These public and private schools provide a very specialised course of study and have a highly selective admissions procedure. Some require an excellent school record and a baccalaureat (secondary school diploma) with distinction.
Numerous others however, also require success at an entrance examination that is prepared over one or two years in the special classe preparatoire aux grandes ecoles.
Given the selective nature of the admissions procedure, there are therefore only a limited number of pupils who enrol at CPGE and they represent about five per cent of the total number of those who enrol in higher education - 20 times fewer than those who enrol for places at university.
Although very prestigious, many accuse this system of being elitist, especially since the state spends more on these students per head than on university students.
The workload and the stress at prepa is notorious. Those studying the scientific courses are known as taupins - moles - because they are so taken up with their studies that they see very little light of day!
Classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles (CPGE) or Prépas literally Preparatory classes for the grandes écoles, sometimes nicknamed the "royal way," because it's the only way to get into the most prestigious schools.
The preparatory classes, either in literature, sciences or management (generally two or three years) is the traditional way to enter the most prestigious grandes écoles. Most of them are in state high schools; there are a few private preparatory classes but they are expensive. Admission in preparatory classes are based on an academic report. Many students register in more than one class to maximize their chance of admission. Some of these classes are very selective and successful at placing students into the top schools.
The workload is generally very high and in-class competition between students is encouraged in some schools. Some classes may be psychologically stressful (depending on the students and the teachers' behaviour), and some students give up before the completion of their studies. The goal of preparatory classes is to prepare the student to match the academic level expected to pass the competitive recruitment examination of the main grandes écoles. If the student is not admitted to a Grande École, they are given the option of repeating the last year of preparatory classes and attempting the exam the following year.