Grandes écoles

For the film released in 2004, see Grande École (film).

The Grandes Écoles (French pronunciation: [ɡʁɑ̃d.z‿ekɔl], literally in French "Grand Schools") of France are higher education establishments outside the main framework of the French university system. Most were established by branches of the state; the oldest, Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Techniques Avancées, in 1741. Most Grandes Écoles select students for admission at the third year of undergraduate level based chiefly on national ranking in competitive written and oral exams, while French public universities have a legal obligation to accept in the first year of undergraduate studies all candidates of the region who hold a corresponding baccalauréat.

Usually candidates for the national exams have completed two years of dedicated preparatory classes, although this is not always the case: some Grandes Écoles also have an admission process open to university students (bachelor or master), others have an integrated preparation. The Grandes Écoles do not have large student bodies: most have a few hundred students each year, 6,000 (1200 engineering graduates each year) at the largest establishment, Arts et Métiers ParisTech. Officially considered as public service, they usually require low fees, or even none, with the exception of business schools, and allow grants to poor students like universities do.

Classification as Grandes Écoles


The phrase 'Grande École' originated in 1794 after the French Revolution,[1] when the National Convention created the École Normale Supérieure, the mathematician Gaspard Monge and Lazare Carnot created the École Polytechnique and the abbot Henri Grégoire created the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.

The model was probably the military academy at Mézières, of which Monge was an alumnus. The system of competitive entry was a means to open up higher education to more candidates based on merit.

Some schools included in the category have roots in the 17th and 18th century and are older than the phrase 'Grande École' dated 1794. Actually, their forerunners were civil servant schools aimed at graduating technical officers (Ecole d'Arts et Métiers, renamed Arts et Métiers ParisTech, established in 1780), mine supervisors (École des mines de Paris established in 1783), bridge and road engineers (École royale des ponts et chaussées established in 1747), shipbuilding engineers (École des ingénieurs-constructeurs des vaisseaux royaux established in 1741) and five military engineering academies and graduate schools of artillery established in the 17th century in France, such as the école de l'artillerie de Douai (established in 1697) and the école du génie de Mézière (established in 1748), wherein mathematics, chemistry and sciences were already a major part of the curriculum taught by first rank scientists such as Pierre-Simon de Laplace, Charles Étienne Louis Camus, Étienne Bézout, Sylvestre-François Lacroix, Siméon Denis Poisson, Gaspard Monge (most of whom were later to form the teaching corps of École polytechnique during the Napoleonic era).

Napoleon created in 1802 the École Spécial Militaire de Saint Cyr, which is also seen as a Grande École even though it only trains army officers.

These schools (as well the Revolution or Napoleonic ones and ex-royal ones) have always been regarded as the most prestigious of the Grandes Écoles. In the most prestigious of these schools, students can have a special status (civil servant or military in École Normale or École polytechnique respectively), specific access to higher French administration or academics, and sometimes a uniform (in École polytechnique, Arts et Metiers Paris Tech, Saint Cyr, Mines...).

During the 19th century, a number of higher education Grandes écoles were established to support industry and commerce, including École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Saint-Étienne in 1816, Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Paris (today ESCP Europe, founded in 1819), L'institut des sciences et industries du vivant et de l'environnement (Agro ParisTech) in 1826, École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures (École centrale de Paris) in 1829, École des arts industriels et des mines (École centrale de Lille) in 1854, École centrale lyonnaise pour l'Industrie et le Commerce (École centrale de Lyon) in 1857 and Rouen Business School (NEOMA Business School) in 1871. Sciences Po Paris, the school that has produced most of the French Presidents since the end of the Second World War, was established in 1872.

During the latter part of the 19th century and in the 20th century, other Grandes Écoles were established so as to further develop education in newer fields of science and technology, including École nationale supérieure des télécommunications (1878), Hautes Études Commerciales (1881),[2] École supérieure d'électricité (1894) and Supaero (1909).

Since then, France has had a unique dual higher education system, with small and middle-sized specialized graduate schools operating alongside the traditional university system. Some fields of study are nearly exclusive to one part of this dual system, such as medicine in universités only or architecture in écoles only.

The system of Grandes Écoles (and "prépa") also exists in former French Colonies, Switzerland and in Italy (because Napoleon, king of Italy for 10 years, established the French system there). The influence of this system was strong in the 19th century throughout the world, as can be seen in the original names of many world universities (Caltech was originally "Polytechnic Institute" as well as ETH Zürich -- "the Polytechnicum"—as well as the Polytechnique in Montréal, and as well as some institutions in China, US, UK, Russia who have the name of some of French "Grandes Écoles" adapted to their language). The influence of this model lost importance with the success of the German and then Anglo-Saxon university model during the end of the 19th century and in the 20th century.


