Les Grandes Ecoles

Grandes Ecoles - Stuff Parisians LikeIn Paris, academic performance is the main – if not the only – determinant of intelligence. Consequently, people who did graduate from a Grande Ecole are considered superior beings.

Faire de bonnes études’ in France means only two things: ‘faire médecine’ or ‘faire une grande école’. All the rest is crap.

Les Grandes Ecoles are a highly competitive set of graduate schools. They fall into two categories: commerce (ESSEC, HEC) and ingénieur (Polytechnique, Centrale, Mines, Ponts). Add Sciences-Po (which is half way through) and Ulm (which is not properly une école) to that list and there you have your French Grandes Ecoles. Conveniently, they are all based in the surroundings of Paris. (Where else?)

Graduating from a Grande Ecole leaves in the Parisian subconscious mind a more lasting mark than a tattoo on a Finn’s skin. Most Parisians who did not graduate from a Grande Ecole consequently feel a form of discomfort about it. They might be great parents, great professionals or great people, they just missed that key milestone of Parisian intelligence.

It is therefore every Parisian’s dream to have at least one of his children entering a Grande Ecole. If that happens, the Parisian can die in peace.

The fact that a person is a student or an alumnus of a Grande Ecole usually comes early in a conversation. Rarely though from the actual graduate: more frequently, this piece of information is brought to the table by the inferior friend, who is too happy to boast a Grande Ecole friend in front of his other inferior friends: ‘j’étais là-bas avec Marc, tu sais, mon copain centralien…’. At this point, the Grande Ecole graduate adopts a humble ‘I’m just like you guys’ profile. On top of being smarter, he is also sympa.  This makes others admire him even more.

Grandes Ecoles are hard to get into. What it takes is excellent grades, hard work, educated parents and a hint of luck. The most fantastic thing about putting together that combination of things is that no matter what he does with his life, Parisians will always consider the person who graduated from a Grande Ecole as superior. And therefore entitled, throughout his career.

Stuff Parisians Like - Grandes EcolesThe fact that most Grande Ecole graduates end up being grey corporate executives is not relevant. Their intelligence has been vouched already. They won. Everybody else lost. It is important to realize that in Paris, no successful entrepreneur, artist, writer, chef, artisan can be considered part of the elite (at least in this lifetime). This category is exclusively reserved to Grandes Ecoles alumni. Other people are expected to move on.

By understanding that intelligence is one fold and fully determined at age 20, Parisians manage to offer the world an easily readable social scale. Finally! Merci qui?

Useful tip: The most obvious form of professional success in Paris is to be a Grande Ecole almuni’s boss.

Sound like a Parisian: « Tu sais que Caroline se marie?! Un garçon très bien, ESSEC, super sympa… »

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31 replies
  1. Natasha
    Natasha says:

    Sounds a lot like the British attitude to Oxbridge – as if its some kind of mythical place where only super-clever people go. And when you tell people that you went there, they get this glazed look on their faces and look as if they want to bow down and worship at your feet. It’s really rather disturbing and may be what puts graduates off mentioning where they went to uni.

    In the UK, though, your university career tends to disappear as a form of reference and definition by the time you’re in your mid-20s so it’s only proud mothers that bring it up in conversation (admittedly with every person you meet).

    So, yeah, what is this French obsession with university? People seem to introduce themselves with, ‘Hi, my name is……., and I have the bac +5’. I had a student once – a 40-year old French businessman who acted like a complete jerk for a good half hour. He then asked me for in depth info about my university degree and would not be deterred by my attempts to put him off. In the end I told him, and he just shut up and paid attention for the rest of the lesson. It was very very strange…(of course, it then got even weirder when he asked me out at the end of the lesson…).

  2. Haleigh
    Haleigh says:

    Legos! I don’t understand the Legos picture but it’s probably just because I don’t go to one of les Grandes Ecoles. Sadly, I am destined to eternal inferiority here in Paris as I will graduate from AUP :-( At least we throw good parties! Or am I excluded from this hierarchy as a foreigner?

  3. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Natasha… Your university (if a good one) is a seal that accompanies you your whole life in France. To give you an idea, the fact that my uncle was a polytechnicien has been mentioned, in church, at his funeral.
    the French value inteligence more than anything else (money, achievement, fame…). Ironically enough, they have a very linear vision of it. And academic performance is the best reading grid for it. If you are intelligent, you did well at school. End of the story. Other forms of intelligence can be good but will never rank as high. So the minute people find out you are part of that crew, your voice becomes more valuable, and your entire being more desirable. Plus, for the records, most men like women with a bit of an attitude! Especially, in France, a diligent and well phrased form of it.
    Haleigh… hello! the legos is just the idea of the podium. You enter a Grande Ecole, you’re on top of the world (or, more accurately, of France). It’s like you won – it’s over. Now you can relax!! Now, les Grandes Ecoles all have great parties too. since kids had to cram so hard in prépa to get in, they party a lot once they’re in. Now, as a foreigner, you are not expected to be in the race for Les Grandes Ecoles. So rest assured, you are not socially doomed quite yet!

  4. ron pruett
    ron pruett says:

    Pardonez moi svp: “alumnus” et “alumna” sont singulaires et “alumni” / “alumnae”, pleurieles. Mais je suis Americain et n’suis pas un diplome de Grande Ecole si mon Latin et Francais sont inferieurs. Bonne journee!

  5. Elisabeth
    Elisabeth says:

    Add to the list the Ecoles Normales Supérieures (George Pompidou was a Normalien.)
    As one French person who failed brilliantly at getting into Normale Sup, and for whom her second year of prépa was one of the most traumatic experiences of her entire life, I read this post with great interest.
    I fully agree with you that the French equate academic success with personal worth. It’s a bit weird but, unfortunately, true. Although it is striking that Sarko loves to stress that he did got get up the political ranks through the traditional French path – Science Po and ENA…

  6. Polly-Vous Francais
    Polly-Vous Francais says:

    Merci, Olivier, for another great post. So spot-on.

    But could you help the rest of us and give the code-names used for the Grandes Ecoles (like X for Polytechnique) which still have me baffled? Assas? Normale? I still don’t understand which are boastable and which aren’t. Normalien, etc… Ash-eu-say, etc. An American in Paris gets mightily confused.

    Like Ponts et Chaussees. What’s that?

    Merci for all the insider scoop!

  7. Neniii
    Neniii says:

    Is it true that once in university, no matter how smart you are, or how hard you work, or how hard you study, one will never get the highest grade in a project/exam/class/etc?

  8. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Ron… nice to read form you!! Very good point. J’ai corrigé cela! Merci : I love to be corrected. For teh records, as a good Parisian, my parents wanted the best for me. Studying latin was good, but studying ancient Greek was even more the shit. So my Latin skills are close to zero!!

    Elizabeth… Allez, i added Normale Sup in there for the sake of your efforts and sacrifice. It’s not really une école but it sure it very much out there for everything else!

    Polly… Merci bcp!
    So…School – nickname – alumnus:
    Ecole Polytechnique – X – X or polytechicien
    Ecole Centrale paris – Centrale – centralien
    Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées – Les Ponts – ‘a fait les Ponts’
    Ecole des Mines de Paris – Les Mines – ‘a fait les Mines’
    HEC – HEC – HEC
    Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris – Science-Po – Science-Po/Science-Poteux (ou Science-Potard)
    Ecole Normale Supérieure, rue d’Ulm / ENS or Ulm/ Normalien

    Polytechnique students have to do what is called ‘une école d’application’ after their Polytechnique curriculum, so they usually go by the combo. The top of which is to be X-Mines. X-Ponts, X telecom are other common denominations.

    Assas is a ‘fac de droit’. Supposedly better than others (and more right wing). Dauphine would be its equivalent for economics. Yet, these are still is ‘facs’ (universités vs écoles). Meaning hardly any competition to get in. So nothing worth really bragging about!

    There are several Ecoles des Mines, Ecoles des Ponts in other cities of France. Only the ones in Paris are highly regarded. Same with les ENS. Cachan and Fontenay are not worth that much. On teh other hand, Ulm is the ultimate Pantheon of French academia. No question about it, the hardest one to get into. ENS usually lead alumni to a career as professors or in research.

    Nenii… ah!! Never really thought about it that way. But I guess it’s vastly true, yeah. No one ever gets a perfect score in university. French mentality!! The only cpunter examps is for thesis students who usually get congratulatiosn from the jury when completing their ‘soutenance de thèse’. Takes 10 years of university to get kudos from French professors!!

  9. Anne
    Anne says:

    My God, you are right about this Grandes ecoles culture! And, there is also a lot of competition between these schools. I did Sup de Co Strasbourg and for sure I do not have the same level as the one who did ESSEC. And, when I first look for a job, that was very noticeable!!!!! Great article!

  10. Cédric
    Cédric says:

    It’s true that French people consider the academic peformance during your whole life. In lot of countries (particularly US & UK) the important is your real competence at work, your efficiency and experience. In France, recruiters first of all look at your degree and the name of your school. I graduated ICAM Toulouse only 5 years ago and can already give several examples of this, including managers saying “what can I do when I only have in my team BEP or CAP graduated ?”.

  11. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    What are the Parisian’s attitudes towards foreigners studying abroad at one of Les Grandes Ecoles for a semester or a year? I’m an American (Californian) studying at Sciences Po currently and haven’t had the warmest reception from the French students (surprise, surprise…).

