Study Abroad: French vs. American University System

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In fall 2016, I studied abroad in Bordeaux with the Middlebury School in France. Here begins a series of my reflections on this uprooting experience.

They said school abroad would be a breeze–I instead got a hurricane.

The proof? Let’s look at last week in numbers:

Times I cried in front of my profs–2

Whopping grade I got on my math midterm–8.5/20 (somehow still a passing grade in France)

How done I am with the French university system–unmeasurable

As a student at a rigorous American liberal arts college, I’m well-versed in academic intensity. And so I believed them–I believed the general notion that school abroad is stress-free. But the French university system is a wild world of its own. The shock was twofold: both the academic culture and structure are stark contrasts.

To help make the transition smoother for future study abroad students (and to attempt to voice my unrest diplomatically), I’ve compiled a list of the most striking differences between the two academic systems.

College in France vs. the USA

1. Organisation is nearly nonexistent

Syllabi are a foreign concept in France–for instance, in lit courses, you’re very lucky to get a sheet detailing which works you’ll study and when. Most times, you’ll get a list of the novels (called une bibliographie), and you’re expected to pace yourself throughout the semester. There will by no means be specific page numbers to read for each class meeting.

Since the syllabus doesn’t exist, it’s also very possible to get a surprise major assignment at any point–for instance, my French lit prof added a paper worth 25% of our grade to the agenda with only 3 weeks left in the semester.

This lack of structure also manifests itself in class location and meeting times–my math course randomly changed locations throughout the semester, and additional meetings were added with little notice. From what I’ve heard, scheduling courses administratively is a nightmare, since there’s often a shortage of classrooms. Of course scheduling courses from a student perspective is no jaunt through the park either–because courses for majors (la licence) are very predetermined, the French students often have little choice, so course options might be released as little as a few days before the semester begins. 

2. Courses are long

My shortest course here was 1.5 hours, while in the US, my longest course is 1.5 hours. And my longest course in France was a 3 hour math recitation (travaux dirigés/TDs--more about these later), which is unheard of in the US.

The majority of my courses were about 2 hours–and for 2 of my 5 courses, that was the only meeting we had each week. When class time was 2+ hours, we often got a short break, but not all my profs were that generous.

The French philosophy is really to keep students in class longer (my literature and math counterparts had 25+ hours a week, more than double my usual 12-hour load at Amherst!), but to assign less homework. Which brings me to my next point…

3. What homework?

In my literature classes, I had at most 3 grades for the entire semester–one presentation, one paper, and one final. In most cases, I only had a presentation and final. That didn’t make things easier. One: there was still the steady stream of work such as regular readings (harder to keep up with because lack of course structure). And two: because there were so few grades, the pressure to do well could be suffocating–these projects were sometimes 50% of our grade.

In my French math course, I had only a midterm and final, and there was no formal assigned homework, which was unthinkable compared to my weekly problem sets in the US. No homework sounds like a dream, but it was actually a nightmare. Instead, we zipped through exercises in the recitations/TDs, leaving me totally lost–I usually spend several hours wrestling with proofs on my own and in office hours, so the rushed nature of the in-course exercises made it difficult for me to grasp the concepts.

4. “Put name cards on your desks, please.”

Speaking of office hours, forget about those–they don’t exist in France. The system overall is much less personal, especially from a liberal arts standpoint. We had little contact with profs outside of class, and also, sadly, in-class–I felt as if we were being talked at most of the time, rather than discussing.

Of course, the class sizes weren’t much help–my lectures (cours magistral/CM) were over 100 people, and my discussions/TDs had often 30+ students. Near the end of the semester, my lit TD prof still didn’t know most of our names, asking us to make name cards for our desks. And that was actually a laudable effort–other profs didn’t even try to call us by name.

But, the depersonalization is mutual–students rarely call profs by name, instead opting for “monsieur” or “madame,” whereas in the US, it’s considered rude to call a teacher just “teacher” or “professor.”

5. Vibrant social life happens off-campus

One of the things I miss most about the US is my college community. I miss lounging (okay more like frantically studying) in the dorm common rooms, working out on-campus, heading to the library at nearly any hour of the day, chatting with friends in the dining hall.

In France, most students go to class and leave–few students live in university dorms, and even then, the housing is peripheral to central campus. There’s really no reason to stay: for one, there are fewer university groups, especially when it comes to music. I tried a university-affiliated orchestra at the beginning of the semester, but it was extremely small and not extraordinarily advanced. Additionally, facilities have shorter hours and aren’t as well-equipped: the libraries often close around 5pm and dining halls are open only for lunch. Gyms were an even sadder story: the fitness center at Bordeaux Montaigne, a university with an enrollment of 15,500, paled in comparison to my gym at Amherst College, with an enrollment of 1800.

A popular option for French students, however, was to take a regular university-organized fitness class for extra credit. This didn’t apply to me, so I instead joined a private gym and community orchestra.

6. Grades and exams are stringent

As you might’ve noted in the rundown of my disastrous week, grades–even for major exams–are always out of 20. These grades don’t convert directly to American percentages. There’s a French saying that “14 is a good grade, 16 is for the best student, 18 is for the professor, and 20 is for God.” It’s incredibly difficult to get high scores, especially in quantitative classes. For instance, several of my math classmates were getting 4s and 5s in their Topology class–while scores that low aren’t the norm (the average is usually 10), it’s very possible to have some comically dismal results.

The culprit? Partial credit isn’t really a thing. On my sad math midterm, I miswrote a formula that I later had to use on 20% of the exam. I got no points for those problems because I got a wrong answer using the wrong formula, even though I used the right steps and methods. In the US, grading is much more generous–errors don’t tend to follow you unless they make future problems much easier. And even then, it’s very difficult to get no points for a problem you attempted and finished.

