French Language Blog

French Academic Vocabulary Posted by on Feb 5, 2018 in Vocabulary

Last week, we went over the French university system and how it is similar and differs from university systems in the US and Europe. Today, we’ll focus more on the vocabulary that you can expect to use if you do find yourself studying abroad in France.


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As we discussed last year, there are different kinds of French universities. Generally, the word you would use for university would be l’université, although if you attend a public university in France you would call it la fac (which is short for la faculté). Like in the United States, the academic year is split into two different semesters, or semestres. (Comme aux Etats-Unis, le calendrier universitaire est divisé en deux semestres.)

In order to enroll in college, students in France need to pass le baccalauréat, also known as le bac. (Recently, French officials have declared some sweeping reforms to the bac in France to mixed responses; you can read more about it—in French, of course!—here.) Le bac is similar to A-levels in Britain, or to the SAT in the US.

It is somewhat common in France for students to begin their university studies without graduating with their license degree. This is because, at least for la fac, there are no entrance examinations; however, classes get progressively harder and students have to keep up with those in their class, otherwise they can’t proceed. You might hear people referring to their education level as bac +3 or bac +2, which refers to the years of study they finished after passing le baccalauréat.

Like au lycée, in college grades are typically issued on a 20-point scale, with 10 being the passing grade. It is—somewhat notoriously—difficult to get grades above 15 or so in the French grading system. This is largely cultural, as students who have studied in both the United States and France state that French professors are less likely to mark their assignments with near perfect grades than their American counterparts. From 12 points and more, students receive a mention, or a special distinction, for their assignment: assez bien for 12-13.99 points, bien for 14-15.99, and très bien for grades above 16. Very few university students will get an overall mention of très bien, and this distinction is typically reserved for at most the top 3% of students.

Here’s some more vocabulary to help you through the French academic setting:

s’inscrire à l’université     enroll in the university
faire un mémoire              do a thesis
la résidence universitaire   dormitory
les notes                               grades
une interrogation              quiz/test
une bourse                          scholarship
passer un examen            to take (not to pass!) a test
rater                                    to fail
réussir                                to pass/to succeed
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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!