There is no standard definition or official list of Grandes Écoles. Legislation generally uses the term "classe préparatoire aux grandes écoles". The term "Grande École" is not employed in the Code of Education, with the exception of a quotation in the social statistics. It generally employs the expression of "écoles supérieures" to indicate higher educational institutions that are not universities.

The Conférence des Grandes Écoles (CGE) (Grandes Écoles Conference) is a non-profit organization. It uses a broad definition of "Grande École" which is not restricted to the school's selectivity or the prestige of the diploma awarded. The members of CGE have not made an official or "accepted" list of Grandes Écoles. For example, some engineering school members of the CGE cannot award state-recognized engineering degrees.

Methods of admission to the Grandes Écoles

Admission to the Grandes Écoles is very different from that of French universities. Except for certain special academic programs, French universities are required by law to admit in the first year of undergraduate studies any student having completed the national baccalauréat, regardless of students' other grades or qualifications. This is in contrast with the selective admissions system for French Grandes Écoles, as explained below.

To be admitted into most of the French Grandes Écoles, most students study in a two-year preparatory program in one of the CPGE (see below) before taking a set of competitive national exams. Different exams are required by groups (called "banques") of different schools. The national exams are sets of written tests, given over the course of several weeks, that challenge the student on the intensive studies of the previous two years. During the summer, those students who succeed in the written exams then take a further set of exams, usually one-hour oral exams, during which they are given a problem to solve. After 20 minutes of preparation, the candidate presents the solution to a professor, who challenges the candidate on the answer and the assumptions being made. Afterwards, candidates receive a final national ranking which determines admission to their Grandes Écoles of choice.

Preparatory classes to the Grandes Écoles (CPGE)

The Lycée Louis-le-Grand, in Paris, is one of the most famous lycées providing preparatory classes for the Grandes Écoles. (It is on the right side of the rue Saint-Jacques; on the left is the Sorbonne.)

Classes préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles (CPGE) or prépas (preparatory classes for the Grandes Écoles) are two-year classes, in either sciences, literature or economics. There are the traditional way that most students prepare to pass the competitive recruitment examination of the main Grandes Écoles. Most are held in state lycées (high schools); a few are private. Admission is competitive and based on the students' lycée grades. The preparatory classes with highest success rates in the entrance examinations of the top Grandes Écoles are highly selective. Students who are not admitted to a Grande École of their choice often repeat the second year of preparatory classes and attempt the exam again the following year.

There are five categories of prépas:

Recruitment at baccalauréat level

Some schools are accessible after a selection based on the grades of the two last years of lycée and/or the baccalaureate results. For example, there are the six schools of the INSA network, the three Universités de Technologie, the three engineering schools of the ISEN group, and the thirteen engineering schools of Polytech Group. It is also possible to join these schools in third year after a preparatory class or university and then the recruitment is based on a contest or the student results.

The top five of these Grandes Écoles according to the French magazine l'Usine nouvelle are in 2014: UTC, INSA Lyon, ESTACA, UTT and EPITA.[3]

Most of them simply include the two-year preparatory class in their program while others like INSA Toulouse chose the LMD to start the specialization earlier. Most students choose to get their licence, master or doctorate close to home.

These years of preparation can be highly focused on the school program so students have a greater chance of succeeding in the admission exam or contest in their school if there is one, but they are not prepared to take the examinations for other schools so their chance of success in these other examinations is low.

The advantage is that instead of studying simply to pass the admission exams, the student will study topics more targeted to their training and future specialization. The main advantage is that students choose their speciality more according to their interests and less according to their rank. (Indeed, the rank obtained after standard preparatory classes determines a list of schools with their specialities).

The selection process during the first preparatory year is considered less stressful than in a standard first preparatory class. Nevertheless, the selection percentage can be the same as during standard preparatory classes. These schools also recruit people who did not manage to follow the programs of CPGE.

Parallel admission

In many schools, there is also the possibility of “parallel admission” to Grandes Écoles. Parallel admissions are open to university students or students from other schools. The prépas years are not required to sit the entrance exams, provided that the candidates performed well in their previous studies. This method of recruitment is proving increasingly popular, with many students choosing to go first to university and then enrol in a Grande École.