As for exams, the process is intensely official–for a simple midterm, I had to write my date and place of birth on the cover page and sign my name. For finals, we have the added luxury of assigned seats and anonymous codes. Even better, you might not be automatically registered for the final as an international student, and have to go on a wild goose chase with the administration to even take the final. Content-wise, exams are also ambiguous–profs normally won’t tell you what to study, and you might be tested on things you skimmed over in-class.

If you’re planning to study abroad in France, I hope I didn’t scare you away–the goal was just to be as honest about my experience as possible.

The transition from the American to French system was disorienting for me, especially as a liberal arts student. My academic experience was mostly negative, but I’ve definitely learned to be more independent and flexible; you really have no choice when profs are less accessible and syllabi don’t exist. And ultimately, my goal this semester wasn’t to master the French university system–my focus was language and cultural immersion.

Regardless of any struggle, remember why you’re doing what you’re doing and why you are where you are–then refocus and push on.

What to Pack for Studying Abroad in France

This section contains affiliate links, which means I earn a small commission on any purchases made through these links. This is a great way to support my blog if you found this post helpful.

There are a couple essentials you’ll need for life in France, if you’re coming from outside the EU. These links go to Amazon if you’re planning to shop there anyways, but I also want to encourage you to buy from small, local shops, if you can.

  • Universal adapter—I used this one during my one-year stay in France as an English lectrice, and when I traveled to the UK. Keep in mind that this doesn’t have USB C charging ports, so you’ll need a USB to USB C cable or adapter if that’s what your phone needs.
  • European SIM card—You can buy SIM cards once in France (I recommend Lycamobile, which is cheap and can be found in many “tabac” or corner shops). But, if you want cell service upon arrival, you’ll need to buy something at home, or at the airport. This SIM card has good reviews, but feel free to shop around as well.

Until next time,

You may also like:

What it’s Like Being an English Lecteur/Lectrice in France (the tables turned and I went back to France to teach English at a university haha)
French vs. American Culture: 7 Surprising Differences
What I’ll Miss (or Not) About France
My Experience as an Asian in France

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  1. Ohhhhhh, so much of that would be very, very frustrating for me. I loved college, from an academic standpoint particularly, and also went to a small, liberal arts college. For one semester I was in a class of two students (Chinese, 3rd year)–professors were, on the whole, very engaging, understanding, and personal. And I appreciated that very much in a country that felt ‘foreign’ when I started college.
    Earlier this year I toured the university here and talked to some of the people in charge about starting a Master’s Program, but there were many little warning signs flashing to me that made me think it would not be worth it/I wouldn’t be a good fit for the academic culture. I’m pretty opinionated about education myself and do think that some ways are better than others. One of the little stumbling blocks for me in this system was the fact they told me I would absolutely be required to take the IELTS and submit a score….regardless of the fact that I’m American, a native English speaker, hold a B.A. with honors from an American university, and have been an English teacher for three years. Because I’m not Malaysian, I would be required to take IELTS to show that I have sufficient understanding of the English language. Malaysians, however, are not required to take the IELTS, because English is taught in Malaysian public schools (completely disregard the fact that a large percentage of Malaysians cannot hold a conversation in English and that’s why private English teachers like Angel and I are in high demand…). Little, nonsensical, “check the box” instead of thinking logically, sorts of things like that are hard for me to comprehend. I think if I did do a Master’s, I’d have to go back to the USA, and ideally I’d want to do it at my alma mater, because I know their Master’s of Education program was amazing. But that’s a very unlikely possibility.

  2. I think you missed the whole point of your post- studying abroad is all about experiencing something new! I spent a semester in Amsterdam, and it definitely wasn’t all sunshine and roses (school is a little easier/more structured there but still far less than America) but I would never trade it for anything. Yeah, it doesn’t always seem great, but if you spend all your time complaining/seeing the negatives, you A) won’t enjoy yourself and B) will come back from the experience having learned nothing. I get it, studying abroad is HARD. But please remember to enjoy yourself, go on fantastic trips, try to meet people, and just get out there! Have fun and good luck for the rest of the year, you will kill it!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Ashley! I wrote this post when I was particularly frustrated with the system, but complaining wasn’t at all my goal. I started this series to unravel the quixotic visions many students hold of study abroad–that way, they’ll be better equipped to tackle the inevitable challenges. I hold myself to stringent academic standards, so it’s been demoralizing to put in so much effort and pass up cultural outings for disappointing grades. I definitely feel as if that’s the real enigma of study abroad–balancing school and cultural immersion. But it’s something I’m constantly seeking, and hopefully I’ll eventually get there!

  3. Oh my goodness, that sounds hard. I am quite nerdy at college and don’t think I would be able to handle the pressure! I’m sorry this is putting a damper on your experience, but just try to put it in perspective that grades never matter as much as we think they do. At 80 years old you’re not going to be harboring over the grades you received abroad but about the amazing experience you had! So as hard as the school part may be, try to keep your head up! Also, it’s okay to not have as much fun as you thought you had. We build up huge expectations in our head for things and when the actual thing happens, it is what we make it. If all else fails, try to just explore the city for a better understanding! Hang in there and good luck with everything!


    1. You’re right, Francesca–I agree experiences are much more valuable than grades, and I forget that often. Thanks for your wishes–sending you the best as the semester wraps up too!

  4. Im studying from Middlebury at Poitiers! I agree 100 percent on all of this. The lack of structure and inability of some profs to just speak kindly to students is driving me nuts.

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