitator instead of activator and the lack of choice possibilities. Ideas for future research, as well as practical implications concerning designing and implementing hands‐on simulations for fostering competence development, are suggested.