Some Grandes Écoles have dual diploma arrangement in which a student can switch establishments in the last year to receive diplomas from both establishments.


The Grandes Écoles can be classified into several broad categories:

Écoles Normales Supérieures

These schools train researchers, professors and may be a beginning for executive careers in public administration or business. Many French Nobel Prize and Fields Medal laureates were educated at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Lyon or Paris-Saclay.[4] There are four ENS:

These schools' entrance exams are extremely selective. They recruit mainly from taupes, biology prépas and khâgnes.

Until recently, unlike most other Grandes Écoles, the écoles normales supérieures (ENS) did not award specific diplomas. Students who completed their curriculum were entitled to be known as "ENS alumni" or "normaliens". The schools encourage their students to obtain university diplomas in partner institutions while providing extra classes and support. Many ENS students obtain more than one university diploma. Normaliens from France and other European Union countries are considered civil servants in training, and as such paid a monthly salary in exchange for agreeing to serve France for ten years, including those years spent as students. Following the Paris ENS model, Napoleon also founded Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa.

List of graduate engineering schools (grandes écoles d'ingénieurs)

Engineering institutions

Many engineering schools recruit students after scientific preparatory class. Many schools have a lengthy official name (often beginning with école nationale supérieure or école supérieure), a shortened name, an acronym and often a nickname for both the schools and their students. Many are also joint graduate schools from several regional universities, sometimes in association with other international higher education networks.

These groups constitute mostly the so-called "generalist" Grandes Ecoles, and the leading ones of these groups constitute the major part of the French scientific elite education system.

Other Grandes ecoles with multiple specializations:

Grandes écoles of actuarial sciences, statistics and econometrics:

Grandes écoles of chemistry:

Grandes écoles of physics:

Grandes écoles of information technology and telecommunications:

Grandes écoles of applied physics and technology or civil and industrial engineering:

Grandes écoles of biology and natural sciences:

Business schools (grandes écoles de commerce)

Most French business schools are partly privately run, often by the regional chambers of commerce. Like Engineering schools, Business schools will recruit most of their students through preparatory classes. [6]

In Financial Times ranking of European business schools in 2014, 2 out of the top 10 European business schools (and 6 out of the top 20 business schools) were French.[7]

Some other Business Schools, also members of the Conférence des Grandes écoles, recruit students just after the baccalauréat :

Grandes écoles without preparatory classes

Some schools are accessible after a competitive entrance exam directly after the baccalauréat. Often, students of these schools will progress to an administrative school.

These schools include:

Universities that have joined the Grandes écoles Conference

In 2014, Paris-Dauphine University has joined the Grandes écoles Conference,[8] becoming one of the few universities that benefit from the status of Grande école.[9]

Administrative schools

These schools train students for civil service and other public-sector positions. Some students in these schools do end up working in the private sector. Most of these schools are reserved for French or EEA citizens only:

Military officer academies

While École Polytechnique, also known as X, is run by the French Ministry of Defence and its French students are reserve officers in training, it is no longer formally denominated as a military academy. A small number of its students progress to military careers, while between a fifth and a quarter progress to working for the State's technical administrations.

Communication, Journalism & Media schools

Facts and influence in French culture

Altogether, the Grandes Écoles awarded approximately 60,000 master's degrees in 2013[10] compared with 150,000 master's degrees awarded by all French higher institutions in the same year, including universities.

Grandes Écoles graduates of 2013 represent 10% of the French population graduating from high school 5 years before (600,000 in 2008[11]).

But a distinction must be made within the Grandes Écoles. Some elite schools (Ecole Polytechnique, HEC, ESCP, ESSEC, CentraleSupélec, ParisTech schools, ENA, ENS, Sciences Po and others depending on the rankings) are renowned in France for their selectivity and the complexity of their curriculum. They are usually called the "A+" schools, referring to the grade given by some rankings. These elite schools represent roughly 1% of the higher education students in France.

Admission to a certain number of these institutions,(e.g. l'Ecole Nationale de la Magistrature in Bordeaux) but not all of these establishments is reserved only to French citizens, raising questions relating to European mobility and institutional reciprocity.

These top-rated schools, which the French praise for being généralistes, i.e. interdisciplinary, have traditionally produced most of France's high-ranking civil servants, politicians and executives, and many scientists and philosophers.

Since 1975, the Comité d'études sur les formations d'ingénieurs has studied the questions of training and job placement for engineers graduating from the Grandes Écoles.

See also


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