Grande école: Wikis


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The grandes écoles ("graduate schools", literally in French "grand schools" or "elite schools") of France are higher education establishments outside the mainstream framework of the public universities system. Unlike French public universities which have an obligation to accept all candidates of the same region who hold a baccalauréat, the selection criteria of grandes écoles rest mainly on competitive written and oral exams, usually undertaken by students from dedicated preparatory classes, although this is not always the case. They do not have a large student body (3,000 at the largest establishment; most have a few hundred students each year) and are generally focused on a single subject area, mainly engineering, business or humanities. They have traditionally produced many if not most of France's high-ranking civil servants, politicians and executives as well as many scientists and philosophers.


Classification as grandes écoles



After the French Revolution

The expression "grandes écoles" came after the French revolution, in 1794 with the creation of the École Normale Supérieure by the Convention and the École Polytechnique by the mathematician Gaspard Monge and Lazare Carnot. In fact, the model was probably Mézières' military academy of which Gaspard Monge was an alumnus. It should be noted that some schools included in the category are older than the expression. For example the École nationale supérieure des mines de Paris (Mines ParisTech), the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (Ecole des Ponts ParisTech), the École Nationale Supérieure des Techniques Avancées and the École d'Arts et Métiers were founded during the 18th century. Other prestigious schools such as the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Paris (today ESCP Europe, founded in 1819), the Hautes Études Commerciales (HEC Paris), the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (Centrale Paris), the École nationale supérieure des télécommunications (TELECOM ParisTech), the École supérieure d'électricité (Supélec), and the École Centrale de Lyon (Centrale Lyon) were established during the 19th century[1].

Since then France has had a unique higher education system, where small and middle size specialized schools are totally cut off from the university system yet fully integrated within the national education system. Some fields of study are nearly exclusive to one system, like engineering in the grandes écoles, or medicine in universités.


There is no standard definition nor official list of grandes écoles. Legislation involving grandes écoles generally uses the term "classe préparatoire aux grandes écoles". The term "grandes écoles" is not employed in the Code of Education, with the exception of a quotation in the social statistics. It generally employs the expression of "Écoles supérieures" to indicate higher educational establishments which are not universities.

The Conférence des Grandes Écoles (Grandes Écoles Confederation) is a non-profit organization (under the French law 1901). It uses a rather broad definition of the concept of "grandes écoles", not restricted to the school's selectivity or the prestige of the diploma. The list of the members of CGE does not draw up an official or even an "accepted" list of "grandes écoles". For example some engineering school members of the CGE cannot even deliver state recognized engineering degrees.

The "G16+", however, is a group of 23 grandes ecoles which cooperate on work placement matters. Its membership includes engineering, business, and government service schools that are generally considered to be the most prestigious in their fields. The G16+ thus represents France's closet equivalent to the American Ivy League or Britain's Russell Group.

Methods of recruitment for the grandes écoles

The method of recruitment between the “Grandes écoles” and “French universities” is very different. Public universities are obliged by law to admit any student with the baccalauréat and living within the university's area.

To get into one of the French "Grandes écoles" most students will take a very competitive national exam at the end of the two-year program in one of the CPGE. This national exam includes written tests during several weeks that will challenge the students on what they have learned for the past two years.

Then, most of these students will be ranked accordingly to their results but each year a certain percentage of students do not make this ranking.

These failing students will generally be allowed to repeat their second year or will continue their studies in one of the local universities.

The successful students from across the country all go to the school of their goal during the summer to participate to a last round of selection (might be in Paris or anywhere in France). This process consists of oral exams (1 hour/oral exam) during which they are given a problem to solve. After 20 min of preparation, they will present their solution to a teacher who will then challenge the candidate on their results and the assumptions being made.

At the end of this stressful selection process, candidates will receive their final ranking which will allow them - if ranked - to finally apply to the "grandes écoles" of their choice.

Their national ranking will allow them or not to get into the "grandes écoles" of their choice.

Below is a description of the classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles:

Preparatory classes to the Grandes écoles (CPGE)

The Lycée Louis-le-Grand, in Paris, is one of the most famous lycées providing classes for preparing for grandes écoles. (Here, on the right side of the rue St Jacques; on the left, the Sorbonne.)

Classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles (CPGE) or Prépas literally Preparatory classes for the grandes écoles, sometimes nicknamed the "royal way," because it's the only way to get into the most prestigious schools.

The preparatory classes, either in literature, sciences or management (generally two or three years) is the traditional way to enter the most prestigious grandes écoles. Most of them are in state high schools; there are a few private preparatory classes but they are expensive. Admission in preparatory classes are based on an academic report. Many students register in more than one class to maximize their chance of admission. Some of these classes are very selective and successful at placing students into the top schools.

The workload is generally very high and in-class competition between students is encouraged in some schools. Some classes may be psychologically stressful (depending on the students and the teachers' behaviour), and some students give up before the completion of their studies. The goal of preparatory classes is to prepare the student to match the academic level expected to pass the competitive recruitment examination of the main grandes écoles. If the student is not admitted to a Grande École, they are given the option of repeating the last year of preparatory classes and attempting the exam the following year.

Preparatory classes do not give any degrees, however they give ECTS (ie university equivalence) since academic year 2008-2009 and students who decide to can carry on their studies at university.

There are five main categories of prépas:

  • Mathématiques supérieures, mathematic and scientific preparatory class. These prepare for the engineering schools and teach mathematics, physics, chemistry, and technology. They are broken down in sub-categories according to the emphasis of their dominants teaching.
    • 1st year Mathématiques Supérieures; familiarly called Math Sup or Hypotaupe ; students are known as 1/2 ("un demi")
    • 2nd year Mathématiques Spéciales ; familiarly called Math Spé or Taupe ; students are known as "3/2", or "5/2" if they are repeating second year.

There's a story behind those names: the most prestigious of the schools is nicknamed "X", entering a school is known as "integrating" it, thus if you integrate x between 0 and 1, it yields 1/2, between 1 & 2, 3/2 and between 2 & 3, it yields 5/2....

  • Lettres humanities preparatory class, exclusively for the Écoles normales supérieures
    • 1st year Lettres supérieures; familiarly called Hypokhâgne
    • 2nd year Première supérieure; familiarly called Khâgne
  • Hypokhâgne B/L, for the Ecole Normale Supérieure but also for the Business Schools and the ENSAE. The particularity of the B/L is the teaching of Mathematics and Economics.
  • Prépa Economique et Commerciale mathematics and economics, . They prepare for the competitive entrance exams to the French business schools, and are broken down between Science (mathematics) and Economics tracks.
    • 1st year Première Année; students familiarly known as bizuths
    • 2nd year Deuxième Année; students familiarly known as carrés (literally: squared) (2nd year students who failed the exam and repeat for another year are known as cubes)

While most students in Taupes and Prépa HEC manage to get admission to a Grande École, there are fewer seats offered to khâgneux and chartistes and most of them will continue their studies within universities.

The classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles (CPGE) is a prep course with the main goal of training students for enrollment in a Grande École ; of which the best-known and most prestigious are Lycée Hoche, Lycée privé Sainte-Geneviève, Lycée Louis-Le-Grand, Lycée Henri IV, Lycée Stanislas, and Lycée Saint-Louis[2]. Admission to the CPGE is usually based on performance during the last two years of high school, called Première and Terminale. The CPGE programs are located within high schools but pertain to tertiary education, which means that each student must have successfully passed their Baccalauréat (or equivalent) to be admitted in CPGE. Each CPGE receives the files of hundreds of applicants worldwide every year during April and May, and selects its new students under its own criteria. A few CPGE programmes, mainly the private CPGEs (which account for 10% of CPGEs), also have an interview process or look at a student's involvement in the community.

CPGE programmes have a nominal duration of two years, but the second year is sometimes repeated once, mostly in the scientific sections, where the student then gains the status of cinq demi ("five halves"), for he was only a trois demi ("three halves") during his first second year. The explanation behind these names is that one coveted engineering school is the Ecole Polytechnique, nicknamed the X (as the mathematical unknown). In French, a student is said to integrate a school when she or he is are allowed to enroll in it. A student is called a 3/2 if he integrates the Ecole Polytechnique between his first and second year of preparatory class since the integral of x from 1 to 2 is 3/2. The same idea is valid for "cinq demi", since the integral of x from 2 to 3 is 5/2. Students enrolled in their second second-year are also called "carrés" (squares), and a few turn to "cubes" for a third and final second-year. These terms probably stem from repeated attempts at applying to "X" (Polytechnique), yielding x² and x³.

