I’ve always been asked what I want to do with my life, my professional life, and I find it still hard to answer today. I think that in France it’s unfortunately a skewed question because they will always look at what you studied before even considering your application.
The ideal path to success
In my opinion the easiest way to succeed in your career in France would be to follow what French like to call “la voie royale” literally “The royal path”.
The absolute best way to achieve it is to first go to a good high school (lycée), preferably in Paris best private or public schools /or in a foreign French School in a big city.
Teachers in these schools will aim to prepare children for preparatory classes (classes préparatoires) from as little as 4ème (8th grade). I remember in 8th grade my teacher mentioning in the meeting with parents that they were already training us for these classes, a way to justify how hard it was to get a good grade.
A few Paris schools that comes to my mind would be lycées : Louis le Grand (website) , Janson de Sailly (website), Blomet ENC (website) , Stanislas (website). Here is a ranking of Paris lycées based on their Baccalaureate results here.
Good grades in those schools will make you ready to join a good preparatory school, again preferably in Paris. There are different kind of preparatory classes depending on which Grande Ecole you are targeting. Usually it will be a two years preparation to attend a Grande Ecoles, students not getting into the schools they were aiming at after those two years usually would sign for a 3rd year.
Those two years are feared by most students, they aim to prepare them to very hard entrance exams of Grande Ecoles.
They are different types of Grandes Ecoles : The business schools, the engineering schools, the national schools etc… The most well known out of all would be Ecole polytechnic X (engineer), and HEC (business school) or ENS (Ecole normal supérieur).
There are many other schools but I will concentrate here on the most well known, whose students often end up at key roles in big companies. Students will begin in those schools as their 3rd year after high school diploma (BAC+3) and most of them will exit those schools on their 5th year with a master degree.
In the french system, academical level will always be the first think to be looked at, and also from which school you are to determine your salary level. For example, for trainees these two schools will require a minimum salary which is at least 4 times the minimum trainee’s salary. No wonder why there is not enough diversity in Paris successful companies…
I don’t see any change to this system in the future unless an extreme left candidates would win the elections which is very unlikely. The elites will continue to reproduce themselves.
In case you are not great at school :
In case your parents have money and you don’t have the academical level, you can always go to a post baccalaureate business school which you access directly after your high school diploma. Those schools are expensive like the business schools, some of them have reached the “Grandes Ecoles” certification even like IESEG in Lille and Paris. You won’t probably get the best salaries after it but you will still qualify for a lot more than university graduates somehow.
Going to University
First of all, University in France will always aim to prepare you to be a teacher or a researcher in your field. It means a lot of theory and not much practice. No wonder why business schools students have a better employable rate after graduating. Once again there is a big difference sometimes between going to university in Paris and the rest of France. There are more competitive, have the best teachers for most fields and are more attractive to future prospects. Sorbonne is a world wide known name, Lyon Jean Moulin not really… At the same time, it’s the place where you learn the hard life, how to make things for yourself, get to know people you would never have met if you went to a private school. This should be the way for everyone.