What's a french prepa?

The ‘classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles’ (CPGE), commonly called ‘classes prépas’ or ‘prépas’, are a two-year curriculum extensible to three-years, acting as a prep course with the main goal of training undergraduate students for enrollment in one of the grandes écoles. The grandes écoles of France are higher education establishments aside the mainstream framework of the public universities. They include sciences & engineering schools, business schools, specific humanities schools, but include neither medical institutes, nor architecture institutes nor law institutes. They are generally focused on a single subject area, such as engineering or business, have a moderate size, and are often quite selective in their admission of students. Due to their competitive entrance exams, they are widely regarded as a prestigious curriculum by students, and traditionally have produced most of France’s scientists and executives.

In a given year, 800,000 people are born in France, 480,000 pass the baccalaureat (secondary school diploma), and 37,000 of them are admitted in CPGE. Among those 74,000 undergraduate students, 47,000 of them follow prep courses for entrance exams into sciences & engineering schools, 16,000 of them for entrance exams into business schools, 11,000 of them for entrance exams into humanities schools.

To get into one of the French grandes écoles, most students will take a very competitive national exam at the end of the two-year program in one of the CPGE. This national exam includes written tests during several weeks that will challenge the students on what they have learned for the past two years.

Then, most of these students will be ranked accordingly to their results but each year a certain percentage of students do not make this ranking.

These failing students will generally be allowed to repeat their second year or will continue their studies in one of the local universities.

The successful students from across the country all go to places of examination (usually, but not exclusively, in the capital, Paris) during the summer to participate to a last round of selection. This process consists of oral exams, usually 1h in duration, during which they are given a problem to solve. Generally, after 20 min of preparation, they will expose their solution to a teacher which will then challenge the candidate on their results and the assumptions being made, as well, depending of the cases, to challenge on the fly the candidate on questions not asked explicitly in the subject, especially if the person finishes the problem earlier.

At the end of this stressful selection process, candidates will receive their final ranking which will allow them - if ranked - to finally apply to the grande école of their choice. The national exam is not an exam which applies for exhaustively all the grandes écoles. In order to candidate for all the grandes écoles, one must generally candidate to a large number (around 5) of different examinations (Centrale, CCP, Polytechnique, e3a, mines), leading to a month-long of different written exams and a month-long different oral exams, possibly and likely in different places. The ranking at the end is specific to a group of schools, admission in a prestigious examination like Polytechnique does not automatically allow one to enter a lower-ranked school if one did not pass the group of exams that this school belongs to. Their national ranking will allow them or not to get into the grande école of their choice.


Admission to the CPGE is usually based on performance during the last two years of high school, called première and terminale. The CPGE are located within high schools due to historical reasons (Napoleon created them at first as fourth to sixth year of high school). but pertain to tertiary education, which means that each student must have passed successfully their Baccalauréat (or equivalent) to be admitted in CPGE. Each CPGE receives the files of hundreds of applicants worldwide every year during April and May, and selects its new students under its own criteria (mostly excellency). A few CPGE programmes, mainly the private CPGEs (which account for 10% of CPGEs), also have an interview process or look at a student’s involvement in the community.

Organization of CPGE

CPGE exist in three different fields of study: Science and Engineering, Business, and Humanities. All CPGE programs have a nominal duration of two years, but the second year is sometimes repeated once.

Scientific CPGE

The oldest CPGEs are the scientific ones, which can only be accessed by scientific Bacheliers. The different tracks are the following : * MPSI (“mathematics, physics, and engineering science”) in the first year, followed either MP (“mathematics and physics”) or PSI (“physics and engineering science”) * PCSI (“physics, chemistry, and engineering science”), followed PC (“physics and chemistry”) or PSI (“physics and engineering science”) * BCPST1 (“biology, chemistery, physics and earth sciences”) followed by BCPST2 * PTSI (“physics, technology, and engineering science”), followed by PT (“physics and technology”) The classes which especially train students for admission to the elite École Normale Supérieure or École Polytechnique have an asterisk added to their name, e.g. MP*, and usually called “MP étoile” (“MP star”). Both the first and second year programmes include as much as sixteen hours of mathematics teaching per week, ten hours of physics, two hours of philosophy, two to four hours of (one or two) foreign languages teaching and two to three hours of minor options: either SI, engineering industrial science, chemistry or theoretical computer science (including some programming using the Pascal or CaML programming languages, as a practical work). With this is added several hours of homework, which can rise as much as the official hours of class.

In scientific CPGE, the first year of CPGE is usually called the ‘math sup’ - or hypotaupe - (sup for “classe de mathématiques supérieures”, superior in French, meaning post-high school), and second year ‘math spé’ - or taupe - (spés for “classe de mathématiques spéciales”, special in French). The students of these classes are called taupins.

Life in a CPGE

The amount of work required of the students is exceptionally high. In addition to class time and homework, students spend several hours each week completing exams and ‘colles’ (very often written ‘khôlles’ to look like a Greek word, this way of writing being initially a khâgneux joke). The so called ‘colles’ are unique to French academic education in CPGEs. They consist of oral examinations twice a week, in math, physics, chemistry, French and the foreign languages, usually English and Spanish. Students, usually in groups of three, spend an hour facing a professor alone in a room, answering questions and solving problems. In CPGE littéraires (humanities), the system of ‘colles’ is a bit different. They are taken every quarter in every subject. Students have one hour to prepare a short presentation that takes the form of a French-style dissertation (a methodologically codified essay, typically structured in 3 parts: thesis, counter-thesis, and synthesis) in history, philosophy, etc. on a given topic, and that of a commentaire composé (a methodologically codified commentary) in literature and foreign languages; as for the Ancient Greek or Latin, they involve a translation and a commentary. The student then has 20 minutes to present his work to the teacher, who ends the session by asking some questions on the presentation and on the corresponding topic. ‘Colles’ are regarded as extremely stressful, particularly due to the high standards expected by the teachers, and the subsequent harshness that may be directed at students who do not perform adequately. But they are important as they prepare the students, from the very first year, to the oral part of the competitive examination, reserved to the happy few who successfully pass the written part.

When a student repeats his second year, he gets then the status of cinq demi (“five halves”), for he was only a trois demi (“three halves”) during his first second year, and un demi (“one half”) in his first year. The explanation behind those names is that the most coveted engineering school is the Ecole Polytechnique, nicknamed the X (as the mathematical unknown). In French, a student is said to integrate a school when they are allowed to enroll in it. A student is called a 3/2 if he integrates the Ecole Polytechnique between his first and second year of preparatory class since the integral of x from 1 to 2 is 3/2. The same idea is valid for “cinq demi”, since the integral of x from 2 to 3 is 5/2. Students in their first year are also called “bizhuts”, and in their second year, “carrés” (“squares”). Students enrolled in their second second-year are also called “cubes” (or Khûbes), and a few turn to “bicarrés” for a third and final second-year. These terms probably stem from repeated attempts at applying to “X” (Polytechnique), yielding x2 and x3. Some ambitious professors encourage their top students to eschew admittance to other prestigious schools in order to try their hand at X one more time… Despite this high standard, the 47 000 students in scientific CPGE must face the fact that they won’t all go to the Ecole Polytechnique. The renowned engineering schools are Centrale Paris, Supélec, École nationale supérieure des mines de Paris, École nationale des ponts et chaussées, École nationale de la statistique et de l’administration économique, École nationale supérieure de techniques avancées, École nationale supérieure des télécommunications, École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles de la ville de Paris, Institut Supérieur de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace, École nationale de l’aviation civile or École nationale supérieure d’arts et métiers, are also a proud goal to obtain for these students.

The students of CPGE are usually matriculated concurrently in universities, and can rejoin college in case of failure of their grandes écoles ambitions or if they just do not wish to become engineers and feel not able to pass the Écoles Normales Supérieures competitive examinations. The ratio of students who failed to enter grandes écoles is low in the scientific and economics CPGE, but high in humanities, for the only grande école aimed at in these classes is the École Normale Supérieure.