What is an IEP?
IEP stands for Institut d’Études Politiques and is a type of university within the family of grandes écoles. These higher education establishments are found outside the network of public French universities. Every French student who has passed their Baccalauréat has a right to go to a public university, but to apply to these elitist universities; students are required to do a concours. The concours is a highly competitive exam which often leads to students spending a year after school attending preparatory classes before applying.
There are nine IEPs across France in Aix-en-Provence, Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lille, Lyon, Paris, Rennes, Strasbourg and Toulouse. Courses span five years with the third year spent abroad at a foreign university, or working. This system allows an annual exchange of students between universities and as an Erasmus student, this meant I did not have to sit an entrance exam.
Knowing how difficult it is to get into an IEP for French students, I felt very nervous arriving on my first day with no background in law, political or economic studies. I was convinced that conversations would only focus on French political affairs and I would thus be completely out of my depth. The warm welcome from the foreign student association soon put me at ease, along with the varying levels of French being spoken by students from across the globe.
When I first arrived at the university, I was shocked by its size. Coming from an international university with over twenty thousand students, the seven hundred students at the IEP reminded me of a school community rather than a university setting. Within a week, it was possible to recognise almost every face.
IEP students work hard. There is no denying this fact. While I came into the IEP for twelve hours a week as a foreign student, they had between twenty and thirty hours of classes, depending on their specialisation. Given that France has a thirty-five hour work week, I always wondered when all these students had time to study? Classes began at 8am and could last until six, and lectures were two and a half hours long with a fifteen minute break. The answer I soon found was: the weekends. Friday afternoon was unmistakeable at the IEP as weekend bags filled the corridors in preparation for students to go home. This mass exodus left the town very quiet, especially with shops closed on Sundays.
Owing to the highly competitive application process, only 10% of applicants to the IEP are successful. They may work hard but they also party hard, and on club nights out I regularly heard the IEP chant. This unity and pride is often absent at larger universities (aside from the sports field!) because of the huge campuses.
Erasmus students are known for their partying, but we also had a lot of work to do. Each assignment took me that much longer to research and complete because it was not in my mother tongue. Preparing a twenty minute oral was no easy task, and listening to four during one class proved difficult too. Above all my Erasmus experience taught me that stereotypes do exist: the Chileans were the party animals, the Italians proud of their cuisine and the Germans; very punctual and organised with their work.
Subjects on offer
Aside from two obligatory courses in French and French History and Civilisation, I was able to choose from an array of subjects on offer at the IEP.
The IEP is above all a political science university; subjects are therefore limited to certain areas. You can expect to study law, economy, political science, social science, international relations, history etc. If you want to study a degree such as medicine, engineering or literature, this is not the right type of university to attend.
As an undergraduate of solely French and Spanish, my peers repeatedly asked me the question: so are you going to be a teacher or a translator when you graduate? With gritted teeth I would always answer that a languages degree is a degree in its own right and highly regarded back home. It was hard nonetheless to defend myself considering IEP students are obliged to study two foreign languages (excluding literature) as well as their specialisation.
I would recommend an IEP to any foreign student wishing to improve their level of French while taking classes in their specific field of study. I can guarantee a challenging but rewarding experience. Bonne chance !