7 Realities About French Universities That Students Should Know Before Studying Abroad

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Being an international student in France means having access to a top-notch education, which includes access to thousands of sources in French that are not available anywhere else, for a fraction of the cost of a similar degree in the United States. Besides the academic part of the experience, there are sights to see, events to attend, people to meet, and more things to do than could fit into a short two- or three-year degree experience.

However, like all experiences abroad, there are aspects of student life in France that may not align with certain expectations that certain anecdotes can encourage. We all know that social media doesn’t paint the complete picture of the study abroad experience, so here are seven things that may not come up in conversation about studying in France.

1. You most likely won’t be living within walking distance to your classes.

Not every French university has on-campus housing, or even affiliated housing close to the academic buildings, which means that many students have to find housing elsewhere and commute to class. This is especially true in Paris, where limited space makes such a campus arrangement impractical. If you want to make it to your 9 a.m. lecture, you have to make sure that your alarm is set early enough to factor in lots of transportation time.

2. Not every school has a centralized campus where all aspects of university life are clustered together

Universities in the States often have academic, residential and student life buildings in close proximity to each other, but in France this is not always the case. As a student, you might go to class, leave for lunch, then head back for afternoon classes before returning home to another part of town. Because everyone has a different schedule and there are relatively few shared spaces for activities outside of class, there is not always a reason for students to be in the same place together. The chances of running into a familiar face outside the classroom are slim.

3. Your professors will not always tell you what you need to read before each class.


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Depending on your field of study, your professors may not give you a detailed schedule of readings and assignments to be completed by a certain date; the syllabi usually only provide a list of sources that should be read by the end of the semester, in preparation for any exams or assignments that will be graded. This structure means that students have much more independence in organizing their study schedules: they are able to choose which sources to read, when they want. All of these factors mean that time management is more difficult: with this independent approach, students are forced to set their own deadlines and hold themselves accountable.

4. A limited number of assignments for each class per semester means fewer chances to boost your grade if necessary. 

In France, you may only have two or three assignments per class that determine your grade at the end of the semester, which means that each assignment will be weighted heavily. While this does not mean that a botched test or a failed paper is irredeemable, you’ll have to work even harder on the next assignment to compensate.

5. Printing assignments and other material for class is not always convenient.

Unless you’re lucky enough to have a printer at home, you’ll probably have to go elsewhere to print assignments and readings for class, either at a local imprimerie or at your school library, which will hardly be open all night like in the U.S. This means that you would have to wait until these places are open before printing out your documents. There’s nothing worse than finishing a paper on Sunday to turn in on Monday morning, only to realize that you don’t have any way to print out your assignment before your 9 a.m. class because everything is closed until 10 a.m.

6. There are fewer extracurricular activities organized within schools.


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In the U.S., many colleges have hundreds of clubs or organizations that students can join, giving them the opportunity to continue pursuing old and new activities and meet people who share their interests. In France, however, schools don’t always have such clubs or student groups tailored for specific interests. Of course, some schools do offer classes for activities such as sports and photography, but overall, the best way to pursue extracurricular activities is to look outside of school.

7. You will most likely have limited opportunities to talk to your professors outside of class.

Many instructors are happy to stay for a few minutes after class to answer any lingering questions, and they are usually open to communicating by email when necessary, but they rarely organize designated office hours outside of class time. Unlike in the U.S., where many professors keep their doors open during the week so that students can stop by for any reason, French professors do not usually offer these sorts of opportunities for discussion. You probably won’t end the semester knowing any of your professors well, and they just as likely won’t have the opportunity to get to know you either; if you’re looking for a letter of recommendation at any point, your French professors may not know you well enough to write one for you.

Featured image: Stock Photos from Stokkete / Shutterstock

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