Cultural tips for content of Statment of Purpose

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Bini
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Cultural tips for content of Statment of Purpose

Post by Bini » Fri Jan 21, 2011 2:52 am

This may be a bit of a strange question, but...

I am in the process of applying to study at a Flemish university (and am pretty much ready to submit but still have to wait for my professors from my previous degree to finish writing me references).

I have been thinking about the content of my Statement of Purpose (which I assume forms a similar role as the admission essays they have in America). I have done research online and have a general idea of what to put in there, but my question to you all is whether there is anything which you think might be worth considering from a cultural perspective. What is it that the Flemish people value in terms of traits, values, outlooks etc?

I know that sounds very broadly worded, but for example, a bit of knowledge about Australia would tell you that Australians love the underdog (the one who isn't expected to win but ends up doing so), the quiet achiever (meaning confident but humble), there is a real emphasis on ability to cooperate and get along with peers and colleagues, and also on selflessly helping others in times of need (the 'australian spirit').

I know I am supposed to write honestly and frankly about myself and not just put what I think they want to hear. But I have read that you should also make links between yourself and the institution - whether it be specific qualities of the university itself or the cultural context in which it resides.

Any ideas?

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Re: Cultural tips for content of Statment of Purpose

Post by Quetzal » Fri Jan 21, 2011 7:56 pm

You have to write essays to be admitted now? I suppose that makes sense, when the Flemish universities are competing with foreign universities for international students, but let me tell you, for Flemish students the whole concept of writing such a letter is bizarre, since we just enroll in the university of our choice (a system that has its advantages and disadvantages, obviously).

I suppose I could mention that as a rule, Flemings are relatively introverted and modest - being positive about yourself in such letters is obviously necessary to some extent, but be careful not to sound arrogant or overconfident. "Confident but humble" sounds good. What university are you applying to, and more importantly which field of study? The Flemish universities are fairly homogeneous compared to those of larger countries - I wouldn't go as far as to say they're all on the same level, but the differences aren't huge as the choice of enrollment is free, so every university has top students and weak students, though the international programs tend to be rather a lot more selective. Still, there are some differences in terms of "cultural context" - in the religious and philosophical background of the universities, notably.

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Re: Cultural tips for content of Statment of Purpose

Post by Bini » Sat Jan 22, 2011 4:15 am

Danku voor uw antwoord :)

I don't know if the essay thing applies to all courses; the one I am applying for is already aimed at international students and is taught exclusively in English. It's a Master of Advanced Studies in European Law at Ghent University (http://www.law.ugent.be/llm/).

Maybe I will fit in with the Flemish better than I could have guessed because I also find the concept bizarre and I think it feels strange to have to sing my own praises. I have tried to make it more about my history of interaction with Europe (and in particular Belgium), including my travels, my EU citizenship (I have an Irish passport as my father is an Irish Australian) and my pre-existing link through my Flemish partner and his family and friends. I also talk about my particular fields of interest within law (based on my Australian studies), and how I am eager to learn more about these areas in a European context. Then on a personal level I speak a little about what my time studying has taught me and what I value. I don't think it sounds overly confident but that is definitely something to watch out for and I think when I am finished writing it I will have some honest friends or family read over it to check!

I've also noticed that the Flemish can be very patriotic and get joy out of hearing a foreigner is learning to speak their language (ok maybe a generalisation there but I've had this reaction from pretty much every Fleming I've met so far). Do you think I should mention that I am studying Dutch in the admission letter? It is not directly relevant to the course but they do mention in the course booklet that Ghent university offers classes for foreigners wanting to learn Dutch and they seem to encourage it quite a bit. I don't mean this in an 'oooo look at me I'm special I'm learning Dutch' way - I realise that most international students will probably make some attempt in that regard, but at least it shows that I am putting in an effort to understand the culture and to immerse myself in the Flemish way of life.

