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Erasmus: How to survive at a French university

The Local · 11 Sep 2014, 11:46

Published: 11 Sep 2014 11:46 GMT+02:00

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If you are starting school at a French university this autumn and are worried about what you’ve got yourself in to, fear not.

The Local has crafted a list of essential advice based on interviews with some folks who know what’s what: British students who've done Erasmus exchanges and French kids who were born into the system.

Questions about paperwork, housing, social life? We've covered it all.

Here are 12 tips for surviving your experience at a French university:

Survival of the fittest:

The first thing to note before you unpack your bags is that French universities are heavily oversubscribed. This is the result of the French belief in “the right to higher education but not to a degree.” This means no selection: anyone with the Baccalaureate has the right to go to a French university, but graduation is not guaranteed.

So lecture halls are jammed and administration is slow. This really is a case of survival of the fittest. Selection is made as you progress through your studies – not everyone is expected to graduate, in fact the university relies on drop-outs. This means a lot of work and fairly brutal treatment of those who fall by the wayside…


Bureaucracy and administration:

Sure enough, it seems French universities are fairly bureaucratic. Bella Roberts, who has just finished her semester at La Sorbonne warned students to be prepared to be patient when it comes to administration. “It was a nightmare trying to sort paperwork out,” she said. “You just have to be patient.”

Remember that lunch breaks really do exist in France. They can go on for hours. Roberts gave The Local an insight into her time at La Sorbonne. “Sometimes you'd have been there for ages, nearly get to the office and they'd close for lunch! You’d have to start all over again two hours later.”

You might be unaccustomed to this lunch-break culture, but factor it in: embrace it and have a nice lunch yourself!


In Toulouse, another of our students noticed the need to be organized when it comes to timetabling and course clashes. There’s no administrative team that sorts it out for you.

“You are completely left to your own devices” Sophie Hart told The Local. “In trying to organize your academic life on arrival, there’s not much support from the university at all.”

Lots of lectures: Be prepared for a lot more lectures than you have in the UK or US – the French don’t slack! French students spend at least 20 hours a week in lectures and seminars. Seminars that last until 7 or 8pm are not unheard of.

Long classes: You will need to work on your attention span, because classes in France tend to be two-three hours long. Some kinder lecturers might give you a midway break but it’s not guaranteed!

Long Exams: Again, exams are normally longer than in the UK or US. They normally consist of at least three hours for one big essay question or three-four short ones. There are even some which go on for four-five hours.

Grading/Marking: The marking scheme goes from one to twenty, ten being the pass-mark. Between nine and 12 is considered average. Remember to work on your coursework because this will often make up a large part of your final grade.


Not much campus life: Expect to make your friends elsewhere. While in the UK or the US, students tend to study far from home and stay at the university for weekends, in France, students generally live locally.

Many students will live with their parents and most will already have plenty of non-university friends in the area.

“Most of the people just go there to learn but they don't have many friends” said Olivia de Rodellec, a French student at international business school ESCE. 

Use classes to meet people: “Try to be tactical and pick modules that have more than one class a week”, said Bella Roberts, “that way it’s easier to make friends”.

It may sound obvious, but make sure you make the most of the contact time you have. “Try to go to as many classes as possible,” said Bella. “Go to as many other meetings or groups as possible to meet as many people as you can.”

Student Sophie Hart pointed out how helpful Erasmus communities can be in helping you to meet people.

“The Erasmus community is really strong in Toulouse, all thanks to the 'Bureau EIMA' which is made up of student volunteers giving their time to offer integration events for Erasmus students,” she said. “They also offer cheap trips to visit nearby places. That’s another great way to meet people.”

Story continues below…


Accommodation: Student Shoshi Karp-Sawey talked about the benefits of her accommodation with a group of French students in Toulouse: “It was a great way to speak French. Even if it was scary arriving with nowhere to stay, it definitely paid off.”

Clubs?:  You may find yourself at a loss if you are keen on extracurricular activities. French universities don’t have student unions in the same way British or American ones do. No Harry Potter, Ultimate Frisbee or Surf ‘Soc’ to be seen.

But see this as an opportunity.

Join teams and groups outside of the university – break free from the student bubble. This is a great way to meet more diverse and exciting groups of people.

How to find friends:

Use networks and sites like MeetUp.com to find groups of people who get together to do whole ranges of different things.

In some cases, the university facilities can be helpful – notably for sport which is heavily subsidized and can sometimes even be free. Check out the national SUAPS scheme – there should be an office at your university.

Have you spent time at a university in France?  Do you have any useful tips? We’d love to hear from you! 

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