Destinations Magazine

5 Things to Know About Grading in French Universities

By Allisonlounes @parisunraveled

Read About It Later

Photo Credit: Alena Navarro- Whyte, via Flickr, Creative Commons Licence

If you’re thinking about getting your master’s in France, you may be concerned about whether your French is good enough to succeed in a French university.

Are you going to fail out of all your classes?


It’s true that grading in France is very different from grading in the US, and students in France are more used to failure.

But the open secret is that French professors don’t want to fail their foreign students, because they don’t want to jeopardize international agreements or exchange programs.

Regardless, here are five things you should know about French grading before you enroll in a French university:

1) Admission to universities is not competitive. Grading is.

All French students who pass the baccalauréat are automatically admitted to public French universities, and there’s no competitive admissions process that allows students to be rejected. (This isn’t true for the grandes écoles, where students have to take classes to pass a concours to enter, and often receive excellent grades on their bac).

This means that French universities have no way of controlling the number of students who will attend each fall. All that a French undergraduate has to do is fill out a form to enroll in a particular university.

Therefore, the only way for universities to reduce the number of students who attend is by weeding them out throughout the year.

As a result, grading is intensely competitive where admissions isn’t, and many students fail out during the first two years. At one point, only 10% of students who enrolled in Licence 1 in Literature at the Sorbonne (Paris 4) made it to the end of L3 and earned their diploma. Yikes.

In other words, university professors have designed the grading system in order to reduce their own workloads later. If students don’t pass, they won’t submit more papers to grade in later years!

Of course, the difficulty of the grading varies by the popularity of the department. The more prestigious the school – Paris 4 has possibly the best literature program in France – the tougher it is to stay on track and get good grades. You’ll want to work hard and make sure that you stay in the top of the curve, especially if you go to a well-reputed school.

2) The higher your level, the easier the grading.

Because most of the poor students are eliminated in the first few years, the grading actually gets easier the higher up you go in a French university. Once you reach the master’s level, “notation éliminative” is all but history, with professors trying to help students learn rather than get them out of their hair.

While it’s still possible to fail a class if you don’t have a good level of French or can’t do the work, your success in Licence earns you a bit of leeway in terms of what you write your papers on and what you study.

Another thing to consider is that the course load of master’s students is considerably less than that of undergraduates, primarily because master’s students also write a thesis, so students have a lot more time to do their work and succeed in their classes.

3) Your grade in a class doesn’t matter.

All that matters is your average.

French universities *expect* you to fail at least a little bit, but it doesn’t matter if you fail a class. All that matters if you fail enough of your classes.

Basically, what counts is your grade average in all of your classes, weighted for the number of credits each class is worth. If you get a 7 in one class, but 13s and 14s in your other classes, you’re good to go, and you’ve passed the year.

Also, if you don’t pass a class the first time around, you have two chances to improve your grade through rattrapage. Rattrapage is a makeup test session that happens in January, June, and September every year. If your grade isn’t good enough, you can opt to take makeup exams at the end of the semester or at the beginning of the next semester and try to improve your results. If you fail the rattrapage twice, you have to take the course again. If you pass, the new and improved grade goes on your transcript.

4) 20 is for God, 19 is for the king.

And 18 is for the Président de la République. In other words, even though professors grade on a scale of 20, the highest possible grade is 17 in most cases. In reality, the highest grade will be a 14, and 12 and 13 are considered excellent grades.

Avoid the pitfalls of believing that a grade of 14 is equivalent to a US grade of 70%. It’s not. Students who graduate at the top of their class in the most prestegious schools in France will often have GPAs between 15 and 16, so a grade of 14 is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, it’s something to be quite proud of!

5) Grades are not private.

In addition to posting students’ grades online, as all French universities now do, university departments will often post the grades for an entire class on a bulletin board in the department’s hallway.

The professor will compile a class list with students’ names and grades. In other words, everyone can know your grade.

On the other hand, you can know everyone else’s grades too.

If you’re unsure about whether or not the grade you earned was a good one, all you have to do is look at the results for other students in the class. Did the professor give a lot of 8s and 9s, but you got a 10? Congratulations! You got a good grade from a difficult professor. Conversely, did you get a 12 from a professor who awarded lots of 15s and 16s? Not so good.

Taking a look at other students’ grades can help you to understand how you did in a class in concrete terms.

Did you worry about grading in France? How did you end up doing in your classes?

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