The French Problématique: A French University Experience

March 28, 2017

by apaparis


With just over two months of classes at French university under my belt, I’ve had enough time to note the differences between the French and American school systems. During our orientation, the APA directors explained the differences in full, but practice can often be different than execution. Here are some things I’ve noticed:

  • American systems prefer meeting more often for shorter periods of time. (In high school, my classes were 40 minutes, and the lab of 75 minutes once a week felt like an eternity.) Meanwhile, I have four classes here that are 3 hours long with a 10 minute “pause” in the middle. Students use the pause here to grab an espresso or a bite to eat, or more often than not, smoke outside and gab with friends. The longer periods of time can feel incredibly challenging, as it’s hard enough to concentrate for 3 hours in your native language, much less in a language that requires rock-solid focus.
  • As long as it’s kind of clear-ish, your hand-writing doesn’t really make a difference… in the States, that is. The French love good penmanship, and if you cross out and correct too much in an essay, they’ll ask you to write it over again. No kidding, this happened during one of my in-class essays!
  • French students love to take notes that are in full paragraphs. Gone are your bullet points! Weird.
  • The paper is different. In the US, we love our simple college-ruled notebook paper. In France, it’s gridded – all of it. Some of the notebooks also have paper that has multiple thin lines, and I made the mistake of writing very very tinily the first time I used it. The professor refused it because it was too “difficult” to read, but at least she thought my excuse was funny. (?)
  • Don’t even think about writing in pencil during an exam. (This makes it difficult for foreign students, because we’re always making grammatical errors that require careful proof-reading… and if you can’t cross it out without having to re-write, you see the issue!)
  • Some courses will have only one assignment. ONE. For the entire course.
  • When a professor says that a paper is 3 pages long, they mean single-spaced. I kid you not.
  • We had an entire methodology class about writing in a specific way. Instead of making a direct claim, for example, in an essay, you have to distance yourself and use quizzical language. Instead of saying “the French love baguettes” you’d say, “One could claim that the French enjoy eating baguettes because of their chewy texture and crunchy crust.” Not kidding. (Everything you learned about omitting superfluous language in school is apparently wrong in France.)
  • Look up a “problématique”, “thèse”, “antithèse”, and “car en réalité” and you’ll understand everything. (French dissertations and commentaires have a completely different structure than normal American essays. You literally ask a question in the introduction. Intriguing.)
  • Some American universities love to create an intimate rapport between students and faculty. Some cool French professors are like this, but more often than not, you’ll never refer to your professor by their first name or ask for one-on-one help. (This is where the APA help plays in, with language assistants and additional classes.)

While these differences can definitely be challenging, I’m grateful to have the experience of university in a different country and in a different language. Learning in French all the time (and in the French system) can be tiring and frustrating, but ultimately don’t think I would have understood the differences between the American and French systems had I not been immersed in it.

Happy studies!


Student Blog