My freshman year of college, I knew I wanted to either do a semester or a year exchange in France. In fact, I had a whole five year “plan” on how I would hopefully become fluent in French. After all, one of my majors is French, so being comfortable with the language is important. First, after my freshman year I would participate in a monthlong summer immersion program in a small town in the French Alps. Then, my junior year, I would do a year exchange somewhere in France. After I graduated, I would be hired as an English language assistant in the french public school system for a year through the TAPIF program.
Turns out, an unexpected opportunity came up the summer before I would have done my year long exchange so I ended up opting for a spring semester exchange instead of a whole year. After much thought, I finally decided on and was placed in a beautiful city in the southeast of France called Lyon. It turned out to be a WONDERFUL choice (but more on that later). This post is dedicated to the actual university system for those of you who are curious or who may be looking to study in France yourself.
So, what’s it like to study in France?
In short, it’s several months of constant confusion. Apparently the university I went to has a reputation for having particularly difficult administration, but I’d be willing to bet other French Universities aren’t a lot more clear. In the end, there were no disasters and I made it out with all my credits, but for a while I really had my doubts.
I went to Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3 which specializes in humanities, business, and law. There were two different semester exchange programs: SELF- classes taught in English and CEUF- classes taught in French. To me, it seemed that most Americans participated in SELF. Some of them barely knew French when coming to Lyon, but had a conversational level by the time they left! From what I heard, the SELF classes were fairly straight forward without too much course work. You took a couple french language and culture classes then could pick from a range of other courses taught in English that related to your major. The CEUF program, on the other hand, was not necessarily hard, but just having everything taught in French and the completely different teaching and grading system than I’m used to made it very challenging. For CEUF, we were required to take two classes dedicated to international students: French history and culture and French grammar (according to our level). These were still taught in french of course, but my classmates were other international students and my professors understood this. For our other classes, we could pick basically anything offered to regular university students. In addition to my French culture class and my French grammar class, I ended up taking Introduction to Prehistory, Introduction to Medieval History, General Linguistics, English Phonetics, and Comparative Literature.
Big Differences between American and French University Systems
The biggest and most shocking difference for Americans coming to study at a French university is the grading system. Luckily, my American university allowed me to take my classes abroad on a pass/fail basis. In France the grades are out of 20. So what this means is that I had to get at least a 10/20. When you translate this to American grades this is a 50%. 50%?! Easy. Right? Basically, you just show up to class and turn in assignments however good or bad they may be. Well, this was my American thinking. In France, there are no participation points, no assignments throughout the semester. Also, professors almost never give above an 18/20. Even God himself would never be given a 20. I believe the most assignments I had for any class was two exams throughout the semester. For some, it was just one big assignment at the end. For the classes I took, these were the grades I received: 14, 11.75, 12, 16, 13, 12, 12. Yay! I passed. I’ve never been so excited for such seemingly poor grades.
When you sign up for classes which is done by the selections literally being posted on the wall (there is no online system for this), the class will either say CM or TD. CM will be a lecture style class and TD will supposedly be a more hands on class with a smaller group. I signed up for two TDs which turned out to be lectures also, but the classes were smaller, so we could ask questions if needed. Basically in a class, the professor drones on the whole hour or two most often without a powerpoint while all the students furiously scribble down the lecture word for word. Sometimes a professor will cancel a class or a classroom will be changed without notice leaving everyone confused (even French students).
I ended up having to take seven classes in order to satisfy the credits I needed for my home university (14 hours). This is because classes in France meet less times a week, so it is necessary to take more of them in order to have enough hours.
The scariest part of my exchange experience was an oral exam I had for one class- medieval history. Being an incredibly dense and broad subject, I had sat in class all semester catching a fraction of what my professor said- especially at the beginning when my french was worse. My notes were not good at all, so I was terrified at the thought of an ORAL exam for this class. Apparently, oral exams are common in France. We were not allowed to bring in our notes and my professor called us in and had us draw two topics. We picked one and were given fifteen minutes to prepare by writing notes on a sheet of paper. We then were supposed to talk about the topic face to face with my professor for 15 minutes. Luckily, I got a pretty simple topic, but I’m sure I only talked for about 8 minutes. I got a 12 on this, and I’ve never been so relieved to be done with an exam.
The school cafeteria was fantastic and I ate here every chance I got. Everything you see here was €3.25. The only thing missing is wine!
Overall, if you study at a French university, you will be very confused for a while, but you just have to do your best and trust that everything will turn out okay in the end, really. It’s a humbling experience to be a little (or a lot) lost. The best things about studying at a French university is that you get to live in France AND your french will get better. Totally worth it. Profitez!