Even on Sundays, the lines to get into the Beaubourg library stretch nearly two hours long now. Crowds of students, laden with heavy backpacks and smoking cigarettes (this is France, after all), look out of place amid the crowds of tourists streaming through Paris’ city center.
Why the sudden surge in studying? Many of the illustrious concours, France’s entrance exams for the country’s best schools, will take place in a few months. These tests determine who will earn the fiercely contested spots in France’s famous grandes écoles, roughly equivalent to the Ivy League in the U.S.
Getting in to a grande école is a complicated process with multiple steps, but the first part is simple: To get in, students need to score extremely well on the national entrance exams, which are held once each year. For my French host brother, who is hoping to pass the exam in medicine, this means a test of five hours will determine his academic future in France.
In theory, this admission process is as meritocratic as possible: Every student takes the same test, at the same place, at the same time, and the highest-scoring students are admitted. The concours grading system is designed to be completely free of bias. A student’s paper is only identified with a number, not his or her name, so there’s no chance of sexism or racism on the part of the graders influencing decisions.
How does this process affect university admissions? Let’s look at the difference between an application to Yale and an application to the Ecole Normale Supérieure, arguably the most prestigious academic institution in France. An application by any high school senior to Yale this year will include at least eight different components. The application is a mosaic of a student’s accomplishments, struggles and character.
An application to the ENS, by contrast, is first contingent on making the cut as a top student in the national concours. The student will then submit a form exactly one page long, with places for high school grades, concours results and recommendations of a sentence or two from former teachers. That’s it.
Imagine the SAT or ACT, unquestionably important tests for most college-bound American teenagers — but multiplied in significance by about a thousand. American students, should they wake up with a raging headache on the day of the SAT, can always choose to take it on the next test date. Should they simply be poor test takers, they will still have the rest of their application to demonstrate their intelligence.
But in France, if you miss the exam, you’ve missed your shot at a place in France’s best schools. Sick? Tired? Distracted? Tant pis.
As you might imagine, this kind of make-it-or-break-it pressure creates an extreme level of stress for French students. My host brother, for example, never feels like he’s working hard enough, even though he has a chart of the Krebs cycle in the bathroom to study while he brushes his teeth. He knows there could always be other students out there studying more than he is — and those students could very well be the ones who edge him out in the competition for the top spots. Maybe it’s not surprising that he’s become a chronic insomniac.
In a few weeks, Yale will admit a few hundred of the students who will form the class of 2016. As happens every year, questions will be raised about the fairness and justice of the college admission process. In France, none of these questions will be asked. Instead, concours results will be posted for all to see in various public buildings around Paris. Some students will have a spot in a grande école and will be catapulted on the path to academic and professional success. And some will not.
The French system of university selection certainly has its merits. It’s simple and, on the surface, nothing but meritocratic — although socioeconomic factors determine which students can afford special concours preparatory classes. Yet it seems to me to place a higher value on a single Herculean achievement of test-taking rather than the steady, measured performance that makes students — and people — successful in the long term.
In addition administrators’ refusal to consider extenuating circumstances like illness means that some students will be unable to take the test at their best. This is to say nothing of the value one might attribute to non-academic qualities — the intangible benefit of having students from a variety of geographic areas, or interests in art and music and athletics. The concours is it.
So in a few weeks, when the exam rolls around, it will be the ultimate proving ground for my host brother. If he makes the cut, he’ll head to a grande école and be relatively assured of a successful career and elevated socioeconomic status. If not, his options in France are much more limited. Maybe it’s time for him to start working on an application to Yale.
Elizabeth Chrystal is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.