I need to ask for what from whom in which building on which floor?: how to navigate the French university system



I’m about three weeks into my second semester here in Paris, and I must admit that being able to call myself a student at the oldest university in Paris is a kind of magic that most people will never get to experience. Most people in the language world, especially in the French language world, know the prestige that comes along with the name of the Sorbonne. The Sorbonne is one of the top universities in all of France for the humanities, and it is known world-wide as well.

However, what most people don’t know is that the Sorbonne actually consists of multiple universities. The Sorbonne that we French learners come to learn about actually split into multiple universities in Paris in the early 1970s. So, the Sorbonne that we think of is actually Paris-Sorbonne – Paris 4 (THE Sorbonne, the one most tourists put on their list of things to see and the one that I’m attending this semester). This definitely caused some confusion upon my arrival for my job here, which is technically at a Sorbonne university (New Sorbonne – Paris 3, school of humanities), but it’s not THE Sorbonne. Others include the Panthéon-Sorbonne – Paris 1 (school of social sciences and economics), Panthéon-Assas – Paris 2 (school of law and economics), René Descartes – Paris 5 (school of medicine and social sciences), Pierre-et-Marie-Curie – Paris 6 (school of medicine and science),  Dénis-Didérot – Paris 7 (where I took classes last semester, school of science, medicine, and humanities), and all the way up to Paris 13 – yes, that’s right, there are 13 universities under the “sorbonne” umbrella. Though, technically when people talk about the Sorbonne, they are usually referencing one of the first 5 Paris universities, especially because, if I’m not mistaken, many of the universities don’t really consider themselves to be under the Sorbonne umbrella, since this umbrella is now technically called just the University of Paris.

Walking the halls of a building that was built in 1253 is magical (not to mention the breathtaking library here) like stepping back in time or into a fictional novel, kind of like stepping into France’s version of Hogwarts, especially because the hallways go every which way, as do the staircases. Having to cross courtyards to get to classrooms, it’s like a maze, an adventurous one but also a slightly annoying and frustrating one. However, despite the frustrations, I must admit that I consider myself blessed. Not many people get such an opportunity, especially one that they thought about since they learned about the Sorbonne in high school, much like myself.


Despite all of this magic though, it must be said that navigating the French university system during my time here has been the farthest thing from magical. Being in my second semester, you would think that I would have it figured out by now. However, the truth is that I still find it gloriously and hopelessly confusing, and I’m literally winging it as I go.

So, how exactly does the French university system actually work? Well, truthfully, using the verb “work” to describe the system is generous. It’s more like “floating about, trudging along with something eventually working out” is more accurate, but I’m going to do my best to try to break it down for you.

First and foremost, it is to be understood that enrolling in a university here in France is a confusing process that is the opposite of what you might expect, especially if you grew up in the United States or the UK. There are two separate types of enrollment, which we technically have in universities in the States, but the division between the two is much more obvious and creates much more difficulty than it does in the States. To enroll in any university, you have to complete what is called “l’inscription administrative,” the administrative enrollment. This is the step that enrolls you as an actual student, and then you have to complete “l’inscription pédagogique,” which is enrollment in actual courses, which is a whole separate process.

So, for administrative enrollment, as an international student, I had to go to the international student office at both universities, which makes perfect sense, however, Paris 7 had difficulty completing my enrollment, because they couldn’t understand that I’m not an Erasmus student (an international study abroad program for European university students) and am just a normal international exchange student. So, eventually they just enrolled me as an Erasmus student, and I didn’t bother to change it, because at the end of the day, it all functioned the same. Thankfully, Paris 4 has three separate international coordinators for exchange students, one of which is specifically designated for Erasmus students and the other two for other types of international students.

Anyways, when you enroll as a student, international or not, despite the fact that schools in France are free, you still have to pay fees that are to enroll in the national healthcare system. Well, because I work in France, I’m already enrolled in the healthcare system through the university that I work for and am, therefore, exempt from these fees at the university where I study. Unfortunately, Paris 7 could not comprehend this, so the international office sent me on a goose chase to the HR office to have to prove to them that I am, in fact, employed by the government and am, in fact, exempt from the fees, so that they can enroll me by waiving the fee. I then had to take that information to another office where I finally finished my last parts of enrollment and finally got what’s called a “certificat de scolarité,” which is a piece of paper that has all of your information as a student on it, including the confirmation that you “paid” the healthcare fees. It is then, after receiving this piece of paper that you receive your student ID card and are officially administratively enrolled in the university. Whew. 3 different offices, a lot of confusion, and three hours later, I was officially enrolled at Paris 7 but only as a student, not yet in classes. Thankfully at Paris 4, they have their shit together. The international office took care of all of that in one fail swoop. No goose chase there.

So, to enroll in actual classes is a whole new game all it’s own. In the States, we enroll in classes for the next semester online and usually about two months ahead of time. In France, it’s literally the opposite of that, because it’s France. The bureaucratic system ensures that nothing is ever made easy. So, here you have to go to each separate department to enroll in person, and oh, did I mention that you don’t actually know which classes are offered for the semester until at the earliest two weeks before the semester starts?