  12. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Sarah… Well, all in all Grandes Ecoles are rather cliquy. Most kids studying there tend to have been les souffre-douleurs of other kids every year at school before they got in their Grande Ecole. All of a sudden, once they’re in, they are surrounded with people like them. Great feeling. Grandes Ecoles alumni all met their best (only?) friends during these years. All students there are in a state of ecstasy – tehy are discovering friendship, fun and freedom all at once. This does not leave much room for exchange students. The main way for a foreign student to get acquainted to other kids is through activities (sports) or by being utterly hot – you will be asked out.
    Sciences Po is I guess a bit worse. Sciences Po kids have the reputation of being very bourgeois and somewhat arrogant. Lots of confidence. Being American probably doesn’t help. Sciences Po kids like tothink of themselves as an elite. As for all French elite, it is not acceptable to like America or Americans. Have fun nonetheless Sarah, there are good people everywhere!!

  13. Mada
    Mada says:

    As far as I’m concerned, I think you should add ESCP (nicknamed “Sup de Co’ Paris”) to HEC and ESSEC, three ones representing what we call “les parisiennes” (top three biz schools in France and Europe, HEC 1st and ESCP 2d for Master in Management FT.com)

    I did only two years of prépa to get into ESCP and everyone told us “you’re going to be France’s elite” so it’s weird cause people tell you you are and in return, you act as if you are (in fact, we are since we earn on average 45K€ only at the end of the school!). But it’s more about economic elite than cultural ones ! You have to be to a minimum intelligent and work very hard to get in, but you’re not so intellectual… You use every resource to get into, your charism, your speed, your parents’ money (classe prépa is somewhat a French equivalent for the Grandes Ecoles to prep schools for the Ivy League) and your knowledge.

    Then, as a matter of fact, we have the best parties, especially in ecoles de commerce.

  14. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Mada… Yep,I don’t know where in France people got the idea that working as a consultant, a banker, a marketing guy or an auditor makes you the elite of society. Grandes Ecoles graduates did well at school that’s for sure. But there is still a far cry between doing well at school and becoming the elite of anything at all – let alone society!

  15. Lachalla Kerr
    Lachalla Kerr says:

    I have taught both in the French and in the British system. Actually the French system is like the British system in the fifties (when skill and educational ability mattered less than your family and connections). The UK system is better now (yes, even Oxbridge, and I have taught at Cambridge) – we have much fairer ways of making sure that performance is based on ability. When you graduate you still have to prove that you can/ want to use what you have learned. Being an Oxbridge graduate may help you get a chance, but that’s all. Period. The Grand Ecole are concerned with grades, yes, but once in, students are lazy, standards are often low, almost everyone passes (however many re-takes it takes). Standards are NOT comparable with Universities in the UK or US.
    Once graduated it is easy to get all sorts of jobs you’re not actually fit for. The French system needs to change (this was pointed out in the 16th century and nothing happened but maybe it’s time for another go).

  16. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Lachalla… I would fully agree and fully disagree with what you wrote (see… Grande Ecole education made me at least master rhetoric). Fully agree when you say that once you’re in one these Ecoles, standards are relatively low and life a bit too easy. But fully disagree when you say selection to get in is based on family and connections. Simply because being a selection exclusively based on grades (and therefore fully anonymous), there is no possibility to have someone for instance like George W. Bush get into one of these programs (for teh record, he graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School). Now, saying that the ability to perform well at school has a lot to do with your socio-economic background, that yes – not a pb. Bourdieu and Passeron described it better that I could ever do (in La Reproduction… crazy what they teach you about in prépa, huh?!). Now, when it comes to performing later on the job, I think Grandes Ecoles graduates tend to overperform. Simply because to get in, they proved that they were either hard working or smart. Now, that being said, what I think is a pity with this system is that it makes these kids feel like professional life = LVMH + Goldman Sachs + KPMG + Danone + EADS + McKinsey + BNP + RBS + Procter & Gamble… Basically the people who advertise on campus paired with the ones that offer the best salaries. What’s too bad is that all this initial talent only goes to these jobs and companies. Very few entrepreneurs, very few artists… I even heard the dean of one of these schools said he would not push his students to become entrepreneurs because that would take the average of salaries right after graduating down. Grades grades grades!!

  17. Arianna
    Arianna says:

    I study at ScPo right now but honestly i found everyone extremely friendly and open-minded, no arrogance or whatsoever…Beside, i’ve really loved this post :) it is true that there is a certain révérence for Grandes Ecoles students

  18. JoAnn
    JoAnn says:

    Question- can someone help with a few names of review classes for Sciences Po admission test review during Spring break. I have heard there are a few 2 to 3 week classes taught, Paris please, that may be useful.

  19. smeetha
    smeetha says:

    I want to respond to two posts, first one: “The main way for a foreign student to get acquainted to other kids is through activities (sports) or by being utterly hot…
    Sciences Po is I guess a bit worse. Sciences Po kids have the reputation of being very bourgeois and somewhat arrogant. Lots of confidence. Being American probably doesn’t help. Sciences Po kids like to think of themselves as an elite” and the second,

    “Sounds a lot like the British attitude to Oxbridge – as if its some kind of mythical place where only super-clever people go…In the UK, though, your university career tends to disappear as a form of reference and definition by the time you’re in your mid-20s”

    first, i graduated from Cambridge and am now at Sciences Po, i never publicly advertise this, but since it is an anonymous post i won’t feel like a pompous ass. Sci-Po is incredibly warm and friendly. the problem is that international students mostly take the international programs filled with annoying kids and then they have zero opportunity to mix with the realy Frenchies, unless in sports. i switched degrees and am now in a French track with the ‘natives’ so to speak and they really are MUCH MUCH friendlier than one would ever think. they are not snobby or arrogant, of course you have the occasional prat, just like everyone else in the world, i’ve met a bigger asshole on the metro and i bashed his head in;) so come with an open mind. as for being ‘utterly-hot’ you really have to dress better here, it’s Paris for god’s sakes so take off your sweat pants and put on something stylish because that’s everyday life here, people eat well and look good everyday, not just on special occasions. as for oxbridge, actually it does matter where you go, and no it does NOT disappear as a point of reference ever, in fact 60 something year olds still hold it as a reference, and yes i must admit i did meet those super clever people there, in fact the greatest genius i have ever met i encountered there. however, the fact of life remains that the humblest people are oft the most talented and true intelligence is never awarded through privilege or a fancy diploma, rather it’s a testament of hard work and sheer determination. they are both stellar unis but if you don’t go there, it doesn’t mean much, a lotta clever kids live in the ghettos of Bangladesh and microfinancing wasn’t proposed by an economist from Harvard. so open your mind, quit calling people arrogant (they really aren’t) and don’t worry about elitism, just work hard and let life throw you a curve ball, if you can handle it, you’ll climb…and if you can’t then you’ll just grumble about others being privileged prats.

  20. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Arianna… All good things then!
    JoAnn… Ipesup is the best I believe.
    Smeetha… I like your approach to things. Based on your comments, no question that Sciences Po is indeed based in St Germain!

  21. JoAnn
    JoAnn says:

    Hello would appreciate your opinion. I have a student I am mentoring… he spent a veryy successful year in the US and high school exchange student, sailed competitive internationally for years and is truly a global citizen, although French. he has gooten into Dauphine, waiting for Sciences Po, Reimes campus and alos gottne into St Jean Prepas in Lille. I would prefer to see him at SC Po or Dauphine startig now than prepsa given his maturity and level of international experiences in his life … any comments

  22. Anaïs
    Anaïs says:

    I noticed there is a new attitude toward les Grandes Ecoles growing in the parisian “bobo” milieu which is to say that les Grandes Ecoles (particularly les écoles de Commerce) create des gens “formatés” who will only become part of the (scary) liberal system. I do not disagree, but the following words after this statement are usually “tu vois elle a fait l’ESSEC mais c’était pas épanouissant alors elle totalement changé de vie” then your interlocutor may mention that she owns a “green” production of cheese somewhere in the countryside, which in some way the summum of the bobo attitude (to my point of view)

  23. Max
    Max says:

    When you say that most parisians feel uncomfortable about not graduating from a grande ecole, are basing that fact on statistical data?

  24. Laurentiu
    Laurentiu says:

    This makes me very curious. Which would be the attitude of Parisians to graduates of the Elite anglo-saxon schools ? How would they feel about People from oxbridge or harvard or MIT ? While taking a master in ParisI found the French Grande Ecole students I’ve met to be very friendly and nice people…

  25. Chris
    Chris says:

    This article conveys a very superficial understanding of french society. French society values “success” in a very different way than in Anglo-Saxon countries. For instance, in the US someone that is successful professionally is typically viewed as someone who is better than the average american in most aspects including at a personal level. Whereas in France, people can deem someone to be successful professionally but consider him a douche. That is why politics in the US must have a clean track in their personal life whereas in France their personal life doesn’t matter. In France, people distinguish between the the personal and professional more than in other countries. Hence, if you notice people getting recognition in France for going to a top school, it’s because people don’t rank themselves in such a simplistic way. It’s simply shows that that person is very smart to get through the competitiveness of the recruiting process of top schools. Point is, someone that graduates from a top school in France is viewed as a proven very intelligent person, but that doesn’t make him superior to the people. French people are much more critical than that.

  26. Justin614
    Justin614 says:

    The Grande Ecoles in Paris seem similar to Ivy League schools in the U.S. If you attend an Ivy League school you are considered smarter than everyone else. Most students would love to go to one but few are accepted. However they do offer some of the best educations in the world better than the Grande Ecoles.

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