HIGHER EDUCATION IN FRANCE: PRÉPAS

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What is a Prépa?

The “Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Ecoles”, commonly referred to as “prépas” are two year post-Bac courses run in a “lycée” that “prepares” its students for the highly prized entry competition concours for the French “Grandes Ecoles” – think Oxbridge or Harvard/Princeton. For entry to these establishments, simply getting excellent grades is not enough. It is a competition, not an exam, so only the top percentage will succeed. For example, thousands of students prepare for the scientific “concours” in “prépas” and in universities but only 400 French students and 100 foreign students will enter Polytechnique each year.

Prépas have a very strict selection process, the first hurdle is gaining access to the best preparation for this competition,so performing well in “lycée” is primordial. Students are selected according to their grades during every year of the lycée (2nde, 1er, Tle), their teachers’ comments and their Baccalaureate scores. Graduates who have been through “prépa” – whether they are from a scientific, business, literary or political background – all agree on one thing – getting through “prépa” and coping with the stress of the final competition is the hardest part of your studies. The rhythm is extremely intense with one of the highest workloads in the world: 40-45 teaching hours a week – and many hours of homework on top.

Which prépa for which school?

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L’Étudiant magazine website suggests the following selection according to the school the student wishes to integrate:

  • Scientific Prépas: MP/MP Maths-Physics, PC/PC Physics-Chemistry, PSI/PSII Physics-Engineering Science, PT/PT Physics-Technology for entry to Engineering Schools and scientific ENS “(Ecoles Normales Superieures)”.
  • Scientific Prépas: BCPST (Biology, Chemistry, Physics) for entry to Medical schools.
  • Economics and Business “prépas”: ECE – Economics and Business with Economics option or ECS Economics and Business with Science option for entry to Business Schools.
  • Literary Prépas: A/L. B/L, LSH (Languages, Social Science, and Literature) for entry to Literary ENS, Business schools and IEP (Political institutes).

Universities and prepas

Prépas have traditionally been seen as the ‘entry door’ to the “Grandes Ecoles”. However, the system is starting to change and there is more crossover than in the past.

Some “Grandes Ecoles” are forming links with large universities and accept a certain number of students who have completed two or three years of study.

Naturally, prépa teachers must also be highly qualified. A large percentage have PhDs and all have to pass the gruelling Agregexam – the highest recruitment exam in the teaching profession in France, which exists since 1766.

Coping with life in Prépa

According to M Domenech, Proviseur of the Lycée International François 1er Fontainebleau, which has several prépa classes, the main skills needed are the ability to handle a very heavy workload and to be strong in your main subject. For example, for scientific prépas, ability in Maths and Physics is extremely important, along with excellent French grammar and spelling skills. A good level of English is a great advantage.

The traditional image of a Prépa student is one that puts his social, sporting and extra-curricular life on hold for two years preparing for the exam. In the past, prépas were criticized for being too individualistic and too conceptual – in the end, it’s a competition so helping your neighbour might not be to your advantage.

However, this is now changing according to Vincent Honorat, an engineer who teaches Engineering Science in the prépa classes of the Lycée International Francois 1er in Fontainebleau, “Our teaching is based on developing the necessary skills to become an engineer or research engineer. For example, for engineering science students, the ability to work in a team as well as individually is an essential skill and we try to ensure our students have practical experience of this. In addition to studying conceptual themes, students are put in real-life situations with concrete problems to solve using the same machines and software programmes that are used in industry. They have to place the problem in a global context by working with teams from other departments.”

The competition itself

The written exam is the next hurdle – only the top percentage of students go on to do the oral exam which lasts 2-4 hours per subject. Students are judged on their global comprehension of the subject and their ability to present it to an audience.

Life after prépa

Graduates from the top engineering schools, business schools and political science schools have a headstart in the job market,as many positions require Bac+5 in France.

How are prepas perceived internationally?

The prépa concept has proven globally mobile. prépas are now successfully running in China, Morocco, Algeria and other countries. French science teachers are in demand in these new structures. For example, in China, Central – one of the large scientific Grandes Ecoles, has now installed its own integrated prepa class in Beijing. They work closely with French teachers in France to prepare their programmes and are setting up their own engineering bases in their host countries.

M Domenech is the Proviseur of the Lycée International Francois 1er in Fontainebleau, part of the Campus International,which offers classes from primary to prépa and has two International Sections – Anglophone and Germanophone.

M Vincent Honorat is an Engineer from the Arts et Metiers Grande Ecole. He teaches Engineering science in the prépa classes Lycée International Francois 1er in Fontainebleau.

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