The oldest CPGEs are the scientific ones, which can only be accessed by scientific Bacheliers. Scientific CPGE are called MPSI ("Mathematics, Physics and Engineering Science"), PCSI ("Physics, Chemistry, and Engineering Science") or PTSI ("Physics, Technology, and Engineering Science") in the first year, MP ("Mathematics and Physics"), PSI ("Physics and Engineering Science"), PC ("Physics and Chemistry") or PT ("Physics and Technology") in the second year. The classes which specifically train students for admission to the best engineering schools have an "*" added to their name, e.g. MP*, that comes from the mathematic meaning: without "zeros", i.e losers.

First year CPGE students are called the 'Math Sup' - or Hypotaupe - (Sup for "Classe de Mathématiques Supérieures", superior in French, meaning post-high school), and second years 'Math Spé' - or Taupe - (Spés standing for "Classe de Mathématiques Spéciales", special in French). The students of these classes are called Taupins. Both the first and second year programmes include as much as sixteen hours of mathematics teaching per week, ten hours of physics, two hours of philosophy, two to four hours of (one or two) foreign languages teaching and two to three hours of minor options: either SI, Engineering Industrial Science or Theoretical Computer Science (including some programming using the Pascal or Caml Light programming languages, as a practical work). With this is added several hours of homework, which can rise as much as the official hours of class. A known joke among those students is that they are becoming monks for two years. Sometimes three.

The literary and humanities CPGEs have also their own nicknames, Hypokhâgne for the first year and Khâgne for the second year. The students are called the khâgneux. These classes prepare for schools such as Écoles Normales Supérieures, Ecole des Chartes, and sometimes Sciences Po. There are also CPGE which are focused on economics (who prepare the admission in business schools). These later are known as "Prépa EC" and are split in two parts ("prépa EC spe mathematics" , generally for those who graduated the baccalaureat S and "prépa EC spe éco" , for those who were in the economics section in the lycée.). The most famous of those business schools are HEC School of Management, ESSEC, ESCP Europe, EMLYON Business School, EDHEC, ESC Rouen and ESC Toulouse which propose a Master degree and an MBA.

The students of CPGE can also be matriculated in universities, and may therefore rejoin college in case of failure of their grandes écoles ambitions or if they just do not wish to become engineers and feel not able to pass the Écoles Normales Supérieures competitive examinations. The ratio of students who failed to enter grandes écoles is low in the scientifics and economics CPGE, but high in humanities, for the only grandes écoles aimed in these classes are the Écoles Normales Supérieures.

The amount of work required of the students is exceptionally high.[3] In addition to class time and homework, students spend several hours each week completing exams and 'colles' (very often written 'khôlles' to look like a Greek word, this way of writing being initially a khâgneux joke). The so called 'colles' are unique to French academic education in CPGEs. They consist of oral examinations twice a week, in maths, physics, French and the foreign languages, usually English and Spanish. Students, usually in groups of three, spend an hour facing a professor alone in a room, answering questions and solving problems. In CPGE littéraires (humanities), the system of 'colles' is different; they are taken every quarter in every subject. Students have one hour to prepare a short presentation that takes the form of a French-style dissertation (a methodologically codified essay, typically structured in 3 parts: thesis, counter-thesis, and synthesis) in history, philosophy, etc. on a given topic, and that of a commentaire composé (a methodologically codified commentary) in literature and foreign languages; as for the Ancient Greek or Latin, they involve a translation and a commentary. The student then has 20 minutes to present his work to the teacher, who ends the session by asking some questions on the presentation and on the corresponding topic. 'Colles' are regarded as extremely stressful, particularly due to the high standards expected by the teachers, and the subsequent harshness that may be directed at students who do not perform adequately, but they are important in as much as they prepare the students, from the very first year, to the oral part of the competitive examination, reserved to the happy few who successfully pass the written part.

