The École Polytechnique (French: l'École polytechnique, commonly known as Polytechnique or l'X [liks]) is one of the most prestigious and selective grandes écoles in France. It is a French public institution of higher education and research in Palaiseau, a suburb south of Paris. The school is a constituent member of the Polytechnic Institute of Paris.
The school was established in 1794 by the mathematician Gaspard Monge during the French Revolution, and it was once previously a military academy under Napoleon I in 1804. The institution is still supervised by the French Ministry of Defence. Initially located in the Quartier Latin of central Paris, the establishment's main buildings were moved in 1976 to Palaiseau on the Plateau de Saclay, southwest of Paris.
Among its alumni are three Nobel prize winners, one Fields Medalist, three Presidents of France and many CEOs of French and international companies. It is ranked 87th by Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021 and second in their world's best small universities 2020. Its parent university, the Polytechnic Institute of Paris, is ranked 49th in QS World University Rankings 2022.
Enjoying great prestige in higher education in France, the École Polytechnique is often associated with selectivity and academic excellence, but also with elitism and technocracy which have been sources of criticism since its creation. In the popular imagination, the School is associated with certain symbols such as the student uniform or the Bicorne.
In 1794, the École centrale des travaux publics was founded by Lazare Carnot and Gaspard Monge, during the French Revolution, at the time of the National Convention. It was renamed "École polytechnique" one year later. In 1805, Emperor Napoléon I moved the École to Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, in the Quartier Latin of central Paris, as a military academy and gave it its motto Pour la Patrie, les Sciences et la Gloire (For the Nation, Science, and Glory). In 1814, students took part in fighting to defend Paris from the Sixth Coalition. In 1830, fifty students participated in the July Revolution.
During the First World War, students were mobilised and the school building was transformed into a hospital. More than two hundred students died during the war. During the Second World War, the École Polytechnique was moved to Lyon in the free zone. More than four hundred students died during that war (Free French, French Resistance, Nazi camps). In 1970, the École became a state-supported civilian institution under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence. In 1972, female students were admitted for the first time. In 1976, the École moved from central Paris to Palaiseau in the southern suburbs. In 1985, it started awarding PhD degrees. In 1994, celebration of the bicentennial was chaired by President François Mitterrand.
Napoléon moved École Polytechnique to the Quartier Latin in 1805 when he set the school under a military administration. The Paris campus was near the Panthéon, in Descartes Street, 5. It was nicknamed "Carva" by the students.
Located in the outskirts of Paris – approximately 14 km (9 mi) from the city centre – École Polytechnique is a campus-based institution. It offers teaching facilities, student housing, food services and hospitality and a range of sports facilities dedicated to the 4,600 people who live on campus.
The nearest regional train station is Lozère (line B, in zone 4 of the RER network). A number of buses also connect the École Polytechnique with the larger RER station Massy-Palaiseau and the TGV station Massy TGV.
The campus is close to other scientific institutions in Saclay (), Orsay (Université Paris-Sud) and Bures (Institut des hautes études scientifiques and some Centre national de la recherche scientifique labs).
École Polytechnique is a higher education establishment running under the supervision of the French Ministry of Defence, through the General Directorate for Armament (administratively speaking, it is a ). It has a double status, being both an engineering school that trains civilian engineers and scientists, but also officers for the three French armies. These two components are part of the same project to provide the French state with a scientific and technical elite. These two components, formation of civil servants and officers, have weakened since 1950—nowadays only 10–20 % of the school students take place in the ranks of the administration or the army (whereas 20% go into research and the rest in engineering or management jobs).
It is headed by a general officer (as of 2012, by a General engineer of Armament, whereas previous directors were generally Army generals), and employs military personnel in executive, administrative and sport training positions. Both male and female French undergraduate polytechniciens are regular officers and have to go through a period of military training before the start of studies.
However, the military aspects of the school have lessened with time, with a reduced period of preliminary military training, and fewer and fewer students pursuing careers as military officers after leaving the school. On special occasions, such as the military parade on the Champs-Élysées on Bastille Day, the polytechniciens wear the 19th-century-style grand uniform, with the bicorne, or cocked hat, but students have not typically worn a uniform on campus since the elimination of the 'internal uniform' in the mid-1980s. The students also wear grand uniform in day-use for special events on the campus, such as important conferences, formal events, or important lessons.
École Polytechnique has a combined undergraduate-graduate general engineering teaching curriculum as well as a graduate school. In addition to the faculty coming from its local laboratories, it employs many researchers and professors from other institutions, including laboratories such as CNRS, CEA, and INRIA, as well as École Normale Supérieure and nearby institutions such as the École Supérieure d'Électricité (Supélec), the Institut d'Optique or the Université Paris-Sud, creating a varied and high-level teaching environment.
Contrary to French public universities, the teaching staff at École Polytechnique are not civil servants (fonctionnaires) but contract employees operating under regulations different from those governing university professors. An originality of École Polytechnique is that, in addition to full-time teaching staff (exercice complet), who do research at the École in addition to a full teaching service, there are part-time teaching staff (exercice incomplet) who do not do research on behalf of the École and carry only a partial teaching load. Part-time teaching staff are often recruited from research institutions (CNRS, CEA, INRIA, etc.) operating inside the École campus, in the Paris region, or even sometimes elsewhere in France.
The program awards the prestigious diplôme d'ingénieur degree, and is selective upon entry. The subjects are often including advanced topics beyond one's specialty, and the course is centered around a generalized education for cross fertilization purposes between different fields.
