The original version of this article – by Cassandra Betts – has been published in The Sundial (Sciences Po’s campus of Reims).
Starting school at Sciences Po is scary. For many of us it is the first time living away from our parents and being in a foreign country. You not only have to worry about making the perfect first impression on your fellow students and creating the ideal schedule during IPs (which will always be terrifying, regardless of how many times you do it), but you also need to deal with dozens of other trivialities, like cooking for yourself, buying housing insurance and setting up a phone plan.
Despite all these struggles, I guarantee you, everything will get sorted out. Next year you’ll come back to Reims, happy to see those big red doors at the front of Sciences Po. I have to admit, they’ll always be a little intimidating, but they won’t be scary anymore. You’ll have done dozens of oral presentations, figured out how to survive midterms week, and be ready to take on a new year. You’ll always be learning new things, but here’s a list of things that, if I’d known them last year, maybe would have made my life a little easier.
1. Have high expectations, because this is an incredible place with incredible people and courses, but make sure they’re not too high. Once I realized that just because Sciences Po has a library that looks like it came straight out of Harry Potter doesn’t mean it’s perfect, I was able to appreciate its strengths and not tear it apart because of its weaknesses. Yes, it’s true that the administration is disorganized and frustrating, and that you may end up with a few teachers that you don’t like, but in the end, all the amazing teachers, friends and experiences that you have will make up for it.
2. Practically nothing is open on Sundays. If you’re from North America this can be quite shocking, so make sure you get all your toilet paper and chocolate bars on Saturday night.
3. You may not have met your best friends during orientation week, and that’s okay. I remember going to every bar night, brunch, club night and day in the park on edge because I was trying to figure out which classmates I would be spending my Friday nights with for the next two years. As it turns out, I didn’t meet the people who are now my closest friends until a few months into the semester.
4. Ask questions! Ask your TAs questions, ask the administration questions (although they may not answer you), ask the 2As questions, and ask your fellow 1As questions. Ultimately, we’re all going through the same thing, and anyone will be happy to answer your queries on Facebook or in person. Whether you want someone to look over your paper, give you advice on teachers, or tell you where the best kebab place is, never be afraid to ask.
5. Find a place to study that works for your personal learning style, and start creating good study habits from the get-go. The first few weeks at Science Po can be deceiving. The reading lists don’t yet seem bottomless and the deadlines for essays and oral presentations are still specks on the horizon. Use the free time to read ahead in classes, and to figure out if you learn better in the bustle of Oma’s coffee shop, the calm of the old library, or the privacy of your own room. When you have a deadline looming, it’s comforting to know that you already have a spot where you can focus and do your best work.
6. Carrefour will be your new happy place. It’s one of the few places that is actually open on Sundays (for a few hours at least) and the one on Rue Gambetta has everything a starving student needs to live comfortably. You can buy cutlery, plates, ice cream, sheets, pillows, blankets and any other necessities that are surprisingly difficult to track down in Reims. Also, on Thursdays the items in the baked goods section are ten percent off. What you choose to do with that little tidbit of information is up to you (I recommend buying a pie, but that’s just me).
7. Don’t feel obligated to go to every event that is being hosted on campus. Our BDE, BDA, and AS are awesome at planning events, and the number of conferences on campus is simply astounding. It is, however, physically impossible to go to every event, and you’ll just burn yourself out if you try to.
8. That being said, make sure you do attend events. All of the student groups do a fantastic job organizing conferences, and many compelling people come to speak to us. Try to attend a few events that are out of your comfort zone and you may find a new passion, or at least learn something interesting.
9. Schedule time to travel. Last year I spent all my time studying, or saying that I was going to study when I really spent the entire day lying on my bed eating ramen. As a Canadian, part of the big draw of Sciences Po was the opportunity to study in France. You need to balance the school part of your experience with the exploring part.
10. Visit your TAs and lecturers during their office hours. It can seem counterproductive to waste time visiting your TAs, especially if you don’t specifically need their help and have a million other things that need to be get done, but in the long run the relationships you build with them will be worth a lot.
11. Participate in extracurriculars. You have to join a club in order to get credits for your group project at the end of the year, but don’t just do it for the credits. If you like sports, join a sports team. If you love writing, join the Sundial. Some clubs can seem quite intimidating, as they have an application process in order to join. Don’t be scared to apply. If you don’t get the position you were hoping for that’s okay. You’ll find something equally exciting, and there are dozens of clubs that you don’t need to apply to. If you’re really passionate about a particular group that you weren’t admitted to, talk to the person in charge. You may be able to participate even if it’s not for credits.
