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The French and the American University Systems are Vastly Different

The French system of higher education is very centralized and includes institutions such as public state universities (the majority), grandes écoles, and other specialized schools in engineering and business. All French students who have passed (succeeded) the baccalauréat exam or its equivalent are eligible to study in a French university. Students seeking admission to the highly selective grandes écoles must apply after two years of rigorous cours préparatoires (known as Prépa).

You will observe many differences in student-professor relations, course format and pedagogy, student preparation and behavior in classes, resource availability, and scheduling. The experience of taking a class at a French university constitutes in itself an opportunity for learning about cultural differences, the multiple formats of education, and realizing that American Liberal Arts colleges are not the norm around the world.

The majority of French students do not follow a liberal arts program in which students are encouraged to explore a wide range of fields; French students cannot create their own broad academic program from scratch; rather, they must follow a specific path, usually set as early as high school (lycée), and take comprehensive exams each year. French students can “repeat” courses or an entire year of studies.

The French Licence vs. the B.A.

Courses in French universities are set up by discipline in what the French call cycles (often with particular tracks). The undergraduate degree is called the Licence and covers three years (L1, L2, L3). French students enroll directly in a specific disciplinary program with many required classes and a few elective choices. They don't need to consult multiple schedules as their program is fundamentally set from the first semester.

On the other hand, under normal circumstances, HiF students are allowed to pick and choose within and across departments, and even schools. This added freedom makes finalizing their schedule a little more complex. But if they understand these basic differences between the French system and the liberal arts system, they will feel less frustrated during the first month in France.

Note that with Covid-19 disruptions, all international students (including HiF) may be slightly more limited in their choice of university courses.

There are two main types of courses at French universities :

  • The Cours magistraux (CM): lecture courses with a high enrollment that usually offer a broad conceptual or theoretical overview to the course.
  • The Travaux pratiques (TP) and/or travaux dirigés (TD): smaller sections (20-25 students) with a different professor that combine lectures and student oral presentations on more specific texts/themes.

Course material: French universities rely on fewer textbooks (which means students will save some money here!), but professors lecture, sometimes long and very formal lectures, and students take ample notes — which they sometimes share among themselves.

Literature courses explore far fewer primary works than in the equivalent courses in the US, but students are expected to reread and know the texts of reference very well, and to engage in independent reading suggested in the (often very long) bibliographies provided for the course. Students are expected to take significant notes during the CM and often present an oral exposé in the TD.

N.B. HiF students are expected to submit the equivalent of 15-20 pages of work (in the form of exposés, papers, or exams) for each full-credit course. They should inform the director if a class does not require that much work and HiF will arrange for more assignments. Mandatory tutorials organized by the HiF program will help students sharpen their skills for those courses.

Hamilton in France student blog

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Hamilton in France

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