French Language Blog

How to Get into a Grande École in France Posted by on Apr 14, 2013 in Vocabulary


To many students from all over the world, to be offered the opportunity of studying in an Ivy-League school in France is tantamount to un rêve (a dream) that becomes true.

Of course, la clé du succès (the key to success) is hard work and perseverance.

And that means quite a lot of it!

Today, we will take ÉNA, the same “elite school” we talked about just three days ago, as a showcase of the long and challenging road which ultimately opens to the successful candidate the doors of a French Ivy-League school.

The process of applying to ÉNA, namely the “École Nationale d’Administration“, has often been compared to les douze travaux d’Hercule (the Twelve Labours of Hercules.)

As you may rightfully suspect, there is a very good reason for that comparison.

Like for any other Grande École in France (think, for example, of Polytechnique, the “French MIT“), one ought to go first through a classe préparatoire before even thinking of getting into ÉNA.

You can see this step as “un hors d’œuvre“, or “appetizer“, where one gets “un avant-goût (“a foretaste”) of the sort of treat that the upcoming stages will bring with them.

The “prépa” (shortcut for “classe préparatoire“, meaning “preparatory class”) for the ÉNA is conducted under the aegis of a school which you probably have already heard of.

That would be the widely famous Sciences Po, especially popular among exchange students from all over the world.

There begins the process which ultimately, or rather penultimately, leads to the admission exam called le concours externe (extrenal exam.)

This exam begins with l’écrit (written test), which challenges the candidate with a wide array of questions ranging from le droit (law) to l’économie.

One should not be overly surprised, however, to also run into a question of culture générale (or “general knowledge”, the sort of quiz questions that can pop up at a Monday Trivia night. No kidding.)

As one can easily imagine, the “survival rate” at the end of this preliminary step does not exceed 10%.

Only then will “les survivants (“the survivors”) be served what may be called the “plat de résistance” (“main dish.”)

This would be the examen oral (oral exam)which puts to the test one’s éloquence regarding a vast variety of topics.

And as if all the previous stages were not enough, the oral exam culminates with the much-dreaded Grand Oral (affectuously nicknamed as the “Grand O” by its fans), which lasts about the same time as une mi-temps de football (a half-time of a soccer game.)

In the Grand O, the candidate is generally malmené (manhandled, that is) by all kinds of unusual and often ridiculously puzzling questions.

These are mostly what you would call des questions déconcertantes, the aim of which is to test one’s ability to think “outside of the box” (so to speak!)

Here is a quick overview of Sciences Po (Click here to watch the video on Youtube)

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