Enrolling in classes at Paris 7 did not cease complication after enrolling administratively, no, of course life could not be that easy. Seeming how I wanted to take a literature class and a linguistics class, I had to go to two separate departments in two separate buildings, one of which is a complete maze and makes literally no sense (are you seeing a pattern in the French university buildings here?). I had to go to the university three separate times to get enrolled in classes, because not only did I have trouble finding the departments that I needed, but additionally, I couldn’t go through the means of enrolling in classes like the rest of the students. No, I had to go directly to the secretary of the linguistics department because I’m an international student (why they couldn’t enroll me like the rest of the students still remains a mystery to me). Okay, despite the goose chase, that seems easy enough, right? of course not! As I was working at the same time and because the secretary is only open 4 hours a day (again, another mystery to me), it took me three times to enroll in one class. I almost gave up entirely, and because of this little debacle, I actually ended up missing the first two classes of my linguistics course. Paris 7 is not my friend. haha. Though I’m sure not every student’s enrollment is that complicated, the system still begs to question how universities in France actually manage to function. Like, seriously, how do they actually function on a daily basis, especially because as far as I can see even French students have no idea what’s going on the majority of the time. Again, “floating about, trudging along with something eventually working out” is most definitely more accurate.

Thankfully, I enrolled at Paris 4 enough ahead of time that when I went to the literature department to enroll in classes, they were able to tell me that all Erasmus and international students were given a specific date to enroll in courses together. Thank goodness! Finally a university that knows how to semi-function! Though to be honest, after my first experience at Paris 7, I was fully prepared for an equally crazy mess, and I’m considering myself lucky to have dodged that bullet.

Now, that was a mouth full, but that’s literally just the enrollment process. We haven’t even gotten to how the classes themselves function. I’d be surprised if you were still with me. Are you brave enough to continue? Well continue on my brave soul.


Coming from an American university background, the system here definitely came as a shock. In the United States we are used to having assignments every week, where we are held accountable for having to complete readings and written assignments with some tests and projects thrown in the mix. Though this exists in France, this is not the norm. This type of evaluation is what is called a “contrôle continu,” a continuous evaluation. Most classes will have either two major exams (what they call a “partiel,” a partial, usually what is considered a “devoirs sur table,” literally a homework on the table, or aka what we Americans would just call a test, as opposed to an assignment you complete at home), a mixture of one or two major papers and one exam, or just one major exam/paper/presentation. So, to summarize, my French courses are evaluated on either one, two, or only three graded assignments at maximum. Though you are given different reading assignments, you are not necessarily held accountable to them like we are in the States. Professors don’t necessarily say “okay, read pages 1 through 60 for the next class period.” No, you are just expected to read what you need to read to be prepared for the next subject listed on the course syllabus. You have to keep yourself accountable.

And speaking of syllabi, not all professors give you a clear understanding of what is expected of you for the semester. When we get a syllabus in the U.S., we expect a piece of paper that gives us all the information we could possibly need for the course, including, which subjects will be covered for which class periods, which assignments to complete, the details of each of those assignments, which readings you are expected to complete and when, and the grading scale that you are being graded on. The majority of the time, you would be lucky to get such a syllabus like that here in France. No, instead, you’ll probably get a list of dates of the subjects you’ll be covering, with what assignments you are expected to complete for when, orally. Nevermind the details of that assignment. You’ll have to figure that out on your own or have to ask the professor directly.

Then when it comes to how you are graded, students here are graded on a scale of up to 20 points, with the understanding that 17 (maybe, sometimes, 18), is the maximum grade you can ever reach. It is basically impossible to get anything higher than that because the French don’t believe in perfection. This became clear when I got a 17 on my first paper for my literature class my first semester, and my professor, knowing that I’m American, wrote “A+” next to the 17 on my paper. lol. Thanks professor, even though technically that would not be considered an A+ in my country. Most students get an average of scores between 11 and 13. These scores are considered normal, and in fact, this is what is expected. If you have a class average above 12 or 13, then you might be asked if perhaps you are being too generous in your grading. The French system is built to expect a percentage of students to fail! I guess since schooling is free here, it makes sense, as this is the main way to weed out the weak/non-dedicated students.

Now, if you’ve made it this far in the post, congratulations! Proud of you! That was a stressful mouthful. How students choose universities and what they study is a whole other subject for a whole other post for a whole other day.

To be honest, though I would not want to grow up with this system and will be happy to be out of it, I have gathered a few positives from it.

Navigating this system has pushed me to be more self-sufficient and has made me a stronger problem solver. It’s also helped in improving my French. I now have vocabulary for things that I didn’t before coming here, and it helps me to understand the French culture on a whole new level. Additionally, especially in regards to the grading scale, it has helped me to learn to be more accepting of my imperfections. Being in a system where perfection is not a possibility, the perfectionist inside me has learned how to chill out to some degree and to not only accept criticism better but how to improve from that criticism. I enjoy the fact that there’s no such thing as perfection and that not everyone can be the best in everything, something that I think we could use a healthy dose of in the United States. However, there is the other side of that, which is the fact that many of my students have given up because they never feel like they are ever going to be good enough, because they are constantly told that they aren’t. So, where does that leave them and me? I’m still trying to figure out, just like everything else in this confusing and crazy, stressful country that has strangely captured my heart.

What has been your most stressful and confusing part of living or traveling abroad?

Still trying to figure out my life here and my life in general…

A plus mes amis!

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