The French system of education differs in any possible way from the American one. It is organized in three cycles, the first two of which every student has to go through. After that, things get more complex. France has many public and private higher education institutions; the public institutions are state-funded, which means they can offer education that is virtually free.
Schools in France are mostly public, and do not necessarily benefit from a better academic reputation if they do happen to be private. As a consequence, most students attend their local public school until they reach university level.
Focus is largely on academics in the French schooling system. Extracurricular activities such as sports and the arts remain in the margin. Several classes are required in these areas, but the workload is light and is not taken as seriously as in the US. Students who wish to focus on non-academic subjects must do so on their own initiative, independently of the school curriculum.
Academically, the program covers a wide range of subjects. From 6th grade through 10th grade, students study Math, Biology, Physics/Chemistry, History/Geography, French, and usually two foreign or ancient languages. Additional classes in Art, Music, and PhysEd constitute a very small portion of the weekly schedule.
For the last two years of high school, each student chooses one track: Scientific, Literary, Socio-Economic, or Technological (pre-professional). The course load is almost entirely focused on this area of concentration as they prepare for the Baccalaureat exam, equivalent to a high school diploma in the US.
The structure of a French university is focused as well: students enroll in a specific track as soon as they enter, i.e. Biology, Physics, Philosophy, History, etc. Classes are divided between lecture courses with up to several hundreds of students, and smaller discussion sections (travaux pratiques or travaux diriges). In theory, the organization resembles that of a large American university. In fact, because universities are most often public, funding is low in comparison with US institutions, often to the disadvantage of increasingly large numbers of enrolled students. At undergraduate level, the learning experience is generally more impersonal than in the US, and a greater independence and autonomy is expected of students.
Admission to university is granted upon completion of the Baccalaureat degree.
There are around 90 universities, most of them offering a large variety of departments. Since 1968, universities have a lot of autonomy, their management being led by boards where all the people working in the university are represented: professors, students, the administration, technical services. The recteur, a senior civil servant designated by the government, controls the legallity of the decisions taken by these boards.
Studies in a French university are divided into 3 cycles: 3 years to get
a Licence (equivalent to the bachelor degree), then 2 years
to get a Master degree, and finally 3 years to get a doctoral thesis. During the licence and the Master students are tested
every semester and their evaluation takes both these exams and some work done
along the year into account.
Grandes ecoles are uniquely French institutions that offer specialized education of a very high standard. They offer places to many foreign students, and actively promote an international outlook to education and professional life.
The grandes ecoles are known for their extremely selective admission policies.
Entry is usually by competitive examination or on the basis of academic record. The competitive examinations can take place either after the Baccalaureat or at the end of two-year of preparatory courses after passing the Baccalaureat. Then, the grande ecole programmes last either five or three years. All graduating students have therefore a Licence and a Master degrees.
At the Master level, the difference between grandes ecoles and universities is blurred, as some graduate programs are operated in common by several institutions (universities and grande ecoles). A student from the university can do its Master degree in one or several grande ecoles, and vice-versa.
Here are a non-exhaustive list of major French grandes ecoles: