The transition from prep school to grande école: The Leap to adulthood
Published on 09/1/2022
Published on 09/1/2022
Julien Manteau, Associate Dean at NEOMA Business School
When students arrive at an elite university, they’ve already moved through different stages in their education: from primary to secondary school, secondary to sixth-form, then taking preparatory classes. Why does this new step seem so much bigger to them? What is really at play here? I see four reasons.
Everyone knows that to choose is to give up other options. But a student who chose preparatory classes often does so precisely to avoid this rule. It’s the principle of taking the best route. In other terms, it’s a principle that allows you (or gives the impression) to not give anything up or almost.
But this way of addressing the problem of choosing can no longer be continued in an elite school. Unless you stay an eternal student, you cannot, for example, study for several Master-level dual degrees, no more than you can start a career in Europe and Asia at the same time, or work at an NGO and an investment bank…
Do these examples seem trivial? In real terms, they correspond to difficult dilemmas, which are even more difficult for students who come out of preparatory classes and have little experience with thinking ahead in such a way and looking into the questions they tend to ask us: “Is it better/preferable/more valuable to do an exchange in this place rather than that place? Or do an internship in such and such a sector rather than the other? A dual degree in this field and not in this one?”
Invariably, the response to these questions is that they have to choose based on what will help them to develop the most and not impose preferences that are not theirs. Quite often, great confusion can be seen on their faces, confusion that sometimes stands out as worry. Elite schools actually offer hundreds of programme options, which in reality account for hundreds of choices to make. This can be dizzying, even terrifying for some students. That’s why the concern over support in an elite university is so important!
For some students, entrance exams create an illusion that is difficult to overcome. It sometimes gives students who have succeeded the impression that “it’s all over. They’ve proven themselves.” It’s both true and false. They were deemed suitable to gain admission to such a school, but they are also expected to make greater efforts in acquiring many different skills and accruing a great deal of knowledge in many different fields.
This requirement is not at all obvious when you think you’ve already overcome the hardest challenge. It is a belief that students need to move beyond as quickly as possible, humbly accepting that they still have much more to learn and discover.
In preparatory classes, students face an easily identifiable goal (while it may not be easily achieved), which is the goal of passing the exam to enter this or that school. Once admitted to an elite university, the goal then becomes noticeably vaguer, which involves finding “your” path, or I should even say “a” path.
A goal that is never ultimately achieved, that you continue to pursue, to change or even reinvent at the age of thirty, fifty or even eighty. It’s a goal for which you don’t receive good marks on a competitive exam or encouragement from your professors that confirms you’re on the right path. That’s simply because these professors don’t have the slightest idea what the best path for you is. Only the student can know that, and sometimes it takes a long time.
In short, a goal that is not a destination like an entrance exam or admission to a school, but a path. A path with many wonderful encounters, successes, failures, errors and great moments. A path that is certainly winding and uncertain, different for each student, a path that we at NEOMA try to make as rich and fulfilling as possible. With, for us, a clear goal: give students confidence in their ability to invent the future that they deserve, for themselves and for society.
Lastly, there’s this obvious reason. At twenty years old, you leave home, your family and you often leave your hometown. You become independent and adult. This is not always so simple for young people. This breaking free coincides, roughly speaking, with the period of integration an elite school and this, for some students, can add to their problems with adapting. It’s up to us to never forget that and to be lenient when they deserve it.