Everything You Need to Know About the French Baccalauréat

June is a very stressful time in France, because it’s Baccalauréat time.

Although I’ve been living in France since 2013 and spent a year working as an assistante de langue in a French high school, I never really got a firm grasp on the ins and outs of the French education system, and more specifically, the French Baccalauréat exam until I actually started teaching high school full time at an international school in France this past year. As my students specifically are all French and I was teaching Terminale English, I quickly had to learn how the Bac worked, as well as the curriculum I needed to teach them to make sure they were as prepared as they could be for their exam. As of late, my students are all gearing up to take their final Baccalauréat exams next week.

This post will explain the Bac exam specifically, and how students choose and decide their path for their sophomore, junior, and senior years, respectively (as well as beyond.) In a separate post, I will talk more about what students have to do for English.

First and foremost, what is the Baccalauréat

The Baccalauréat, or the Bac, is an academic qualification which French students take at the end of high school. Originally introduced by Napoleon I in 1808, the Baccalauréat exam is not a requirement for finishing high school, but for entrance into universities. You need to obtain a certain score on your Baccalauréat to get into certain schools, just like in the USA or the UK. However, if you do not have your Bac (or a foreign equivalent, you will have a hard time getting anywhere professionally in France in the long run.)

The year, the Baccalauréat exam begins on June 15th, 2017, with Philosophy and French, according to long-standing tradition.


Within France, there are three main types of Baccalauréat:

  • The Baccalauréat Général (General Baccalaureate) – this is an academic diploma and prepares students for higher education at a university or grande école, rather than a specific vocation. This is the most popular option, and the option my high school offers.

 

  • The Baccalauréat Professionnel (Professional Baccalaureate)- This bac trains specifically for specific jobs (plumbing, welding, mechanics, etc.), and usually involves a lot of hands-on learning and industry work whilst completing high school. Most students who complete this bac study at a “Lycée Pro“, or a Professional / Vocational high school.

 

  • The Baccalauréat Technologique (Technological Baccalaureate)- this bac is awarded for both general knowledge and training in modern technologies. I do not know much more about it.

 

From here on out, I will be focusing specifically on the Bac Général. 


Basically, in France, there are three years of high school: Séconde (10th grade), Première (11th grade), and Terminale (12th grade). In tenth grade, students start their “année détermination” or their “Determination Year.” During this year, they pre-determine the série they would like to follow within the Bac Général (S, ES, or L- see below), as well as their specialization within the série. Then, at the end of tenth grade, the students are either admitted to their desired série or not (under the discretion of teachers at conseil de classe). They then begin to prepare for their appropriate Baccalauréat in 11th grade.

For the Bac Général, there are three different streams or “séries”: S, ES, and L.

  • Bac S stands for scientifique, which places a strong emphasis in math, physics, chemistry, engineering sciences, and biology. Most students who do S want to go into the fields of medicine, engineering, and of course, science. When entering S, students specialize in either math, physics and chemistry, computer science, or Earth & Life Sciences (SVT).

 

  • Bac ES stands for sciences économiques et sociales, or economics and social sciences. Courses are centered around economic and social sciences, and of course mathematics. Many students who study ES want to work in humanities, philosophy, management, business, and economics. Subjects such as history, geography, and maths are all extremely emphasized in ES.

 

  • Bac L stands for littérature, or literature. Students who are doing L focus on French literature, philosophy, history, geography, and foreign languages. Most students preparing for L want to work in humanities, education, linguistics, public service, arts, etc.

 

Unfortunately, Bac S is kind of like the golden ticket— it is sort of an unspoken rule that if you can do S, you, well, do S. Even if you do not want to study sciences and / or have no interest in them, having the Bac S will sometimes (unfairly) open up more doors and opportunities, as France tends to place heavy emphasis on having the “right” diploma. The unspoken elitism, is, lack for a better word, present (although France seems to have no problem eliminating bilingual programs to prevent such “privilege”). That being said, Bac S remains the most popular option for students. (I think I personally would have been more catered towards ES or L back in my day.)

baca1-465x390.jpg

Source


Getting into the more tedious details about the Bac subjects

Depending on what série or stream one chooses, each subject of the Bac is weighted with a different coefficient. Additionally, some exams are taken at the end of Première, while others are done at the end of Terminale.

For all S, ES, and L students, the French written and oral exams, as well as a TPE (Travaux personnels encadrés, a researched based project) are completed at the end end of 11th grade. The scores are then carried over and counted at the end of 12th grade to determine the overall score on the French Baccalauréat.

