Prépa vs. Bachelor’s Degree: Understanding French University Options

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The French education system now provides two very distinct options for students looking for their first post-secondary school experience: preparatory courses (classes préparatoire or prépa) and bachelor’s degree programs. The Director of Undergraduate Studies at Ecole superieur de commerce de Paris Europe (ESCP), Helen Louit, explains the differences between the two options and who should apply.

What are the two options for a post-secondary school experience in France?

Many French business schools now offer three-year bachelor’s degrees and two-year master’s degrees. This is in addition to the very specific system of Grandes Ecoles, which offer a three-year master’s degree after two years of prépa and a highly competitive admissions test (concours).

What are the core differences between bachelor’s degree programs and prépa?

Prépa classes

Entry to the Grandes Ecoles is often exclusively through the competitive concours exam; only one in ten candidates taking the exams is admitted to a Grande Ecole. Students prepare for the concours by taking two years of classes (prépa), only receiving a diploma at the end if they pass. The two years are very intense and not for the faint-hearted, with very long hours spent studying. However, besides gaining entry to top business schools, students who succeed have received a liberal arts education and a strong quantitative background. Courses have more of a focus on individual rather than group work.

Prépa classes are targeted to French high school graduates and include very few non-French students. The popularity of bachelor’s programs among students from French lycées and other international schools abroad then could be explained by the fact that many students are seeking a more international post-secondary experience.

Bachelor’s degree programs

Many Grande Ecoles now offer this alternative to the traditional prépa route. This is an especially good option for students who possess a global perspective or for those looking for careers outside of the French system.

There’s a wide range of bachelor’s programs available, some being very practically oriented, others balancing theory with practice. At ESCP Europe, the Bachelor of Science in Management (BSc), for example, provides this balance with a blend of management training and languages, liberal arts, and quantitative subjects. Group work and projects play an important role in coursework, adding up to an appealing curriculum for ambitious students interested in international management.

What type of students should take prépa and bachelor’s degree programs? 

At top business schools, both prépa and bachelor’s degree programs are suitable for bright, hard-working students attracted to abstract subjects. Bachelor’s programs differ in that they offer students the opportunity to learn through real-life case studies, to do group work, and to gain professional experience.

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Should a student’s future ambitions be part of the decision process?

Probably. For students who want to work in France, prépa is a very renowned, prestigious, and well-trodden path. For those who are targeting the top business schools in France, it’s the primary way to access Grande Ecole programs, with very few enrollment slots available through other methods.

For students interested in international careers, bachelor’s programs, with their strong international focus, typically make more sense. Students can then pursue their master’s degree directly after graduation or after several years of work experience.

What is the current program enrollment composition like in ESCP Europe programs?

Bachelor in Management (BSc): currently 27% French, 15% German, 15% Italian, with 50 nationalities represented

Master in Management: 49% French

What are some tips for choosing prépa and bachelor’s programs? 

For prépa, look at the rankings of the institutions and speak to your teachers about where you should target, including where former students of your same lycée or international school applied and where they were accepted. Target a prépa where you will be in the top half of the class. You need intellectual stimulation but it may be discouraging if you’re toward the bottom of your class at a top institution.

If you are reasonably sure you want to study management and wish to live in an international environment, programs like the ESCP Europe Bachelor are the best option and offer the additional benefits of languages and liberal arts to open minds to new disciplines related to business.

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