9 differences between American & French Universities Image

I started my university education at a small college in Napa Valley, California. Then I packed up my things and moved to Pennsylvania enrolling at one of the largest universities in the US: Penn State. Two vastly different experiences, but that’s another story. The real comparison came when in 2007 I moved from Penn State to study abroad in Paris and Montpellier. And now I’m in the final stretch before I get my MBA from a French école supérieure.

When I enrolled at a French university, it wasn’t the language that scared me. What stressed me out the most was not yet having a grasp of professors’ expectations to which my French classmates were well accustomed. Over the years, I’ve mastered how navigate the French higher education system, however some differences still leave me scratching my head. I thought it’d be fun to discuss a few…

So just what exactly are the differences between American and French universities?

1. Grades are calculated differently

First off, there is no syllabus handed out at the beginning of each class, so no grading scale based on 10% participation, 10% attendance, 30% pop quizzes, and 50% for the final as in the US. Instead, at the end of each class you can expect one chance (in most cases) to pass and it’s usually in the form of a presentation, research paper, or essay exam. Rarely did I see a multiple choice or short answer.

As for the grade, in the US we are all familiar with the A, B, C, D or F scale with A’s being obtainable. In France, you’ll get a number from 1 through 20; you need a 10 to pass but never expect to get above 16/20. Even when I was waived from English class, they still gave me a 16/20!! Why? This is the best explanation I’ve heard: 20 is for God, 19 is for Jesus, 18 is for the professor – the three tiers you’ll never attain. Then 17 is for the brightest of the bright and 16 is for the best of the best. It seems odd (and disappointing) at first, but you get used to it.

2. French university courses don’t require textbooks

In my undergrad semester in Montpellier, year abroad in Paris with courses at the Sorbonne, and two years as a master’s student, I was never given a list for required textbooks or reading. Just getting a professor to give us a recommended reading list took some insisting. And even the published professors didn’t recommend their own books covering the very topic of the course.

While buying $400 – $1000 worth of large heavy textbooks each semester, some of which I never opened, I left Penn State with a number of volumes I continue to find worthy and interesting enough to keep. It shocks me that in France I haven’t been given any supplemental information to expound upon the things I have been learning.

3. French scholars are interested in French scholars

I knew enrolling at a French university would require me to play by their rules, and I strived to perform at the same level as the French students despite French being my second language. But I’ll never forget being told to use only French scholars in research papers because “it’s more interesting for us” or the moment during the defense of my dissertation when my research advisor berated me for using “84% English resources” never mind the French had published very little about my topic and I had well over 100 resources.

It made me frustrated (and sometimes quite insulted) that I had worked so hard to learn their culture and thoroughly adapt, yet they demonstrated little interest in what I was able to bring to the table, especially knowing American professors would treat my knowing French with an “all-the-more-power-to-you” attitude.

4. Student Centers are at the center of American universities

At Penn State, we have the Hub. And at my Cali college it was the Grind. Both offer restaurants, television, games to play, couches to lounge about on, organized activities, causes to join, even an art gallery, and just about everything else a bunch of college kids could want to hang out and meet friends. I still remember my disbelief that Penn State has an on-campus Panda Express! Yay late night orange chicken! But in Paris there is nothing quite like that. Sure, my current école has a cafeteria, it’s just not conducive to socializing. And the food? Coffee, sandwiches and microwavable pizza from a vending machine. I only go in there when I have to and never to eat.

5. French universities have smaller campuses

French universities are considered a place for education, period. So most college campuses are limited to classrooms, lecture halls and maybe a library. The absence of computer labs and print stations is what bothered me the most (even my web-design course was taught in a typical classroom without computers). They have it down to the bare essentials and so campuses may just be one building, and not necessarily a large one. Compare that to universities in the US that have sprawling campuses even in large cities where space is limited, and I can’t help but mention that Penn State has the second largest football stadium in the US. Of course, things were different during the medieval period some thousand years ago when the Sorbonne was founded.

6. French universities have cheaper tuition

Ok, sure. American universities offer a lot. But French universities are much cheaper. In part because public universities are heavily subsidized by the government regarded each high school student who passes the BAC has the right to higher education. It’s different for the école supérieure which are private and selective, so I have been paying much more than the Sorbonne’s 400€ annual tuition fee. However with my private tuition for an MBA, plus rent and living expenses in Paris, then add the exchange rate, I am paying less than the MBA tuition at NYU – and that’s not including the added cost of city living and rent in New York.