Premiere Subjects:

 

 

Subject

 

Coef / Weight

 

Exam Type

 

Duration

French

S / ES: 2 for both written and oral

L: 3 for written; 2 for oral

Written / Oral

4 hours writing

20 minutes oral

TPE (Travaux personnels encadrés)

 

2

S- groups of 3; 30-page file, presentation; 2-page essay

ES- presentation; written report

L- Presentation in groups of 3

S- 5 min. per student

ES- 30 minutes

L- 10 minutes

ES + L Only 

Science- Biology, Chemistry, and Physics

2  Written

 1,5 hours

As I stated above, for Première, French is always the first exam. For Terminale, it’s Philosophy, which takes place this year on June 15, 2017. Attached is this year’s official schedule. Below is a chart of the Terminale exams taken for the Bac.

Terminale Subjects:

Subject Coef / Weight Format Duration
Philosophy S- 3

ES- 4

L- 7

Written 4 hours
Mathematics S- 9

ES / L – 7

Written 4 hours
History and Geography S- 3

ES- 5

L- 4

Written

S- 3 hours

ES / L – 4 hours

First Foreign Language (LV1 or LVA) S / ES – 3

L – 4 or 8

Written + Oral + Listening (S + ES only)

S / ES– 3 hrs 30 min

L- 3 hours 50 min.

Second Foreign Language (LV2) S / ES– 2

L – 4

Written + Oral + Listening (ES / S only)

S / ES– 2 hrs. 30 min.

L- 3 hrs. 20 min.

Physical Education 2 Practical / Class average X

S Only

Physics, Chemistry, and Biology

AND

Earth Sciences

or

Engineering Sciences

or

Biology-Ecology

 

 

2

 

6 or 8

 

4 + 5

 

 

5 + 2

Written + Lab

 

 

1,5 hours

 

4,5 hours

 

8 hours

 

5 hours

ES Only

Economics & Social Sciences

 

7 or 9

 

Written

4 hours

L Only

French Literature

 

4

 

Written

2 hours


Finally, depending on students’ specializations and streams, they may have additional exams in foreign language literature, theatre, other world or regional languages (LV3), Latin, Greek, specialized physical education, or economics. Bac S students also specifically have extra specializations and exams in maths, computer sciences, physics and chemistry, or Earth & Life Sciences.

Option Européen and OIB (Option Internationale Baccalauréat)

Because my school is an international school, all French students take an additional exam to receive a supplementary certification– either OE or OIB. Option Européen (European section, which is what I teach) is an option for students in French high schools to take certain subjects in a language other than French (of course for us, this is English). Doing so gives more exposure to said foreign language as well the culture(s) of countries where the language is spoken (ie: Learning history in English with an emphasis on British or American history). At the end of high school, students can receive a “European section” mention on their Baccalauréat. In order to have this, they need to obtain at least a 12/20 grade on their language (LV1) exam, and a 10/20 on an additional oral exam on the subject in the language taught (for S students, this is science, and for ES and L, this is history). For example, my students need to get at least 12/20 in English, and 10/20 in either their Science or History oral in English. If they succeed, they will receive the Option Européen on their Bac.

Students who are doing the French Baccalauréat and whom do not do Option Européen at our school will instead do OIB– the “Option Internationale du Baccalauréat“. (Not the same as the IB, or International Baccalaureate, which our school also offers but is a different thing entirely). For OIB, students take a two-year syllabus in literature, history and geography in a foreign language during 11th and 12th grade (again, for us, this is English). This syllabus is modeled off of an American curriculum. Frankly, it is almost necessary to be completely bilingual and have a certain level of maturity in order to successfully complete the program. Students in OIB take different Baccalauréat exams in Literature and History/Geography at the end of Terminale, and these exams have a higher coefficient of 8 or 9. OIB requires up to ten additional hours of lessons; many whom complete the certification go on to study at foreign universities.

What are some other things one should know about the Bac?

Well, most / almost all of the exams are essay-based exams, which means that the grades can vary considerably based on the opinions and interpretations of the examiner. The Bac is also very secretive; exams are unsealed by an official in front of the examinees, just before they are distributed. Students’ names are also omitted and replaced by a number, in order to avoid any bias as well as to respect anonymity when grading the exams. Teachers are summoned at random throughout the regional area to correct exams, although never the exams of their students. (Fun fact, I was summoned to correct Baccalauréat exams this year for English, beginning on the 21st of June! I have a week to grade 86 written exams!)

Finally, the French grading system is out of 20. To pass, a student must receive 10 out of 20. It’s unlikely a student will receive less than 5; it’s also quite rare to receive a 20/20, although it is possible with some séries and combination of coefficients. Finally, if a student receives:

  • Between 12 and 13.99 will earn a mention assez bien (honors / cum laude);
  • Between 14 and 15.99 will earn a mention bien (high honors / magna cum laude);
  • 16 or higher will earn a mention très bien (highest honors / summa cum laude).

 

Stay tuned for a more specific post about the English Baccalauréat! To all my fellow Terminale students, good luck and happy studying!

