What is the Baccalauréat?

Learn all about what could be considered as the hardest high school exam in the world, the Baccalaréat.


Napoléon Ier, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

This ancient exam was first created by Napoléon Bonaparte and has been around for over two centuries, created in 1808.

This national end of high school exam is a rite of passage for students in their terminal, aka senior, year in France. By some it is considered a national monument because of the enormous impact it has on the lives of French students.

The idea is to have students in France be as well-rounded as possible, and French people love to brag about the “bac” because it is an extremely difficult exam compared to its equivalent in other countries, such as the SAT in the United States and the A-levels in the United Kingdom. People also love this test because it is egalitarian, so everyone is treated the same, and it provides young adults their first opportunity to enter the job market.

French students must pass the baccalauréat to enter university.

There are three different types of Baccalauréats: professional, technological, and general. The majority of students chose the general exam, after which they have to make the tough choice between three different tracks:

  • S- natural sciences and maths.
  • ES- economic and social sciences.
  • L- literature, humanities, and arts.

According to French news outlet, France24, one of the hardest parts of the bac is the philosophy questions, and this is also typically the first part of the exam given. Some examples of these prodding questions from past tests include: “Is it possible to escape time?” “What’s the use of explaining a work of art?” and “Does acknowledging your duties mean forgoing your freedom?”

For students, exam day is very stressful.  It involves many different rigorous protocols to ensure that there is no cheating or fraud; everything from where you sit to the color of your scrap paper are taken into account on test day. Each test is based on what track you chose to follow, but all students are graded anonymously and the passing mark is considered a 10/20.

Results day can be the best day of your life or the worst. To find out whether or not you passed the bac, and if you passed whether or not you got honors, you must return to your high school and find your name on a list posted publicly on a wall.

Although adored by many, many critics claim that the bac has lost its value over the years. They point to the increase in people taking this huge test; according to France24, in 1948, only about 30,000 students sat the exam, compared to 2019, where there were over 740,000 people taking the bac. Critics also believe the bac has lost some merit due to the increase in the success rate. In 1960, only 60% of the people who took the exam passed, but in 2018, 88.3% passed. The bac has also been bashed because of its very expensive upkeep. The average cost for the state to organize and run the bac is 1.5 billion euros each year.

French president Emmanuel Macron made the controversial decision to overhaul the bac after centuries of being untouched.

Current French president, Emmanuel Macron, has given the bac a facelift and many reforms are occurring for the year 2021. Firstly, there will no longer be three tracks.  Instead students will learn a core curriculum and will specialize in a major and a minor. Another change is that there will be fewer final exams incorporated within the bac, and in a France24 article, it claimed that these exams will only count for 60% of the final result, rather than 100%; the other 40% will be based on your work from throughout the school year. Of course, some people are already outraged by this decision, claiming that the new bac will be too easy and less democratic because final results may depend on the quality of your school.

The bac has proven to cause stress in every French teenager’s life.  Compare it with your own experiences and school, what do you think: is the bac the hardest exam to ever live or do you think it is overhyped?