7. American student body is cultivated by university pride

At both my American schools, student body culture and pride flourishes with t-shirts, sweatshirts, colors, sports and mascots. At Penn State it took me forever to finally give in to the blue and white, but heading to football games dressed in my jersey and adorning Nittany Lion temporary tattoos are some of my favorite college memories. To this day, even in Paris, I sleep in my Penn State pajamas.

The only university paraphernalia in Paris can be found at the tourist shops at Saint Michel for a non-existant university (And, yes, I bought one). But it’s not about the colors or the sweatshirts, it’s the unrivaled camaraderie and sense of community this builds among fellow students that’s really lacking in France. Back in the states very weeknight weekend was spent getting into college mischief with fellow classmates. Yet in the two years I’ve been with the same 15 students in Paris, we only organized one night out as a class and even in smaller groups I can count the number of outings on one hand.

8. France doesn’t go Greek

I’m not a sorority sister so this one doesn’t impact me as much as some of the other differences, but Greek life is such an integral part to many American universities that I feel I should add that there are no fraternities or sororities in France. No dormitories for that matter either (most of my classmates lived at home). So to the loud American guy walking through the centre ville in Nice: No, that big building with “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” engraved across the frieze is not the French version of a Frat House. I think you should leave the country. Like, now.

9. And finally, graduation ceremonies aren’t French

A French friend from another university who also spent time studying in the US pointed out that graduation ceremonies are becoming more and more “chic” at French universities, however “they really don’t get it.” For example, both of our French universities expect the graduating students to plan everything, from the venue to the speakers. It’s no wonder no one is thrilled.

I’m sure I could write an entire book about my experiences navigating through the differences at French universities (Sorbonne Confidential, anyone?), but despite what sometimes felt like shortcomings (Who cares if the bibliography for my dissertation had mostly English resources? It was in French!) I am walking away with an amazing education and the adventure of a lifetime. Overall I have had a wonderful experience and would do it again. But the differences have been impossible to ignore.

So what do you think? Which differences are most shocking? Do you have a similar or different observation from studying abroad?

16 comments… add one
  1. k_sam June 25, 2013, 11:38 am

    I’m currently doing an MBA at Paris-Dauphine, and having also attended the University of Rennes, I am surprised how much Dauphine is like an American university. They have a campus bookstore, a student travel center (and student-organized trips), a cafeteria plus a café and they have tons of free conferences and talks.

    We also get at least one textbook per course we do – I’m actually running out of room for all of them since we have less space here than I did in the US.

    Regarding the student pride, I was surprised when a classmate sent around an email asking if anyone wanted to order a Dauphine sweatshirt with our “promo” printed on the back. I said no because I don’t really wear sweatshirts anymore, but when they were delivered, I realized the other 29 students had all ordered one and I was the oddball out! I couldn’t believe it.

    And our graduation ceremony is 100% planned out by the secretary of our program.

    So that’s what I have experienced so far – though a lot of could also be because we are all adults working full-time and paying quite a bit more than your average Dauphine student, so maybe they go all out to give us the “full” experience?

    1. Stephanie June 25, 2013, 2:43 pm

      I love that you had such a different experience and thank you for sharing! I think it shows the wide range of possibilities when pursuing a degree abroad and it’s good to see some of both sides. I also like knowing there are options that bare some resemblance to the collegiate life I’m used to in the US.

      The sweatshirt is a surprise though I still haven’t seen anyone wearing one while and out about in Paris. And you’re lucky not to have to plan your own graduation. But why are you paying more than the average Dauphine student? Which of their MBA programs are you pursuing?

      1. k_sam June 26, 2013, 6:10 am

        I know, the sweatshirt thing is hilarious – everyone was actually sort of looking down on me for not getting one! A lot of people even wear them to class.

        And I am doing one of their “adult” masters, so they take advantage of the fact that most people have their employer pay for their tuition, and prices range from 15-25,000€ depending on the program.

        As a side note, my time at the Université de Rennes was quite similar to what you described above, so I am enjoying this more American/organized/open experience at Dauphine. Part of the reason I picked this masters though was because they have a good mix of profs from Dauphine and private consultants, and they really encourage exchanges between the students & the professors – though I guess maybe they have to since most of the students are the same age as the profs!