12. Get to know your godparent. Sometimes they won’t be very good at planning a time to meet, so take the initiative. They’ll be a great resource, and it will be nice to know someone who’s not in your year. They can give you their old notes, tell you which TAs to pick, and they’ll be someone who you can bombard with questions without feeling too shy.
13. Make an effort to talk to people who are not from your country or your program. It’s comforting to spend time with people who speak your language and share your culture, but it’s also important to take advantage of the diversity on campus and get out of your comfort zone.
14. The Sciences Po method is not going to make or break your oral presentation. Orientation week may have stressed the two parts-two sub-parts format, but make sure you don’t get so caught up in structure that you forget about content. Some teachers don’t even require the Sciences Po method. Email your teacher your outline and work through how to best structure your presentation based on what you’re trying to say. It may take a few times to figure it out, but you’ll learn from the process and see a huge improvement by the end of the year
15. A few bad grades are not the end of the world. Last year I was crushed after bombing my first few assignments. I felt like I didn’t belong here and that I had made a terrible decision to come to Sciences Po, where everyone else had it together and knew so much more than me. Of course, in hindsight, it’s obvious that everyone was struggling as well, and that the quizzes and oral presentations that I had done poorly on were not representative of the entire semester. After talking with my teachers, I figured out what they were expecting and what I had to work on in order to meet their expectations.
16. Explore Reims. Reims may seem kind of sleepy, but if you take the time to read up on its past, it’s actually a really cool place, and you come to realize that almost everything around you has some historical significance. If the brown and grey of the city is kind of depressing you, head up to Parc de Champagne or cross to the other side of the canal. There’s some really nice trees, the water doesn’t look quite as murky, and I find it very uplifting just to see some greenery.
17. Have fun! This is definitely one of the most cliché pieces of advice ever given, but it’s so important just to take a break from everything and enjoy yourself. Whether it’s travelling to Paris for the day, staying in for a movie and pizza night on Friday, going to the bar, or playing a game of pick-up basketball, do things for yourself. School is important, and it will be gratifying to see all your hard work pays off, but balance is essential. Make sure you’re happy, because your two years will go by way too quickly!
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La bise, La Péniche, Urkund.... Learn a few basics about daily life in France and at Sciences Po.
“La bise” is a custom you cannot escape
In France, almost every time you greet or say goodbye to someone, you have to “faire la bise”. Basically this means kissing each other’s cheeks, but there are subtle details to understand before you really master the art of “la bise”.
You need to know that depending on the French region you live in you will not kiss cheeks the same number of times. In Menton, Le Havre, Poitiers, Dijon, Nancy and Paris, you’ll have to do two bises, but in Reims people traditionally do four. In practice, la bise is technically not even a kiss. It's more like brushing cheeks. You kiss the air without your lips actually touching the other’s cheek.
“La Péniche” is not a weird barge floating on the Seine River
The original “Péniche” is what we call the long art déco bench located in the middle of the entrance hall at 27 rue Saint-Guillaume in Paris. There are now several Péniches on the different Sciences Po campuses. La Péniche is the meeting place for students, so learn its location quickly before your first date. The campus newspaper in Paris even took the name of this legendary bench; you can check student news on their website.
I got a 1 for my essay. Is that good news?
At Sciences Po, the grading system works with numbers rather than letters. Essays are usually graded out of 20 or out of 100. It’s always a little challenging to get used to in the beginning if you come from a different grading system, but your teachers will be happy to help you situate yourself in the class.
Hearing the word Urkund will give you chills
Urkund is the name of the anti-plagiarism software used by Sciences Po. In Swedish it means “document” or “record”. It's very simple to use: students send their essays in to their teacher’s Urkund email address and the work goes through the anti-plagiarism system to be compared to the internet database.
The student's mantra: two sections, two subsections
It's important to "problematise" your essays at Sciences Po: you have to explain your question to your reader and then try to answer it. But not just any old way! The answer must be divided into two sections which must each be divided in two sub-sections.
- Students sitting on the Péniche at the Reims campus ©Martin Argyroglo