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Studying in the City of Lights

How does Uni life compare in France?

An illustration of some books, a baguette, a glass of red wine and the French flag Art by Mei Zheng

The original version of this article, written in French, appears here.

It’s dark when I wake up. It’s half past six in the morning and icy thanks to the snow last night. It’s winter, and I am in Paris. After an hour and a half, I arrive at uni. There’s a small crowd at the entrance, and the distinct smell of cigarette smoke stands out. The security guards also stand out; they ask to check our student IDs and bags.

I knew I had to be on time to class. If you’re late twice, it counts as an absence. And after two absences, you fail. Luckily, I get there before my tutor, who comes in 40 minutes after the class is supposed to start. We’re all annoyed. We’ve wasted time waiting for him in the classroom, when we could’ve been sleeping in longer. And this was supposed to be the first class of the semester.

Our teacher fires off a few excuses, as expected. “I don’t live in the city, I live further away from here… I was going to take the train at six-thirty, but a tree fell onto the railroad.”

I find myself feeling slightly sympathetic towards him. I take the train everyday in Sydney, and delays caused by the weather aren’t rare. Our teacher harps on. “… so, I had to hitchhike all the way to Versailles. But the trains were late there too.”

We forgive him immediately. He had to hitchhike to Versailles? I don’t know anyone who’s done that before.

Wanting to make up for lost time, he introduces himself before asking us to do the same, and we each tell the class where we’re from, and so on.

And that’s how my second day at Sciences Po starts.

Before classes began, I had envisioned a strict and elitist university. I’d heard from other exchange students and from a few teachers here that Sciences Po was “a prestigious place.” When I landed in France, even the customs officer was impressed by the institution I’d be studying at.

Seven of the past eight French presidents studied at Sciences Po. The privilege is obvious in the fact that I can print 600 pieces of paper at the library for free. Apart from this privilege, I’d say that perceptions of Sciences Po as an elite institution are unfounded.

All of my classes go for two hours. Most of the time, there’s no break––not even a ten minute pause between the two hours. It’s pretty normal to start class at 8am, and finish at 9:15pm.

I’m taking five classes here, but the total weekly hours are ultimately around the same as Sydney.

Compared to Sydney, there are differences in the way subjects are marked. Take oral presentations, for example.

Whether in a group, with a partner, or alone, they can be up to 30 minutes long. There’s a class presentation every week for each subject with an oral presentation. For the five subjects I’m doing, I have to do three presentations—but it’s not uncommon to have to do one per subject.

But much like Sydney, I’ve got essays due. Or dissertations, rather. A teacher here once said that there’s no equivalent of a dissertation in English. “Dissertations are a distinctly French thing, and we’re proud of it. It’s like cheese.” A dissertation is kind of like an essay in English, but also,not like that at all. You’ve got to be totally neutral in your argument, and only present facts. At the end of the semester, there are exams during the last week. More rarely, there are official “final exams.” I have one of these.

The weighting of marks is also quite different. I have a friend, also an exchange student, taking a class which has a 50% participation mark. It’s common to have three separate assessments for only a single subject.

I have less readings to do than in Sydney. Only one unit has compulsory readings, and they’re only 20 pages all up. I was one of the lucky ones though – a friend has around 200 pages of readings a week for one of their subjects.

When it comes down to it, after I get used to all the changes, it will be comforting to know that the City of Light is waiting for me with open arms.