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Examinations, the French Way

This month in France took place a rite of passage: the high school baccalauréat. Often translated as ‘high school diploma’, the baccalauréat is the mandatory, nationalized high school exit exam students must take in order to continue with their studies. While nowadays having one’s bac is becoming more and more common (much like having a high school diploma in the United States), for some students it is the first of many exams they will take in their adult lives, in both educational and work contexts.

Because not only is right now the end of the baccalauréat, it is also the middle of the ‘concours’ season for many other areas of study. Concours, a word impossible to translate in English, is more or less a competitive exam. Competitive because the results of a concours do not depend on how good you score, but how much better you score than everyone else taking the exam.

I’ve had an inside look into two concours going on at the moment, the agrégation in English (an exam to have a tenured position as an English teacher or professor) and the concours for entrance into some of France’s Grandes Écoles de Commerce (business schools, mostly private).

I think it’s worth mentioning these concours because they are such a defining element of the French system, both in the public and private sectors. Incidentally, France is different from the US in this way: the best, most prestigious schools are generally public. This is why you have to pass a competitive exam (concours) to get into them—they only have a certain amount of places available every year, and they only take the top students who have passed the national exams. Private schools can be prestigious, but the most prestigious ones also require a concours to enter.   

Both the concours for the agrégation (already mentioned in a previous post) and the concours for business school begin with several written exams, in different subjects.  The agrégation is specialized  in a field, so most of the areas students are tested on related to their field. The exams for business schools are quite different, however. Students are tested in multiple areas, including language (English and either Spanish or German), mathematics, marketing and finance, and France’s specialty, general culture (essentially philosophy and literature). Even in preparation for business school, then, philosophy and literature are viewed as essential subjects that students should be tested on.

What happens if you don’t pass the concours? Either way you have basically lost a year of study. In the case of the agrégation, some people take the exam just to try it and see what it is like. Often the program and list of books changes each year, so you will probably have to learn an entire new set of literature for the following year. When it comes to entrance to business school, the concours quite simply controls where you are admitted, and where you are not.  Subjects are also weighted, so the exam for mathematics will probably count more than the section in Spanish, for example.

As I stated earlier, a key component of these exams, and most concours, is both a written and an oral exam. Usually, the written exam happens first and is followed by a first selection. Those who are good enough and who reached a certain level are summoned for the oral exam.

This is another specifically French touch: the oral exam. These are not just question and answer sessions.  Oral exams for the agrégation last for hours, the idea being that students have several hours to prepare a sort of lecture on a given topic, before presenting it to the jury.

Oral exams in the entrance to business school, at least in English, are also very specific. Students are given an article from the press and have 20 minutes to prepare an organized oral presentation that lasts 10 minutes. In those 10 minutes they must present the document in context, synthesize the article, and then present a commentary, often where they explore the pros and cons of a particular issue. This exam is then testing their comprehension skills in English, obviously their oral production skills, but also, and perhaps most importantly their reasoning and analytical skills. It helps to put this into perspective to realize that students have oral exams in other subjects than just languages, sometimes even in math!

I think then that the agrégation and concours for entrance into business school reveal a lot about the French system. In particular, the emphasis on oral expression illustrates the French obsession with rhetoric. Students are expected to talk about a given topic and analyze it. If they don’t know very much about the topic, they are still supposed to act like they know something about it.

The announcement of the eligible students is also a no frills approach. The names of students admitted to a concours are plainly listed all together, in ranking order from first to last. In other words, there is no effort to hide student names from one another and keep the exam results individual. Often these lists are printed and posted in the place where students took a concours so they can check for their names.

And so, as I said at the beginning, the baccalauréat is just one of many exams students will take over the course of their lives. It is, I think, their initiation into France’s very standardized system and in this sense a true rite of passage.


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