Universities and Prepas for the Uninitiated!


Somewhere between choosing lycées and choosing universities I must have dozed off! Suddenly I find myself with an 18 year old in the throes of exams, with conventional school aready behind her. I’m not quite sure what happened but as parents, we find ourself in a dilemma, and one surely lots of other parents suffer, (not least foreign parents trying to make head and tail of a new education system), the dilemma of “I’m not sure if I’ve made the right choice.

I’m not even going to begin to classify myself as an expert in the french system, far from it. Only an hour ago I had a lovely french girl-friend over for coffee, for a moment of “conseils”, or advice, who amongst other things even managed to put me straight on the fact that my lovely 16 year old, who has a habit of letting important letters fester in the bottom of his school-bag, still has one major french exam to do next week, and that he hadn’t “finished everything” as I was led to believe yesterday! The fact that he’s playing computer games and hasn’t come down for breakfast (or lunch) despite the fact it’s 3.45 pm probably resonnates with many parents out there – please tell me i’m not alone!- and may in some way help to explain why I have totally screwed up in terms of parental responsibility over university applications.

The problem with adolescents these days is that one minute they are adults and know best about their future, and the next they are hiding information in unread emails and letters and wondering why their “do it all” parents have failed to adhere to important deadlines. They lurch from shouting battle commands to their friends at the top of their voices through their headsets whilst at the same time failing to shower or wear anything other than a pair of boxers for the majority of the day, to “revising , honestly mum” with a split computer screen simultaneously showing a movie on the left hand side, and typing in revision notes to the right. Motivational comments and messages fall on deaf ears, usually because there is a set of headphones wedged into them.

And so I come to the dilemma. Initially my 18 year old was all set for university in the UK. A year ago, this was the only considered course of action, and so we spent a great deal of time writing all the necessary personal statements and filling int the UK UCAS form for the required dates, and then sat back to wait the result. A few months later it was the turn of the french online application form, The “Admission Post Bac”. This was the point of error. As the direction was UK, UK, UK, we filled in the french web-site as an afterthought, without nearly enough parental input, research or dedication. The purpose of this post is not to tell you how to do it, but to tell you what to do when you have passed all the deadlines before you realise that you have screwed up!

Essentially in france there are several different undergraduate educational routes, and the system is far more complex than in the UK. After the Baccalaureat students can go onto normal universities which can be good, mediocre or downright terrible, depending on location, courses and teaching staff,(and for that matter the aspirational quality of students), or they can apply for a “prepa”, otherwise know as the “cours preparatoire” which lead onto application to selective schools (schools of commerce, or business for example) and “grande écoles” (prestigeous selective type schools which are on a par with Oxford and Cambridge and MIT) ; or finally for “concours” (selection tests) directly into selective schools. For the universities and “prepas” the route is through the online application site, otherwise admission aplications are made via the “concours” to schools or through the “Sesame” online application site with strict compliance to key dates.

The problem arises when after a cursory glance and hastily filled online french university application in march your potential student decides, in june, that they are not cut out for the overseas course they originally applied for, and no longer want to study abroad. It is only at this moment when it is far, far to late, that you realise that those hastily filled-in details on the french site counted for far more than you had originally believed, and are now totally inadequate.

If, amongst the 6 or so french university applications made on the on-line site, your number one choice of university gives you an offer, you will never find out what offers the other universities would have given you, nor will you get the possibility of turning down your first choice in favour of your second. This means that if you have chosen hastily the wrong course or the wrong city for your future education, it is too late.

Or is it? And this is the question I posed to my french girlfriend.

There are three different routes possible:

If you are a french resident you are entitled to university education. You are entitled to visit your home-town university to request admission into the fac (faculty) of your choice, beit law, beit economy etc. As long as they have places, a home-town student has a right to a place. In otherwords free education and living at home, which is win-win for parents and students alike in the era of huge education loans, although most students wouldn’t necessarily see it that way. Three more years with parents isn’t always every student’s dream… or their parents, for that matter! At the end of three years study, the student makes an application for the concours (selective tests), known as the “Passerelle”, or “concours parallel”, into the “école” of their choice in any city – for example an école de commerce or business, and once accepted is leap-frogged immediately into the second year.

The second route is that of the “Sesame” on-line application. The student doesn’t take up the place offered for the current academic year, but takes a year out and starts building up their general knowledge, maths and language skills, and in the January applies, through Sesame, for the concours into the Ecoles of Commerce, Business etc and then, if successful, goes onto study the full course starting in the first year.

The third route is to reapply by the web-site for “Admission Post Bac” for the desired course in the following March, taking every effort to pay more attention second time round, and then simply take a year out and try to gain some extra attributes, a job, or a work-placement (stage) in the desired field to augment the application before the March dead-line.

I had heard rumours that applying to university in France one year late, or taking a “gap-year” was unheard-of, but my friend explained that there are many students who either start a prepa, or a “license” (degree) at university and then find it so tough-going, or not their “cup of tea” , that in fear of failing the first year they make a “safety-net” new application to the on-line “Admission Post Bac” for another course and another university just in case…and they do receive offers, which they then later take, or discard, depending on the results of their year exams.

The key is to keep hold of the initial “Admission Post Bac” student reference/application number, as, despite not having done any studies, the students are classified for new applications on the website as “Bac+1”, rather than “Bac” applicants and use the same application number.

It is somewhat of a relief to know that there is indeed a way through, and that the future doesn’t end at a giant brick wall.

But if you want to avoid all the stress, best to pay a little more attention than I did from the outset!

5 comments on “Universities and Prepas for the Uninitiated!

  1. Oh my goodness, that was VERY interesting. So glad our eldest is at Uni in the UK!!! She has just finished her first year. no. 2 daughter starts at Lycee i. September, she is about to take her Brevet, so I shall bear all of your comments in mind when the time comes. Have a lovely weekend 🙂

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  2. lizgyooll says:

    Have to say you are brillant in the way you confront all these complications! And very good to know there is a positive way through it all. Good luck!

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  3. There’s also going to an IUT for a 2 year course which qualifies for entry to a grande ecole – students still have to do the concours/be selected etc but the course isn’t as murderously stressful as prepa is (usually!). My youngest applied to both IUT’s and prepas and the deadline for acceptance at the best prepa was halfway through her Bac maths exam. As her teacher commented they like to get them used to how stressful it’s going to be good and early.

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