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Re: Cultural tips for content of Statment of Purpose

Post by Quetzal » Sat Jan 22, 2011 1:16 pm

Ah, I see. Your Flemish partner should be able to make sure you don't go too far in the wrong direction in the letter, then. I'm amused to hear you say "the Flemish can be very patriotic". Hint: don't say that aloud to a Fleming, because more likely than not they'll take it as an insult. ;) Politics are touchy these days, and most Flemings like to think of themselves as not at all nationalistic, "world citizens" as they like to call it, even if that isn't always entirely true. But they are indeed quite happy when foreigners try to learn their language (though as you will no doubt also have noticed, they have a tendency of switching to English or French rather than having a conversation with someone in imperfect Flemish/Dutch, nevertheless), as you could tell from that other thread about "famous people who have learned Dutch". Of course, this is true for speakers of most "smaller" languages (Dutch is actually among the forty or fifty most spoken languages, iirc, but compared to English obviously it's small), but it's particularly sensitive in Flanders because of the linguistic history here, I don't know how much you've learned about that from your partner or from reading about Flanders.

You're obviously right that most foreigners will do some token effort to learn Dutch during their stay in Flanders, but not that many really try to get a good head start beforehand, so I do think that's worth mentioning.

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Re: Cultural tips for content of Statment of Purpose

Post by Bini » Sun Jan 23, 2011 11:31 am

Oops, I hope I didn't insult you. Though I was careful to say they can be very patriotic, not a generalised 'the Flemish are very patriotic' in an attempt to signal that I was not talking about all Flemish people. I heard that there was a nationalist party which was quite racist and gave nationalism a bad name, but the people I have met so far are often nationalists in a more restrained sense and completely disassociate themselves with that party. And in terms of being patriotic, I was also speaking from my observations after being in Flanders twice during the Flemish national day on different years and noticing the large amount of people displaying flags on their houses.

In any case I'm sure I can't properly appreciate the make-up of the nation until I live there, and my observations stem only from my own experiences so far which have been somewhat limited. I'm sure it will take a while to properly grasp Belgian politics!!

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Re: Cultural tips for content of Statment of Purpose

Post by Quetzal » Sun Jan 23, 2011 12:19 pm

Bini wrote:Oops, I hope I didn't insult you. Though I was careful to say they can be very patriotic, not a generalised 'the Flemish are very patriotic' in an attempt to signal that I was not talking about all Flemish people. I heard that there was a nationalist party which was quite racist and gave nationalism a bad name, but the people I have met so far are often nationalists in a more restrained sense and completely disassociate themselves with that party. And in terms of being patriotic, I was also speaking from my observations after being in Flanders twice during the Flemish national day on different years and noticing the large amount of people displaying flags on their houses.

In any case I'm sure I can't properly appreciate the make-up of the nation until I live there, and my observations stem only from my own experiences so far which have been somewhat limited. I'm sure it will take a while to properly grasp Belgian politics!!
Nah, I'm detached enough from Belgian politics that I can see the ironies and inconsistencies in it. :P But your observation about seeing large amounts of Flemish flags is strange to me as well - I've never seen many of those, though admittedly I'm usually out of the country on vacation around that time. It's probably to some extent in reaction to the political difficulties of the past five or so years - as far as I've seen, we still have rather few flags, compared not only to the extreme example of the US but also more normal cases like the Netherlands, but definitely more than we used to have.

Since last year's rather dramatic elections, the party you are referring to has become a bit of a non-entity, but the non-racist nationalistic party (the N-VA) is now the largest Flemish party by far. Which is good in the sense that the Walloons can no longer pretend Flemish nationalism is just cloaked racism, as they used to do, but rather bad in the sense that forming a federal government is proving nearly impossible, as you may have noticed. And yes, Belgian politics are awfully complicated for a country so small. ;)

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Re: Cultural tips for content of Statment of Purpose

Post by Bini » Tue Apr 12, 2011 1:25 am

Hi - sorry I've been a bit inactive for a while. Life has been busy! Just wanted to say thanks for your advice - I have been accepted into the program :-D I'll be studying at the University of Ghent from September! Very exciting.

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