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Molli Sébrier in Paris: How to go to university in France as a foreigner

(Editor’s note: This post about attending university in France originally appeared on The American in Paris website. It’s reposted here with permission.)

When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree I was one of those “I’m free!” people. I was so happy to have finally wrapped up my schooling after what seemed like 16 long years. I truly never thought I would go back to school.

Fast forward to 2017 and I found myself in the admissions office of Université de Nanterre in a suburb just outside of Paris. I had already spent one year here studying French in order to a) be able to carry on a conversation instead of just responding with “oui” or “non” and hoping for the best, and b) to obtain the B2 level of French that I need to get into the master’s program I had my eye on.

Say what? The girl who basically ran off the stage after she was handed her bachelor’s degree now had grand plans to get her master’s degree? In a foreign country?

Guilty.

Why I made the decision to go to university in France 

Let me back up a little. When I first arrived in France I was an au pair for a Franco-American family. I was required to speak in English with the children, which was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I knew next to no French and a curse because I was able to stay in what I like to call my “English bubble” for too long. 

I was speaking in English with the children, the American mom, and even with the French dad because he wanted to practice. My friend group included other Americans, an Irish girl, and several Australian girls. We spent our time together and we often went to English and Irish pubs with other Anglophones.

In some ways, it was a relief to be able to speak my own language in the midst of a foreign country. Moving abroad is filled with ups and downs, and it can be lonely. Plus, all of the sudden change is … intense, to say the least. My English bubble was comforting and so I stayed there for two and a half years.

After those years of nannying, I decided I wanted to move on, but that didn’t mean moving back to the United States. I wanted to stay in my newfound country, but I knew at this point that I needed to start speaking the language, not to mention think about what I wanted to do with my life. I realized I couldn’t be a nanny or live in my English bubble anymore.

And so I started the process of determining how I could legally stay in France. I found out that if I had a valid visa, I could go back to school for the same price as a European. 

This has now, unfortunately, changed. In 2018, the government announced that foreigners would need to pay 2,770 euros for an undergraduate degree and 3,770 euros for a master’s degree. Most universities disagree with the new rule and refuse to comply; other universities have gone forward with it. Before you decide on which university you’d like to go to, make sure you’re aware of the admission fees for foreigners! However, the new admissions fee for foreigners is still a fraction of what I would have paid in the US.

Things to consider before you go to university in France

I started thinking about what I wanted to do for work, as I had lost all interest in the field of my undergrad degree. I finally settled on becoming a writer (how do you think I’m doing?), and so I started looking into master’s programs in French literature. At almost the same exact moment, I realized I not only needed to prove that I had a B2 level in French, but I would be completely lost at university if I didn’t have at least that. 

I recalibrated my search for a program that would help me learn French as well as give me a diploma with my new French level on it. In Paris, there are two well-regarded programs: one at La Sorbonne and the other at Nanterre. I settled on Nanterre because I had already missed the deadline to apply for La Sorbonne.

I ended up having an amazing year at Nanterre in their FETE program, which I recommend to anyone looking to up their French skills. Not only was I on a university campus (which just made it feel more legitimate), the teachers are qualified and helpful and the curriculum is interesting and relevant. 

I finished the year with my B2 in French and decided that I wanted to stay at Nanterre for my master’s for a few different reasons. I enjoyed my time there, I understood how their administrative procedures worked, and I knew the admission process would be easier as I was already in their system.

I headed to the literature department to speak to an advisor to make sure I had the right requirements. We got to talking, and she asked me about my plans, she looked at my resume and she asked me about my interests. She told me that although I had the correct level of French to enroll, I would probably have a hard time with the course material. Did I know the school had an English Studies department? That offered a bilingual literature program?

My eyes lit up — that sounded right up my alley. 

Ultimately, I’m so happy I decided to speak with that advisor before I enrolled in the French literature program and that she was so honest with me. I would be able to handle the course material now, but that’s because I have four more years of speaking and reading French under my belt. 

Although I technically had the correct level to enter into the program, I did not have the brain capacity or level of vocabulary to seriously study, analyze and write French texts. And, because I decided to go for the bilingual English/French program, I was able to write my 80-page thesis in English (what a relief!).

I ended up thriving in the English Studies program and I finished my degree with a mention très bien. I also scored because my program was truly bilingual and most of the English or bilingual master’s programs in Paris are at private universities — which come with a much higher price tag. 

So, what should you consider before you go to university in France?

  • Why you want to go to university? If it’s to simply obtain a student visa, there are other options like the intensive French course I took
  • Your level of French — be brutally honest with yourself!
  • How much you want to pay — private is much more expensive than public (don’t forget to be certain of the admission fee for foreigners at the institution you choose!)
  • What you want to study — again, be honest with yourself!
  • Whether you want to go for a license (bachelor’s) or master (master’s)

Tick off these boxes before you start looking into French universities and you’ll set yourself up for success. 

Molli offers private consultation services which range from help with visas, adjusting to life abroad to Paris travel itineraries. Click here to learn more.

About the author:

Molli Sébrier has lived in Paris since 2014 when she decided to leave her American life behind and pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Since living abroad, Molli has earned her master’s degree in English Studies with a concentration in literature and is now working towards making that becoming a writer thing happen. If you’re interested in following your own dreams of moving to France, she also offers consulting. 

You can follow her journey on Instagram @mollim, and if you like to read, Molli runs a female-focused book review website called The Mistress of Books. You can also follow her website on Instagram @themistressofbooks.

See more about French visas here in Dispatches Europe archives.

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