This is where the system really gets interesting. And I don't just mean course wise - it's almost a complete opposite of the American system. Other than the "School" aspect of it, they have nothing in common.
Maybe I'm being a little harsh. I mean, it's a place of learning, right? But it's also the place you learn the hardest life lessons: like how to cope with failure.
Because, truth is, you fail, and you fail a lot. It's just life. There's no arguing, no cookies, no pats on the back - you have to push yourself all the way through it. Lycée is the gauntlet of life.
My dad used to say I had the "worst of two worlds". I had the hormonal mess of living and working with teenagers, which meant drama. But I was in an environment much like that of university, with strange hours, all nighters, and four hour long tests.
2nd, however, is your last year of "freedom". You have about 30 hours of class a week (more if you're doing an OIB - details on that later), which are spread out over five days from 8 am to 6 pm. Unlike middle school, you can now leave the school premises whenever you want. The gates are always open, and you can come and go as you please. You can eat at the cafeteria or at the local eateries. In that respect, you're basically in a university environment, just with teenagers.
I say "freedom" here because, although you are tested every week by your teachers, you don't have exams. You work, and you live. You still have a social life.
Then comes 1re. And its all downhill from here.
I recommend you read this wikipedia page. I'll try to explain the process as best I can, but this website will give you more details.
At the end of 2nd, you pick the diploma you're going to work for. It's like choosing a major. You can do an S baccaleureate - this is science strong; An ES Bac (Economics based); or L (Literature). You can also go for a "professional" degree, a BTS, but that takes longer. This will determine the classes you will take. Unlike in the states, you can't pick and chose your classes, only menus. You can, however, pile on extra hours, if you want to study Latin, for example, or History of the arts. You can also sign up for the French CNED (distance classes) and take classes your school does not offer: a few of my friends took Chinese this way.
I was also in the OIB section, which meant I would take my English Bac in English, as well as history geography. It meant 10 extra hours on my schedule. I have to say, these were the highlight of my day. The teachers were incredible.For the French, it's always "Passe ton Bac D'abbord", have you bac first. This is the priority from now on. Which means no free time, nothing but constant study.
Maybe I should remind you that there are no clubs. The few that are organized have been created by students, and only meet once a week. Our school had 5 to 6 on thursday allocated to them, but many other schools don't have any at all. So no yearbook, unless you make it yourself. No school dances, unless your organize it yourself.
You have two hours of sport per week, but there are no competitions between schools. If you want to go to a school for professional sports, you can do that; but you're not going to see any people getting into higher education for cheerleading here.
If you want to do music, you most likely go to the local conservatory, but it's rare that schools have music programs.
In 1ere, part of the curriculum is "TPE", or research. You create a team of 2 to 4 people, and then write a research paper together for the next six months. You're expected to write anywhere between 20 to 40 pages. Then you have to do a presentation before a panel of two to three examiners, who will give you a grade out of 20. This counts for the Bac.
A quick grade reminder: in high school, 10 is pass, 12 is pretty good, 14 is good, 16 very good. If you have a 13 - 14 average, you are an A student. But you will never, ever get a 20. This video from numberphile will clear things up for you.
You finish 1ere by taking your first Bac exams. Every student takes the French exam, a 4 hour written exam in which you pick to do "creative writing" (usually seen as the refuse of the accademically poor, and not graded very well), a commentary* on an unseen text, or a dissertation. You usually hand in around 6 or more papers. I wrote 12.
Then you have the French oral exam. During the year, you study 25 book extracts, poems, and selection of theatre. Your exam starts by you being handed a question on one of them. You half half an hour to prepare a response. Then you do an oral commentary of the text for ten minutes, and then have a dialogue for another ten about the world of French literature. You come out of it physically exhausted. And terrified.
L and ES students then have their Science bac to get it out of the way for next year. If you're in L, you're not obliged to take any math classes either. It's often joked about that the S students have the heaviest workload, because nothing is sliced off, but the Ls remind us constantly that their homework is writing dissertations, so we shut up.
By the time you reach Terminale, you're on the home stretch. You finally get to study philosophy, which is absolutely fascinating. You also get extra classes in your "specialty". Being in S, I got two extra hours of physics per week.
All my free time, I spent in the library, with pretty much the rest of the student body. Homework was incessant. What was great, though, was how much the school bonded over this shared stress. There wasn't as much drama as you find in US schools, because we spent so much time worrying about work, we didn't really worry about anything else.
You don't have as much of a popularity contests in Lycee. There's no football team or cheerleaders, so there's half the problem resolved.
You can start applying to schools in this time, if you want to go to a private university, or if you want to take Prepa classes outside of university in the next year. These are small "boot camp" schools that help you prepare for the Concours (more on that later). The real application to universities starts in april, and all you have to do is put the order of university preference into your "Post Bac" account. The school uploads your grades and all those teacher comments from class councils. Then you wait until June to see where you are: you see the school you are accepted into (number however many on the list) and that's it: you'll go that if you get 10 or more on your Bac. Bam, done.
Other schools, like Sciences Po, are part of a different system. They require "concours", where you sit a written exam in an airplane hangar with thousands of other students, and an interview.
You sign up for the Bac by logging online to the site and filling out the subjects you're taking. Unlike the SAT, there are no personal questions, except what line of work your father is in (for for the yearly statistics on how personal income affects your score) and nothing else. They don't care about your ethnicity, your religion, your sexual orientation (I still can't believe I was asked that so I could take a standardized test!). And there's no 50 dollar fee - it's 4,96 euros for the administrator who has to process all of it. That's it.
Officially, it's the third week of June that you have your Bac, but all "options" have to be taken care of before then. So as May ends, you find yourself sitting for your extra exams (remind me why I took those?). Usually, you go to another school so that you have different teachers examining you, so there's no conflict of interest.
Then, one week before your first Bac, your classes are cancelled so that you can study. For an entire week, your entire focus is on those ten subjects you've been studying for the past two years. There's no way of knowing what will be on the test, you have to know everything.
Then starts the test. You sit. You write. Hours and hours and hours. Page upon page upon page. Every math equation explained. Every philosophical quote referenced. Every scientific schema annotated. The worst part is knowing you can put your heart out on that sheet, and you can still have a 4 just because of subjective teachers. So you do your best and wait for the best.
In the first week of july, your grades are out. You go to your school, and wait until the grades are posted - they don't know when, so they don't say. Finally, they're pinned on the wall - if your name is on the list, you've got your Bac. If not, you've failed and have to take it again. You also may have a few letters next you your name: AB, B, or T, which indicate your "mention", the equivalent of an "honors".
Then you wait in line to get your school file back. You sign a sheet, and your grades and record are handed to you.
And just like that, you've graduated. Congratulations.
The next year is worse than your bac - I'm lucky to be out of it! - because everything is a competition. For most subjects (mostly med or engineering) you have one year of university before taking a massive test, the "concours", on which only your rank among other students matters. This tells you what you course of study you can do: if you top the list, you can be a surgeon, for example. This is why everyone takes prepa classes - it gives you a fighting chance on the concours.
Maybe I should remind you at this point that the entire cost of one year in med school, with uni, prepa, and books, adds up to less than 200 euros?
So that's how the french school system works. I hope you've learned something!
*Commentaries are no your usual essay. It's incredibly structured. Your introduction is followed by three "axes" (main ideas), each with three "sub axes", each of which is structured in their own specific way. You have to skip a certain number of lines and use a certain number of quotes - from memory, mostly - as well. Your conclusion ends with an "opening" which shows that you know other works of literature that resemble the unseen text you were given. A dissertation follows the same pattern, but corresponds to a question rather than analyzing a text.