Surviving University in France


If you’re thinking about studying in France whether for an Erasmus year, a gap year or even to do a post grad you may be wondering what the french system is really like! How does the university system work? I always love to hear actual insiders thoughts and if you’re  about to head off to study in France is worth doing a bit of research so you will be prepared for the french quirks. Having spent two academic years within the french university system, in two different cities I have picked up a lot of useful knowledge.

So here are some tips to navigate the french university system as an Erasmus/ international student.

  • Lower your expectations of The Campus

Irish Universities are well funded, with modern buildings, fantastic libraries, cafeterias, cafes, shops, pharmacies..they are nearly like little villages. If you’re in NUIG you’ll know that there is generally no need to leaving the campus until you are headed home. French universities are different. Fees are a lot lower here, about €400 per year in a public university, as a result there isn’t the same amount of money available for fancy new buildings.

I study in Sciences Po, Toulouse which is a “grande ecole”, there are a number of others across France including in Aix en Provence and Paris. These grande ecoles are harder to get into and have slightly higher fees, though still lower than what Irish students pay. Over the years these schools have been incorporated into the wider university system. Sciences Po Toulouse for example is now  under the umbrella structure of “University Toulouse”. As a result we have access to all the campuses around the city. This is great because my school is tiny, it’s one building, with one cafe and only a few “amphitheatres”.

The cafeterias and cafes are all run by Crous, so the food is subsidised and a lot cheaper. However its not always the most appealing and there’s a limited choice. There are no private entities such like Subway etc on campus so to get more choice you need to leave.

The libraries have limited opening hours and for students from Sciences Po we have to go to another campus to access a proper library. This can be frustrating when you have a short break and want to go to the library but have to go on a bit f a trek to find one.

  • Don’t Stress about Administration

Registering for college at home is easy, to be honest having to do any sort of administrative or bureaucratic work is easier in Ireland than in France. There is a limited online system here, to register I had to go to an office on a specific date and queue for two hours along with all the other students in the college just to register. The process may be easier in other colleges but you might as well be prepared for a difficult process. As long as you know its difficult there’s no shock and you’ll be better prepared. I knew that the registration was likely to take a while so I came prepared with lunch, it helped!

  • Be prepared for Cancelled Classes

Depending on what course you are doing timetables can change quickly and classes can be cancelled without any notice. While I’m pretty lucky that I haven’t had too many last minute cancellations my boyfriends masters is a different story. Classes can be cancelled in the middle of the night, morning …anytime really. It can be quite frustrating as he can never plan his week or even day in advance.

Again cancelled classes become less annoying if you’re prepared. Check your timetable every morning. Make sure you have a Facebook chat/ group where you can find out from other students if a particular class has been cancelled.

  • Get to know the different types of “lectures”

When I was doing my undergraduate in Ireland we had lectures and tutorials and that was it. Here I have seminaires, conference de methodes, cours magistraux and cours.

Cours or Cours Magistraux – these are similar to normal Irish lectures. There could be between 40 and a few hundred people. Attendance isn’t necessarily compulsory as there’s too many people to take a roll. However its worth checking out first if the notes will be online before deciding to skip classes. Some schools do use an online system and some don’t. In Aix there was no blackboard or equivalent so it was necessary to be present and take down every note. Toulouse is a bit more up to date and many professors put the notes or the slides online. These classes usually involve and exam at the end of the semester. Exams are 2 – 4 hours long and usually involve writing a dissertation. This essay must be in the french style which is quite complicated.

Seminaires – these are classes taken by masters students. They are more interactive than a “cours”. Participation is expected and your final result is usually based on an expose – an oral presentation. This sounds like its more difficult however I much prefer this, I like giving presentations as they are easier to prepare for and there’s no studying for a final exam.

Conference de methodes – these are similar to Irish tutorials. As a cours can be quite large the CM is a class in the same subject but with less people. Attendance is compulsory and a result may be given based on a presentation  oral or written.

  • International Students may have and easier time

If you are an Erasmus or international student more often than not the teacher will take that into account when grading a presentation or exam. You will be allowed to use a dictionary and they won’t be too harsh about any spelling/ grammar mistakes. Also while they will expect you to attempt the french method they do understand that its difficult and so will not expect it to be perfect.

  • FLE 

As well as following these sort of classes I also take a french class which is for international students only. French as a Foreign Language is a great course to take during your Erasmus as you will really improve all your language skills, meet other Erasmus students and learn the french method.

The French system is different to others but once you are used to its quirks it gets easier to navigate. The most important thing is not to stress about the administration or exams. It all falls into place eventually! My best advice would be to find Facebook groups for each subject you take. There you will be able to get notes, ask about exams etc. French students are generally willing to share notes as they aren’t competing with you. They understand that it is difficult for international students to take down notes and if asked politely are friendly and helpful. Take advantage of the fact that you are an international student, students and professors in general are understanding.

As always if you have any thoughts or questions feel free to get in touch!





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