Bisous,

Dana

12 thoughts on “Everything You Need to Know About the French Baccalauréat

  1. You are the best at writing super useful, informative posts. I wish I had understood the Bac better before I was an assistante in a lycée – I was baffled by the different options and the bac blanc and all that. Hugo has explained the technologique options to me but I still don’t 100% get it. The Bac S really carries a lot of baggage! I’m sure we all know people who were forced to do a Bac S by their parents or who were seen as less intelligent because they didn’t do a Bac S. I was much more of a Bac L kind of girl when I was in high school – I ditched math so I could take two foreign languages and extra English classes 🙂 Good luck with your massive amount of grading next week – that sounds like approximately zero fun!

    1. Aw thank you! I agree, I wish as an assistant I had understood better because you can better cater your lessons, etc. Can’t believe the Bac S baggage and you’re SO right about students being forced to do it. Thanks for the good luck 🙂

  2. As with most things at school, the students who are stressed out about the bac are typically the ones who least need to worry. Lots of them are pretty “tranquil” about it till almost the last minute! Though the kids at your school might be very different, Dana, than a typical lycée.

    I think the problem with S is more of a problem with L and ES, honestly—since there are no hard sciences in those two sections, you may be closing a door toward certain professions by doing them. So instead of asking kids to rule out certain professions at 15, they’re pressured to do S. On the other hand, if you really do want to do journalism or publishing, it’s a big mistake to do S.

    It’s an imperfect system, but really, where is there a perfect one?

    1. Sooo true what you say about students who are the most stressed are the ones who don’t need to stress at all. I agree with your points– ES and L close the door to science early on … for me, I was sure I didn’t want to study anything science-related so I would have had no problem choosing ES or L… there is no perfect system; I wish there was!

  3. The more I learn about the bac, the more rigid it seems. A super stressful test pretty much determines your future and the elitism with the S is unreal. There are so many students who are terrible test takers but are no less intelligent or worthy of a great a future in a career where they can earn a living. I know we need ways to test people, but I feel like the bac is a little over the top (I know some high school kids from my gym and some of them have become physically ill from the stress!).

    Very informative post!

    1. If I could just sum it up… It’s just super French.

      Agreed it’s very stressful… many students esp. OIB students are at their wits end… but it’s good for them… in the US we are more well-rounded with sports, jobs, etc. Students need something to work for.

      Thanks for your comment xx

  4. My kids both did the OIB in the series S; both went on to foreign universities. I was horrified to learn that the the ‘S’ was considered by all in France to be the best option for anyone who was good enough at math. The elitism around that seemed so unfair! Like you, I would have chosen L or maybe ES. Wish I’d had a post like this one when they were just starting lycée – it was a black box to me then – have you considered sharing it with international parents?

    1. WOW! How awesome for them! That is a huge accomplishment.
      I agree, I was / am horrified–esp. because I myself would definitely not be S. For me, this mentality about S was a recent realization! It is unfair- and I agree, I wish more clarity was available for the military and international families. I may have to consider sharing– although I’ve just finally figured out most of this myself! x

  5. This is really interesting. Because I did an IB diploma in high school, the coefficients and different parts of exams combining for a final score are not bizarre to me. But while the IB is known in the US as one of the most rigorous diplomas available, it still seems less stressful than the French Bac…! I’d be interested to know your opinion on the different series, since it seems to fly in the face of the broad liberal arts mentality of American education. In theory, I actually think having students start to specialize earlier than uni is a good idea (as England also does with their A-levels) but I don’t know much about how it works in practice. I definitely would have done an L if I were a French student! #dramamajor hahah

    1. I would have loved to do IB and I would really like to teach IB assuming my school ever needs more IB teachers, esp. for English. I agree it is less stressful than the Bac- but again, perhaps this is just French elitism at its finest. I don’t really know much about the Séries as I teach all of them together and mixed. I think all streams are all very different and interesting; I think the US and UK are so lucky to have liberal art programs. I also agree that the US should start specializing a bit earlier, but should still make it easier and possible to change later. France is still very much under the “choose your path at 15 and don’t screw it up, you’re here for life” model, which of course in this day in age, doesn’t work and isn’t very sustainable in a globalized world. 🙂 I think I’d have been ES as I was awful at literature back in my day… but L seems interesting. S makes me shudder as I have no interest in Science or maths.

      1. Yeah, I didn’t know about the S hierarchy thing — that’s pretty awful! But people in the humanities/arts have always been told their fields aren’t as important as STEM positions, especially in the US…. Still hate to see this weird institutionalizing of that idea though :\

      2. That’s so true! I love my job as a teacher but unconsciously I know I’ll never be as valued as a STEM position… thankfully I have no interest in STEM fields…

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