The classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles (CPGE) (English: Higher School Preparatory Classes), commonly called classes prépas or prépas, are part of the French post-secondary education system. They consist of two very intensive years (extendable to three or exceptionally four years) which act as a preparatory course (or cram school) with the main goal of training undergraduate students for enrollment in one of the grandes écoles. The workload is one of the highest in the world (between 35 and 45 contact hours a week, plus usually between 4 and 6 hours of written exams, plus between 2 and 4 hours of oral exams a week and homework filling all the remaining free time).
- Organization of CPGE
- Economic CPGE
- Scientific CPGE
- Literary and humanities CPGE
The students from CPGE have to take national competitive exams to be allowed to enroll in one of the Grandes Écoles. These Grandes Écoles are higher education establishments (graduate schools) delivering master's degrees and/or doctorates. They include science and engineering schools, business schools, the four veterinary colleges and the four écoles normales supérieures but do not include medical institutes or architecture institutes. Their competitive entrance exams make having attended one of the grandes écoles being often regarded as a status symbol as they have traditionally produced most of France's scientists, executives and intellectuals (École Polytechnique, écoles normales supérieures, ParisTech Schools, CentraleSupélec schools...).
Hence, there are three kinds of different prépas: scientific, economic and literary CPGE. Each of them prepare to pass the competitive exams of those grandes écoles.
The CPGE are located within high schools for 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 successfully passed their baccalauréat (or equivalent) to be admitted to CPGE. Moreover, the admission to the CPGE is usually based on performance during the last two years of high school, called première and terminale. Thus, each CPGE receives hundreds of applications from around the world every April and May, and selects its new students under its own criteria (mostly excellence). 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.
In June 2007, 534,300 students passed the "Baccalauréat", and 40,000 (7.5%) of them were admitted to CPGE. On a given class at one of the prep schools listed above, around 1500 application files will be examined for only 40 places. Students are selected according to their grades in High school and the first part of "Baccalauréat" (equivalent to A-levels in the United Kingdom or Advanced Placement in the United States).
Preparatory classes are officially not authorized to deliver any degrees, but they give ECTS (university equivalence) since the 2009-2010 academic year, and students who decide to can carry on their studies at university.
However, many prépas also establish conventions with universities to validate a full 2nd or 3rd year degree for CPGE students who did their job well, especially in literary prépas ("khâgne"). Most of the students in these classes continue their cursus at the university, so the teachers' council can deliver them the corresponding grade in one or two disciplines at the end of the year (only up to a bachelor's degree for 3 years of CPGE).
Organization of CPGE
CPGE exist in three different fields of study: business, science & engineering, and humanities. All CPGE programs have a nominal duration of two years, but the second year is sometimes repeated once.
Those CPGEs which are focused on economics (which prepare the admission to business schools such as HEC Paris, ESSEC, ESCP Europe or EM Lyon) are known as Prépa HEC and are split into three parts:
Classe préparatoire ECS are for those who graduated with the general Baccalauréat S (Scientific), Classe préparatoire ECE are for those who were in the economics section in the Lycée (received the general Baccalauréat ES (Economics and Social) ) whereas the Classe préparatoire ECT are for those who passed a Baccalauréat Technologique .
However, both the first and the second year programmes include ten hours of mathematics teaching per week and also six hours of business history and geography, six hours of French and philosophy, and three hours of each language (2 languages) in the "ECS" section.
There is also the D1 and D2 CPGE, also known as ENS Cachan CPGE:
D1 and D2 are very rare but offer a complete and multidisciplinary training.
The oldest CPGEs are the scientific ones, which can be accessed only by scientific Bacheliers. The different tracks are the following:
The classes that especially train students for admission to the elite schools, such as Écoles Normales Supérieures or ParisTech schools, have an asterisk added to their name. For example, MP*, are usually called MP étoile ("MP star") (except for the BCPST2 and TB2 classes, which all prepare to the elite schools).
