On winter holidays and exams

Though Christmas is not yet upon us, the streets of Paris have been recently given a very festive uplift. Lights now hang over most streets. Many shops have also busted out their Christmas lights.

Boulevard Saint-Germain near Sciences Po

Boulevard Saint-Germain, near Sciences Po

But before Christmas travels and celebrations can even happen, one has to get through exams at Sciences Po. For most exchange students, classes have ended this week. The official exam period starts on the week of December 9th and continues until the few days before Christmas. As an exchange student, many of your classes will have in-class exams, or just a final assignment instead of an exam. So a large part of your December can be devoted to travels and other non-academic aspects of your exchange experience. But in the spirit of all the exams we have to get through before the holiday season, I will briefly describe the general forms of evaluations at Sciences Po.

Exams at Sciences Po are not very different from those at U of T. You have the typical essay exams and multiple choice exams. There are, of course, also those non-exams that come in the form of essays and presentations. I have noticed that all my assigned essays have not asked for more than 2500 words (this is a marked contrast to my first essay ever at U of T, which was for HIS103 and already passed 3000 words).

For the lucky few who land themselves in certain French courses, you might have a Grand Oral exam. The exam is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of a typical written exam, you will be given some materials and a few minutes to prepare (there are also cases where you will be given the topic a week beforehand) before you head in to the room and give a 10 minute presentation followed by a discussion with the jury (which could just be your professor). This sort of examination is more common in the masters level at Sciences Po, but certain undergrad professors like to challenge their students. For those who get to experience this uniquely Sciences Po tradition, Bon Courage!

The most distressing fact for assessments at Sciences Po is that you do not know how you are doing in a course until you see your transcript. Professors at Sciences Po are not obligated to, in fact they are encouraged not to, reveal your mark for any of your assignments and tests, because these marks will not reflect your final mark. You can imagine how this may present some difficulties in identifying gaps in your knowledge or the amount of time you should allocate to any subject.

This scuffle over grades stems from the fact that Sciences Po is one of those schools that subscribe quite ardently to the concept of bell-curving and grade distribution. There is a cap on the number of students that can be in a particular grade-range. And to be honest, this is something that deeply bothers me as a student. At U of T, I try to avoid courses where the first thing the professor mentions is that only a certain number of students will receive an arbitrary grade without even knowing the intellectual composition of the class.

This system is fully and strictly in place at Sciences Po, though the professors here are better at diplomatically explaining it. I can overlook the grade distribution because of the many other positive aspects of my exchange. And if you do not really care for how you do on exchange as long as you pass your courses, this will not be a big issue. But if you do care about your academic performance whether for scholarships or for graduate school, you should keep this in mind prior to making your decision.

Sciences Po – the ‘academic’ part of the exchange

While frosh week and related shenanigans took place on the other side of the Atlantic, the academic term started at Sciences Po on September 2nd.

For those unfamiliar with the school, the Institut d’etudes politiques de Paris (Sciences Po for short) is one of the leading universities in Europe in the fields of political science and international relations. It was founded in 1872 as a reaction to France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and from a desire to change the French political and ideological landscape. The university, I was told during the Welcome Day, was created to teach future politicians and diplomats how to make decisions and how to lead.

Whether or not the school succeeded in doing so is up for debate. But what it does mean for an exchange student studying here is some truly multi-disciplinary courses taught by practitioners and academics of the field. It is very difficult to find a course in Sciences Po that is strictly in its given discipline. And that perhaps explains, partially, why it is so difficult to get that 300 level economics transfer credit. Your economics course is not just economic theory; it also incorporates elements of history, politics and philosophy.

This is a field day for international relations students who, by the structure of the IR program at U of T, have to take courses (that may or may not integrate nicely) from the economics, history and political science departments. You have an advantage here over other students, who might have been confused by that throwaway reference to the Wars of Devolution in your Public International Law class.


Sciences Po map

Map of Sciences Po campus courtesy of Sciences Po’s website. The buildings in red are school buildings. (For undergrad students, your main classes will be in buildings A, B, H and J)

Sciences Po is located in the centre of Paris. It is a 15 minute walk from the Louvre and a 30 minute walk from the Eiffel Tower.

The school is very different from U of T, not just in terms of the overall size (Sciences Po is much smaller), but also in how decentralized and integrated the campus is.

(Aside: interestingly, Sciences Po gives 15 minutes in between consecutive classes, while U of T gives only 10…You will never have to sprint down the street to get to your next class on time at Sciences Po.) 

Walking to school is an exercise in colour-coordination and pulling off that seemingly-effortless elegance. This may seem incredibly clichéd, but when you have to walk past speciality Haute Couture stores and other finely-dressed Parisians (even your classmates!) on your way to class, you will be hard-pressed to continue dressing like a slob.

A comparison of the physical sizes of the two universities:


U of T St. George campus (courtesy of google maps)

Sciences Po campus

The much smaller Sciences Po campus (courtesy of google maps). You can barely see the school buildings behind the giant Sciences Po label.










Sciences Po employs an unique methodology that is difficult to explain. Perhaps you have encountered it elsewhere, but this was my first time encountering this particular format, and it caught me by surprise.

A proper ‘Sciences Po’ essay or exposé needs to have a problématique. The problématique is the central paradoxical question that your essay is trying to answer. The essay/presentation body is structured in two parts divided in a coherent manner (either thematically or chronologically). Then each of these two parts, is further divided into two sub-parts.

My TA provided a sample outline:

  • Introduction (historical context, define the terms of the assignment, problématique)
  • Part 1: Thematic argument 1
  •      1A: introduction to the specific argument, background, context
  •      1B: main argument 1
  • Part 2: Thematic argument 2
  •      2A: main argument 2
  •      2B: implications of the arguments
  • Conclusion (thesis)

Professors, especially of classes taught in French, are a stickler for this format. But don’t worry if this all seems awfully vague, everything becomes a bit clearer after you watch a few of the presentations by the local students.

A few things on classes at Sciences Po:

Attendance is mandatory. All courses (except lectures) take attendance. Missing more than two classes results in automatic failure. Suffice it to say, do not miss class.

Do not be late for class either! Depending on how strict your prof is, arriving 5 minutes after the start of class can be considered late. Accumulating enough “lates” will equate to an absence.

Follow the rules. In the words of my French Opera prof, the rules are not there for you to circumvent, no matter how cleverly you can do so. They are there to measure how you excel given the constraint of the rules. Your talent is demonstrated by your ability to follow the rules, like everyone else, while still presenting your own take on a given topic. It’s a different mindset than the one I am used to, but when in Rome, do as the Romans do right?

Like most buildings in France, Sciences Po is not air-conditioned. Summer can be extremely stifling, but given how quickly the weather has cooled, that should not be a problem. Whether or not the buildings have some sort of heater for the winter remains to be seen.

Until next time,

(Heading to Belgium this weekend. Anyone Europe-bound at the time?)