Below is a quick description of two other ways to get into one of the "grandes écoles":

Recruitment at baccalauréat level

Some schools are accessible after a selection based on the education results of the two last years of Lycée and/or the baccalaureate results. For example there are the five schools of the INSA network and the three Universités de Technologie. It is also possible to join these schools in third year after a preparatory class or university and then the recruitment is based on a contest or the student results.

Most of them simply include the two-year preparatory class in their program while others like INSA Toulouse chose the LMD to start the specialization earlier.

These years of preparation are highly focused on the school program so students have a higher chance to succeed in the admission exam or contest in their school if there is one, but there are not prepared to take the contests for other schools so their chance to succeed for other contests is low.[citation needed]

The advantage is that instead of studying in aim to pass the contests, the student will study things more targeted on his formation and future specialization.

Parallel admission

In many schools, there is also the possibility of “parallel admission” to grandes écoles. Parallel admissions are open to university students or students from other schools. The Prépas years are not required to sit the entrance exams, provided that the candidates performed well in their previous studies. This method of recruitment is proving increasingly popular, with many students choosing to go first to university and then enroll in a Grande école. Some grandes écoles have dual diploma arrangement in which a student can switch establishments in the last year to receive diplomas from both establishments.


The grandes écoles can be classified into several broad categories:

Écoles normales supérieures

These schools train researchers, professors and may also be a starting point for executive careers in the public administration or business. Many French Nobel Prize or Fields Medal laureates come from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris (Rue d'Ulm). There are four ENS in total:

Their competitive entrance exams are considered to be extremely selective. They recruit mainly from Taupes, biology Prépas and Khâgnes, even though a small number of their students (less than 10 each year) are recruited separately on the basis of highly selective exams.

Until recently and unlike most of the other grandes écoles, the écoles normales supérieures (ENS) did not award any specific diplomas (students who had completed the curriculum they had agreed to with the office of the Dean upon arrival were simply entitled to be known as "ENS Alumni" or "Normaliens"), but they keep encouraging their students to obtain university diplomas in partner institutions whilst providing extra classes and support. Many ENS students obtain more than one university diploma.

The normaliens, as the students of the several ENS are known, attain a high level of excellence in the various disciplines in which they are trained. Normaliens from France and other European Union countries are considered civil servants in training, and as such paid a monthly salary, in exchange for an agreement to serve France for 10 years, including those of their studies.

Top graduate engineering schools (Grandes écoles d'ingénieurs)

Most prestigious institutions

To access 2009 rankings for the top French engineering schools go to the Reference /External Links sections at the bottom of the page.

There is a broad spectrum of engineering schools, many recruiting after scientific preparatory class. Things may be a bit confusing since many schools have a lengthy official name (often beginning with École nationale supérieure or École supérieure), a shortened name, an acronym and, for the most famous, a nickname (and often a nickname for their students). Most of them are belonging to groups, like Centrale and Supélec, ParisTech, Mines, the Institut TELECOM (previously Groupe des écoles des télécommunications, GET). Most of them are also joint graduate schools from several regional universities where they are located, sometimes in association with other international higher education networks.

Other institutions located in France (non-exhaustive list)

Grandes ecoles with multiple specialization domains:

Grandes écoles of chemistry:

Grandes écoles of physics:

Grandes écoles of information technology and telecommunications:

Grandes écoles of applied physics and technology or civil and industrial engineering:

Grandes écoles of biology and natural sciences:

  • the other Écoles nationales supérieures d'agronomie (ENSA, nicknamed SupAgro);
  • the École nationale supérieure de géologie (ENSG), whose graduates are Géoliens;

Business schools (Grandes écoles de commerce)

Most French business schools are semi-privately run, often by the regional chambers of commerce.

The three most prestigious and selective management schools are the "Trois Parisiennes"[4][5][6], located in the Paris Metropolitan area. Being student from one of these three schools is a significative criteria for some firms known for their very selective recruitment process (for example consulting firms such as McKinsey[7], BCG or Bain). Several student events gathering the three schools are organized throughout the year, the most famous being "La nuit des 3 Pas[8]" (3 Pas Night, Pas holding for parisian) in November. There has been talk of merging the three schools in order to give them a higher international visibility.[9]

The "Trois Parisiennes":

  • École supérieure des sciences économiques et commerciales (ESSEC): The first business school outside of North America to be accredited by the AACSB. Along with HEC, ESSEC is one of the two top schools among the Business Grandes écoles, and as such it requires passing a very selective entrance examination.
  • École des hautes études commerciales (HEC, has been n°1 in the Financial Times' Ranking of European Business Schools from 2005 to 2008, a member of ParisTech), founded in 1881.
  • ESCP Europe School of Management (n°2 in the Financial Times' Ranking of European Business Schools), which is the oldest business school in the world ; it was founded in 1819 by famous French economists Jean-Baptiste Say and Vital Roux.)

