10 Tips on How to Survive the French University Experience as an American Study Abroad Student

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Being a new student is always a little jarring until you know what to expect. Here’s 10 tips to help you survive all the differences you’ll come across in your French university experience.

1) Don’t get up in the middle of and Don’t eat during class: In the USA, we’re accustomed to a very laid back university atmosphere where we can get up during class, eat, check emails and pay attention when we want. It’s bad but easy to understand why students have that carte blanche when you factor in we privately pay tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to be there- the customer wins on this one. In France, college is publicly funded so there is a different mindset about student mannerisms in the classroom. 2 main things to avoid at a French university – getting up during class for any reason and eating during class. These 2 cultural no-no’s will make you stick out as well as garner a stern talking to from your prof.

forsale(Save it for la cantine! Photo by:

2) Bring a notebook, not laptop to class: There’s 2 main reasons- 1st is that there is scientific stuff to back up the fact that your brain learns more effectively when you write rather than type. Check out this article on it here If that alone is not convincing enough why you should bring a notebook and pen rather than your laptop, how about French students don’t use laptops to take notes. I’m not sure of the reason why but I know that you’ll stand out as the American in class if you bring your MacBook or tablet to class. Andrea’s advice- leave it at home for typing your assignments.

3) Your papers or rédactions will need to be typed: Even though taking notes on a laptop in a French university class is not the norm, it doesn’t mean that the French are in the Stone Age! French college students do type their rédactions or any assignment that is going to be handed into your prof. Not brave enough to use the school’s computer lab and type on a French keyboard? Why not make your American keyboard type French accents with ease with my favorite new software Easy Type French Accents?

4) Never Address your prof as “tu”- EVER!: As Anglophones I understand that our language doesn’t have a formal “you” tense like the romantic languages and it’s hard to get used to. However, before you go to France for your study abroad, you better have taken at least 1 semester of French and know when to use “tu” and “vous”. No matter if your French prof is young, never, ever, ever address him/her with “tu”! It will be seen as disrespectful and they will get frustrated.

5) Get unused to registering for class and finding out everything you need to know online: A lot could’ve changed since I was a student in Paris but the last I heard, the French don’t use the internet as their main way of communicating information/registering for class. As a foreign exchange student, you’ll register for your classes with your Parisian program director. If you’re able to register for your classes online via the French university’s intranet, please let me know via twitter @twentyinparis- I want to hear about it!

6) French notebooks are graph and not lined paper and you should bring some school supplies from home: Maybe it’s the French obsession with geometry (just take a look at their perfectly round shrubs for proof) or maybe it’s just a better way to keep their squiggly letters more in check; either way, French notebooks are graph paper and not lined. This is really fun and French so I recommend buying 1 graph lined notebook during your time in France. On the whole, I recommend bringing a few supplies (don’t go crazy!) like a handful of pens/pencils and 1-2 five subject notebooks with you from the US as they are better priced here than in France. Also, Europe doesn’t always sell these items year round so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

french notebook(French ruled. Photo by:

7) Introduce yourself to your professor after class on the very first day: After class on the first day, be sure to go up to your professor and let them know you’re a foreign exchange student from the USA. This will give them a heads up as well as let them know to go easy on you when grading papers/ assignments. It may also exempt you from any oral exams as your French prof understands American limitations when it comes to foreign language.

8) Never take notes in English- EVER! It’s natural to want to put things in your native language to understand better but you must resist! Take notes and read all assignments in French- do not do it in English. Why? Not only does translating your notes from French spoken by the prof into your notebook in English (or taking the notes in French and translating them at home) take up a lot of time, you’ll miss out on key information. Take the notes in French to the best of your ability- you’re French will be better for it. Still having a hard time understanding? Make a French friend in class!

9) You’ll never get a 20: It’s not that I don’t believe in you, it’s that the French university system has, in a way, set up the students for failure. There’s something called the Divine code- it’s a vignette about the French grading system which goes like this: 20 is reserved for God (or King in another version), 19 for professors. No one, I repeat, no one, gets a 20- ever. It’s not you, it’s them. Aim for 10-15 and you’ll be doing great.

20A(You’ll never see this number looking back at you but that doesn’t mean you failed either. Photo by:

10) Say hi to your classmates and ask to join them for lunch – they won’t come up to you first! French culture is very reserved. A French student will not go out of their way to say hi and make friends. Do not take this personally- it’s just a cultural difference. Guest blogger Eleanor Harte wrote a great article on how Americans are like peaches and the French like coconuts. Essentially what this means is that Americans are friendly on the surface but we’re not great at deep relationships whereas the French are standoffish on 1st contact but once you open them up, they’re really friendly and you’ll have a good friend.



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