        1. Stephanie June 26, 2013, 1:26 pm

          Maybe the tuition is that high because it’s private? Though for public university, I’m not sure about the differences between undergrad and master’s degree tuition fees, which might also explain the prices. Either way, your program sounds like the minority! It’s great to hear that some French universities offer varied approaches to higher education.

  2. Jackie June 25, 2013, 2:55 pm

    I went to a state university in the US and you had two chances to pass: the midterm and the final. My kids have attended state universities and have as you described: a grading scale. College has become so much easier, it’s been dumb down so all can attend and graduate.

    1. Stephanie June 25, 2013, 3:15 pm

      I have heard of some American universities/colleges basing courses on a pass or fail system. I’m not sure what the percentage is between those who do and those who don’t. Even still with a midterm and a final, students are required to visit and revisit the material which I think helps in retaining the knowledge outside the classroom. And as I recall a few of my professors in the US also restricted the grading scale to only a midterm and final. As for dumbing things down, that’s another topic for another blog.

  3. Julien June 25, 2013, 2:56 pm

    I am French and attended university in France for a few years before moving to Australia, where I have been studying for some time now (currently doing a PhD here).

    Most of the differences you mention are similar to the ones I’ve experienced, in particular the attitude in regard to grades and the general university culture. The explanation for never marking above 17/20 (which, by the way, happens at all levels of study—from primary school all the way to postgraduate) is that the French think of 20/20 as an acknowledgement of perfection. They don’t see this as an indication of how well a task was performed—within the context of the unit being taught—but as a recognition of intrinsic worth, and of course no one is perfect. This kind of thinking is completely absurd and counter-productive, but unfortunately very typical. In my experience, Australian academics are much less pompous and do not have issues with giving the best marks when students perform well.

    Lecturers in Australia are also much more approachable and show more respect for students. In the French higher education system, students are implicitly expected to prove themselves before they are given attention and time. Lecturers and staff in Australian universities make you feel like you belong right from the start (at least they do in my school, but I am confident that this is true in other universities here).

    I am appalled to read that you were told to focus on French scholars regardless of their relevance. This is bordering on incompetence in my opinion, even though, I’m somewhat ashamed to say, it doesn’t really come as a surprise.

    As far as graduation ceremonies, it’s really true that the French don’t get it. University, to them, is about delivering knowledge rather than fostering personal and social development. They don’t see a graduation ceremony as being the school’s job anymore than they understand its significance.

    I really like reading your blog. Keep up the good work!

    1. Stephanie June 25, 2013, 3:35 pm

      Yay! More great insight! You gave the sociological details that I would have loved to have added if I weren’t trying to condense things into a blog post for short attention spans – so I’m really glad you shared as much as you have. Love that you expounded upon the grading system which plays into the analogy I had used – though with a much better explanation.

      As for the lectures, I have noticed that in France much more emphasis is placed on the professor who goes through his lecture and expects the students to listen. The students seem accustomed to this and I’ve had classes in the US like this so it wasn’t hard to get used to. A few professors tried to inspire discussion, some more successfully than others, but it was interesting watching which professors inspired the students to speak up most. We had one professor who was French but had spent 15 years in Canadian academia who really tried to incite discussion. However, she was constantly insulting the students and used any excuse to deflate her lungs in a constant slur of yelling. She seemed to like me a bit but even when I tried to diffuse the situation by asking a complex question back on topic, she would give me a one-line response before returning to her yelling. I’m not sure why she thought this was the best method to make the French students comfortable with openly expressing their opinions and starting a discussion. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. As a result, I don’t place much weight on her opinions and she is most certainly an exception – all college students have their share of horror-story professors. Other professors, especially the younger ones, really got discussions going and I learned so much hearing from my classmates and learning about their experiences. I wish we had more opportunities to have great conversations and this goes back to the lack of social engagement outside the classroom.

      Finally, for my experience being told to use only French resources – if it was one professor I would have written it off as being that professor’s particular preference. But it was something I heard from a number of professors over a wide range of courses and it was even backed by the school. I felt this was really unfortunate and blew my mind during my “soutenance”. In the US my professors were more concerned about making sure we included sources from the leading scholars on the topic, no matter their nationality. Incorporating different opinions from a range of backgrounds only added to the strength of the paper. I thought it was bizarre (even anal retentive) that my advisor took the initiative to tally up my references and calculate the percentage. But at the end of the day, I feel great about the research I did and I’m happy to have defended my dissertation at a foreign university in my second language. I wouldn’t change a thing!