Other schools are found outside Paris, some highly selective, and sometimes compared to the three Parisians (such as EMLYON Business School, EDHEC, Audencia and Grenoble-EM) [10]:

Other grandes écoles de commerce (non-exhaustive list) :

Grandes écoles without preparatory classes

Some schools are accessible after a competitive entrance exam directly after the baccalauréat. Often, students of these schools will go on to enter an administrative school.

These schools include (non-exhaustive list):

Administrative schools

These schools train students for certain civil service and other public-sector positions. However, some students who undertake studies in these schools do end up working in the private sector. All these schools are very selective. As an example, the most selective one is the École nationale du patrimoine, which enrolls about 1.5% of its candidates (who already hold a minimum of a master's degree). The ENA is certainly the most famous one, with a large cohort of its alumni joining the government and many having entered the cabinet. To join ENA or ENM, on top of their initial studies, most students follow a one year dedicated training course to succeed (IEJs - Instituts d'études judiciaires, see French law schools -, IEPs - Instituts d'Études Politiques see Sciences Po - or dedicated programs). Most of these schools are reserved for French citizens.

  • École Nationale d'Administration (Strasbourg) (ENA), whose alumni are known as énarques and generally take up high-level management positions in government, ministries, political parties and institutions;
  • École Nationale de la Magistrature (Bordeaux) (ENM), which trains magistrates;
  • École Nationale des Impôts (Clermont-Ferrand) (ENI), which translates as "National Tax School";
  • École Nationale du Patrimoine (Paris) (ENP), which trains curators;
  • École Nationale Supérieure de Police (Saint-Cyr au Mont D'Or near Lyon) (ENSP), i.e. national police force school;
  • École des Hautes Études en Santé Publique (Rennes) ([4]), trains managers of hospitals and other leaders and technical experts in health care;

Military officer academies

While École Polytechnique, also known as X is run by the Ministry of Defence and its French students are reserve officers in training, it is no longer formally denominated as a military academy. A small number of its students do however embrace a military career afterwards. A large proportion of its students end up working for the State's technical administrations.

  • The École Spéciale Militaire de St Cyr (it used to be located in Saint-Cyr l'École but is now in Coëtquidan in Brittany) is the Army Academy. Nicknamed St Cyr and whose graduates and students are Cyrards but are generally referred as St Cyrien;
  • The École de l'Air (EA) is the Air Force Academy, located in Salon de Provence. Nicknamed Salon and whose graduates and students are Zizis;
  • the École Navale (EN), nicknamed Navale and whose graduates and students are Bordaches;

Influence in French culture

Some grandes écoles are very prestigious, providing similar status to their graduates in France as Oxbridge in the UK or the Ivy League schools in the U.S, although of course their admission policies have differed.

The top rated schools are truly elitist: the students of the top grandes écoles equal to around 1% of French higher education nationwide and fewer than 5,000 students graduate from them every year. This dozen of schools, which the French praise for being "généralistes", i.e. interdisciplinary, have traditionally produced most of France's high ranking civil servants, politicians and executives and many scientists and philosophers.

  • The top twelve engineering schools listed in the l'Etudiant magazine rankings only admitted a total of 2,100 students in their 2009 class.
  • The top three business schools (HEC - ESSEC - ESCP Europe) 2009 incoming class has a total of 1,100 students.
  • Ecole Normales Paris (Ulm) and Lyon offer admission to only 140 students.
  • ENA's incoming class has 110 students.

This is a total of 3,450 students entering the most prestigious Grandes Ecoles in 2009, roughly the same as 2008. 3,450 represents less than 1% (0.7%)of the number of people graduating from French high schools (500,000) each year.

See also


External links


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