Grandes Écoles are a distinctive element of the French higher education system, which parallels the classical university system. Many of them were founded back in the 18th and 19th century with the purpose of training highly qualified engineers. The first Grandes Écoles of management appeared at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
Unlike universities in France, which are comprehensive educational institutions covering various fields (natural sciences, engineering, law, economics, medicine, humanities, etc) with a large student body and which are open to anyone with a high school diploma, "Grandes Écoles" are much smaller in size and recruit their students with very selective processes.
Ever since their creation, Grandes Écoles of Engineering have stood at the forefront of technological and scientific developments in their field and have trained a majority of the engineers who have given rise to France's industrial achievements.
Grandes Écoles supply France with most of its engineers, industrial research specialists, managers and administrators. According to the Conférence des Grandes Écoles (www.cge.asso.fr), Nowadays over 60 % of the managing directors and the chief executives in France's 100 largest firms are graduates of the "Grandes Écoles". Broad courses of study enable them to assume top positions and offer them different career possibilities.
Grandes Écoles of Engineering usually offer several Master’s degree programmes, the most important of which is the Diplôme d’Ingénieur, the French Master’s degree in Engineering.
Because of the strong selection of the students and of the very high quality of the curriculum, the Diplôme d’Ingénieur, which gives right to bear the title of an Ingénieur, is one of the most prestigious degrees in France; it is protected by law and submitted to strict government supervision. It is more valued by companies than a university degree in terms of career opportunities and wages.
To enter the Diplôme d’Ingénieur curriculum of Grandes Écoles, students traditionally have to complete the first two years of their curriculum in the very intensive Classes préparatoires, most often in an institution outside the Grande École.
At the end of these preparatory classes, the students take nationwide, extremely selective competitive exams (les Concours) for entrance into Grandes Écoles, where they complete their curriculum for three years.
Thus the 1st year of the Diplôme d’Ingénieur curriculum in Grandes Écoles corresponds to a senior undergraduate year, and the two final years correspond to the graduate part of the curriculum:
Besides this selection scheme, students who have completed 3 or 4 years of university-level scientific studies can enter the Diplôme d’Ingénieur programme of some Grandes Écoles, among which ENSTA ParisTech, by application. A very careful selection of these students is carried out as well.
At ENSTA ParisTech, the vast majority of international students, but also French students, enter the Diplôme d’Ingénieur programme directly into the 2nd year (1st year of MSc.), after they have completed 4 years of university studies in science. They spend two years at ENSTA ParisTech, ending with graduation as an ENSTA ParisTech engineer, just like students having entered ENSTA ParisTech in its 1st year.
"Grandes Ecoles" organisation scheme vs. the classic university scheme