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. Why not? 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). 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?