      I’m so glad you shared your insight and experiences – and I love having the opinions of someone who’s French. Even if France, Australia, England and the US each do things a bit differently, it’s so rewarding to tackle higher education in a foreign country no matter the pro’s and con’s of a country’s particular education system, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Not only has my master’s program served its purpose, but I’ve gained mountains of life-experience on top of it that I would have missed out on had I stayed with what I knew.

  4. Rhianne June 25, 2013, 7:11 pm

    I’m so impressed you have been able to study to that level in your second language – I just couldn’t even imagine being able to do that!

    To give a UK perspective I would say we are somewhere in between the two systems. Now that we have started to charge tuition fees of £9000 p.a. I guess we are moving more down the American route. That in itself is bringing interesting changes – now students are paying for their education rather than the government, they are starting to expect a lot more for their money, especially in the elite, research-led institutions where traditionally the emphasis has been on students to learn independently with minimal tuition.

    I am currently resident in a Parisian university whilst my husband works as a post-doctoral researcher, and have been wondering where the Student Union (center/hub etc) is! It’s a shame if students here miss out on that experience, though I’m sure they find other ways to connect.

    As for grades, most universities weight your degree on the final 2 years. They all vary but most courses do allow a combination of course/project work and exams, so everything doesn’t come down to the last few weeks! We’re marked out of 100, but have the classification system:
    70 – 100 = First-class honours (1st)
    60 – 69 = Second-class, upper (2.1)
    50 – 59 = Second-class, lower (2.2)
    40 – 49: Third-class (3rd)
    In my university it was rare to get a First but they were given out, though I never heard of anyone getting a mark over 82 in any individual essay! Universities here vary so much though so others will have different experiences.

    I wish now that I had taken part of my studies in another country just to get the experience – it’s something I will definitely be encouraging my kids to do 🙂

    1. Stephanie June 26, 2013, 1:20 pm

      UK grading scales are certainly different though I would expect most of the other aspects to be similar to the US. I remember some friends explaining the differences but it had more to do with expectations in how papers were written and exams administered.

      As for connecting with other students, at my smaller university all students in the same program and at the same level share all the same classes. To some degree we’ve all become friends but there isn’t the same enthusiasm to get together outside the classroom. Though I have made one or two really close friends. However at the Sorbonne I have no idea how people connected. I felt like a faceless person in a sea of people who looked through you – there were no opportunities to interact and at the campus I was at for Art History I didn’t find any places to hang out. I couldn’t even figure out which students were at my level or in my program! It was bizarre. If I had been there more than a year I’m sure I would have pieced things together better. But still…

      It’s great you get to see one side of it with your husband working on his post-doc. And I love hearing about what it’s like in other countries – especially the Uk!

  5. TheWanderfullTraveler June 27, 2013, 9:47 pm

    Oh my! The grade thing kills me – I was so proud to receive those A’s and B’s – If I told my parents I got a 16/20 I don’t think they’d be thrilled unless I explained it the way you did – Only god can have 20! Lol

    Now that I am graduated I’ve kept many of my books that I purchased – save for economics and Geography. But I have every English book on every syllabus and same goes for my art history courses. They are handy tools to refer to later on and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used them for blogging purposes if not personal.


    1. Stephanie July 2, 2013, 8:17 am

      Yeah, the grade system takes a lot of getting used to! And it’s not like I need anymore books, but books related to my profession always inspire me! That I feel is an unfortunate loss.

  6. Mary July 16, 2013, 8:36 am

    I think the biggest difference for me would be the community aspect. Great post! I hope you’re doing well!

    1. Stephanie July 21, 2013, 8:13 pm

      I had a hard time with that, too!

  7. pedalmegone February 27, 2014, 4:53 pm

    Thank you so much for your comment re textbooks. I thought I was crazy until I ended up at the third school in France to study French. It drives me crazy not to have a text book or syllabus. I don’t get it.

    1. Stephanie March 17, 2014, 12:59 pm

      I agree!! There is a lot of interesting discussion of the culture behind not having textbooks in the classroom. I hope you still feel you are learning!


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