Making the most of university in France

Making the most of university in France Carnaval étudiant de Caen 2012 by GaetanZFSHN

This article was written by Jules O'Dwyer, published on 28th February 2013 and has been read 5934 times.

Jules O’Dwyer is studying Politics and French at Bristol University, and is currently on his study placement at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. Here is his advice about surviving university in France and making the most of your time there by getting involved in extracurricular activities, societies, Erasmus opportunities, travel discounts, and trying out different subjects...

It is striking to note that the ‘university experience’ doesn’t really exist in France – or at least it doesn’t comprise the whole package we Brits first envisage. The shortage of student accommodation and halls, coupled with the fact that many students remain near to where they grew up, creates a very different University culture. There isn’t the same mentality of a radical - and necessary - rupture with our old lives once we have passed our A-levels (maybe with a detour via the customary soul-searching, chakra-balancing voyage to south-east Asia).


However studying abroad is a great tool to supplement your vocab, deepen your general knowledge and meet young people on your year in France. The following tips aim to guide you through the more challenging aspects of university in France.

1. Bureaucracy

From CROUS to CAF via a whole host of other acronyms, bureaucracy abounds. Waiting in queues for hours is inevitable, so get to know the person next to you. Many friendships are forged over a mutual frustration of queueing – seeing as the whole ordeal is a necessary evil you may as well get something out of it.


Surly office personnel will try to palm you off and send you to the next person down the pecking order, or to a random office down the hall. Be suspicious, be demanding, but remember to balance your forthright tone with the ever indispensable ‘vous’ form.


Once you have finally got your head around the labyrinthine structure of your chosen faculty, watch out for specific office opening hours! Chances are that the day you decide to pop in and get a form signed, the office will be closed for an afternoon (because Tuesday afternoons and Thursday mornings are, evidently, the time for a well earned break).


Financial support is available also for housing in the form of APL – do not sit around as it will not simply come to you – as I can testify coming into my sixth month here with that same paperwork slowly yellowing by the side of my desk. Proactivity is the key - what seems like hours of form-filling should definitely pay off.


Finally, getting metro and bus passes (such as the Imagine-R in Ile-de-France) is almost always worthwhile, but will take a few more forms. The Government may well be reproached for lots of things regarding how students are dealt with, but over-priced travel isn’t one of them.

2. Societies and Extracurricular Activities

As noted in the introduction, you may find yourself at a loss if you are keen on extracurricular activities. Hailing from a University which boasts a vast array of societies from ‘Wingardium Levio-Soc’ to Hot Air Ballooning, I was initially underwhelmed as my host institution has no Union, per se. Think of this as an opportunity to branch out: why not look outside the hermetic university bubble to exercise your creative and sporting talents? 


In Paris, I found online networks such as MeetUp.com useful for reviving old hobbies, such as music and life drawing, with like-minded people. In some cases university facilities are useful: sports are heavily subsidised and often even free through the nationwide SUAPS scheme, whilst special theatre tickets can be obtained through ‘cultural orientation’ programmes.

When you get round to actually studying...

3. Playing the ‘Erasmus’ card

At many institutions, Erasmus students are given a free pick of courses and do not need to satisfy the prerequesites that their French comrades do. This is natural, we are not hoping to obtain a license.


Some may seize this rare academic freedom – savouring the varied courses on offer akin to a glutton at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Piling on the Philosophy, Queer Cinema, heaping on the Introductory Economics with lashings of Public Law and Proust for good measure.. I found myself in a nauseating state which was worse than any MSG hangover. While it makes sense to go outside the narrow constraints of your usual degree course and try something new, lecturers may be unsympathetic to your ambitious workload. Scale down your curriculum and focus on your language development first and foremost.

4. Mastering ‘Methodology’

This word will become the bane of every student’s life - referring to a set method which is applied to essay-writing and textual commentary. Like your times tables in primary school, this just has to be learned. Whether this ‘one-size-fits-all’ method seems arbitrary or not, it simply needs to be adhered to in order to gain a respectable mark (a pass is usually 10/20 and badly laid out work will be more harshly penalised than lazy orthography).


The question of whether to construct an essay in two or three sections is likely to solicit a lengthy diatribe from your lecturer. Turn this to your advantage – with half an hour to go and a flailing attention-span, this distraction may just be your get-out-of-jail-free card. Incidentally, classes tend to range between 2 and 3 hours but the more humane lecturers may accord you a midway break.


Despite grumblings to the contrary I have grown quite fond of the rigorous programmes offered on my study placement as they call into question the subjectivity-centred Arts curricula of the UK. My studies abroad will hopefully serve as a useful basis for my final year. Even if it doesn’t, I at least now possess the requisite chit-chat to sweet-talk one of the more stern secretaries into letting me change courses. That must be worth some credit... If not a couple of ECTS credits.

Read Jules's blog, A Year in Paris, for his latest update.

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