Both the first and second year programmes include as much as ten to twelve hours of mathematics teaching per week, ten hours of physics, two hours of literature and philosophy, two to four hours of (one or two) foreign language(s) teaching and two to eight hours of minor options: either SI, engineering industrial science, chemistry or theoretical computer science (including some programming using the "Pascal", "CaML" or Python programming languages, as practical work), biology-geology, biotechnologies. Added to this are several hours of homework, which can amount to as much as the official hours of class.
The BCPST classes prepare for exams of engineering schools of life sciences (agronomy, forestry, environmental and food sciences) but also to veterinary schools, engineering schools of earth sciences, and the three Ecoles Normales Supérieures. Compare to the other classes, it teaches biology and geology.
In scientific CPGE, the first year of CPGE is usually called the maths sup, or hypotaupe (sup for "classe de mathématiques supérieures", superior in French, meaning post-high school), and second year maths spé, or taupe, (spés for "classe de mathématiques spéciales", special in French). The students of these classes are called taupins.
The word taupe means "mole" in French. Its signification comes from the lifestyle of students in classes preparatoires. The intensive workload makes students sacrifice their social life for the classes preparatoires years. They spend most of their time studying inside and barely go outside.
A very specific kind of CPGE is targeting technicians. They are called ATS classes, Adaptation Techniciens Supérieurs ("Adaptation for Skilled Workers ") and last only a year. They are mainly based on the curriculum of PTSI and PCSI, but the courses are summed up.
Literary and humanities CPGE
The literary and humanities CPGEs are focused on a strong pluri-disciplinary course, including all humanities: philosophy, literature, history, geography, foreign languages, and ancient languages (Latin and Ancient Greek). These prépas also have their own nicknames: "hypokhâgne" for the first year and "khâgne" for the second year. The students are called the "hypokhâgneux" and the "khâgneux". These classes prepare for the entrance exam of the elite schools called Écoles Normales Supérieures, which are considered among the most difficult exams of the French system. Nevertheless, the students can now also apply for many other entrance exams.
There are three types of Khâgne:
Now, the grouping of many examinations make the difference between khâgnes "Lyon" and "Ulm" is slight, and lots of prépas have mixed classes with many students preparing for both ENS (or even the three for students specialising in English).
Khâgneux can apply to many grandes écoles, other high schools and all universities, among which are the following:
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 maths, physics, chemistry, biology and earth sciences (in BCPST classes), French and a foreign language, usually English, German or Spanish. Students, usually in groups of three, spend an hour facing a professor alone in a room, answering questions and solving problems. In "Prépa ECE/ECS", students are taken every two weeks in maths, history, philosophy, and in their two chosen languages (usually English and Spanish/German).
In "hypokhâgne/khâgne", the system of "colles" is a bit different. They are taken every quarter in every subject. Students usually have one hour to prepare a short presentation that takes the form of a French-style dissertation (a methodologically codified essay, typically structured in three parts: thesis, counter-thesis, and synthesis) in history, philosophy, etc. on a given topic, or 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 min to present her or his prepared work (so just one part of their work) to the teacher, who ends the session by asking some questions on the presentation and on the corresponding topic.
"Khôlles" are important as they prepare the students, from the very first year, for the oral part of the competitive examination.
The "cinq demis"
A student (in a scientific CPGE) who repeats the second year obtains the status of cinq demis ("five halves"). They were only trois demis ("three halves") during their first second-year and un demi ("one half") in the first year. The explanation behind these names is that the most coveted engineering school is the École polytechnique, nicknamed the "X" (as the mathematical unknown). A student who enrolls in (the word for which is "integrates" in French) this school after the second year of preparatory class is traditionally called a "3/2" because this is the value of the integral of x from 1 to 2.
The same idea is valid for cinq demis: the integral of x from 2 to 3 is "5/2".
Students in their first year of literary and business CPGEs are called bizuths 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. Some ambitious professors encourage their top students to avoid or postpone admittance to other prestigious schools in order to try to get a better school.