In addition to the 2000 polytechnic engineer students (yearly class size of 500), the institution has about 439 master students and 572 doctoral students, for a total enrollment of 2,900.
The undergraduate admission to Polytechnique in the polytechnicien cycle is made via two ways. The first pathway is through a highly selective examination which requires at least two years of intensive preparation after high school in classes préparatoires. The second pathway is through following undergraduate study at another university. Admission includes a week of written examinations during the spring followed by oral examinations that are handled in batches over the summer.
About 400 French nationals are admitted to the school each year. Foreign students who have followed a classe préparatoire curriculum (generally, French residents or students from former French colonies in Africa) can also enter through the same competitive exam (they are known as "EV1"). Other foreign students can also apply for the polytechnicien cycle through a "second track" ("EV2") following undergraduate studies. In total, there are about 100 foreign students admitted to this cycle each year. Foreign students from other universities in Europe or the USA may also be accepted to study undergraduate courses as an exchange program at polytechnique for a semester or one year, without being part of the polytechnicien cycle.
Four years of study are required for the engineering degree: one year of military service (for French nationals only) and scientific "common curriculum" (eight months and four months, respectively), one year of multidisciplinary studies, and one year of specialized studies ("majors"). With the X2000 reform, a fourth year of studies in an institution other than Polytechnique was introduced.
The curriculum begins with eight months of compulsory military service for students of French nationality. In the past, this service lasted 12 months and was compulsory for all French students; the suppression of the draft in France made this requirement of Polytechnique somewhat anachronistic, and the service was recast as a period of "human and military formation". All the French students spend one month together in La Courtine in a military training center. By the end of this month, they are assigned either to a civilian service or to the Army, Navy, Air Force or Gendarmerie. Students who are assigned to a military service complete a two-month military training in French officer schools such as Saint-Cyr or École Navale. Finally, they are spread out over a wide range of units for a five-month assignment to a French military unit (which can include, but is not limited to, infantry and artillery regiments, naval ships and air bases). While French students stay under military status during their studies at Polytechnique, and participate in a variety of ceremonies and other military events, for example national ceremonies, such as those of Bastille Day or anniversaries of the armistices of the World Wars, they do not undergo military training per se after having completed their service in the first year. They receive at the end of the first year the full dress uniform, which comprises black trousers with a red stripe (a skirt for females), a coat with brass buttons and a belt, a small sword and a cocked hat (officially called a bicorne). Francophone foreign students do a civilian service. Civilian service can, for instance, consist of being an assistant in a high school in a disadvantaged French suburb.
Then, a four-month period begins in which all students take the same five courses: Mathematics, Applied Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science and Economics.
The second year is a year of multidisciplinary studies. The set of disciplines spans most areas of science (mathematics, applied mathematics, mechanics, computing science, biology, physics, chemistry, economics) and some areas in the humanities (foreign languages, general humanities...). Students have to choose twelve courses in at least five different disciplines.
In the third year, students have to choose an in-depth program (programme d'approfondissement), which often focuses on a discipline or sometimes an interdisciplinary subject. This year is ended by a research internship (four to six months). Students also obtain a Master of Engineering, Science, and Technology degree in their third year.
The fourth year is the beginning of more specialized studies: students not entering a Corps de l'État must join either a Master's program, a doctorate program, another ParisTech college or institute such as the École des mines de Paris or ENSAE, or a specialization institute such as Supaéro in Toulouse or ENSPM in Rueil-Malmaison. The reason for this is that the generic education given at Polytechnique is more focused on developing thinking skills than preparing for the transition to an actual engineering occupation, which requires further technical education.
Grades of the second year of the curriculum are used to rank the students. Traditionally, this individual exit ranking had a very high importance for French students in École Polytechnique, and some peculiarities of the organizations of studies and grading can be traced to the need for a fair playing ground between students.
For French nationals, this ranking is actually part of a government recruitment program: a certain number of seats in civil or military Corps, including elite civil servant Corps such as the Corps des Mines or Corps of Bridges, Waters and Forests, are open to the student body each year. These specific civil servant corps, that provide the top managers of public administration, are only opened to École Polytechnique students (and recently very few students from Ecole Normale Supérieure). At some point during their course of study, students specify a list of Corps that they would like to enter in order of preference, and they are enrolled into the highest one according to their ranking. The next stepping stone for these French graduates in Polytechnique, or polytechniciens, on this path is to enter one of four technical civil service training schools: the École des mines, the École des ponts et chaussées, the Télécom ParisTech, the ENSTA Paris or the ENSAE, thus joining one of the civil service bodies known as the grands corps techniques de l'État. Those who pursue this path are known as X-Mines, X-Ponts, X-Télécoms and X-INSEE, respectively, with the X prefix, for École Polytechnique, identifying them as the most particularly top qualified elite members of Corps among all other graduates of the École Polytechnique.
Since the X2000 reform, the importance of the ranking has lessened. Except for the Corps curricula, universities and schools where the Polytechniciens complete their educations now base their acceptance decisions on transcripts of all grades.
Of the 47% of graduates which decide to pursue a professional career in the private sector, the majority (58%) is based in the Greater Paris area, 8% in the rest of France, while 34% is based outside of France. Only 12% of the cohort works under a non-French work contract. École Polytechnique students earn on average €44,000 a year after graduation.
For French nationals who gain admission to École Polytechnique, tuition is free as long as the full curriculum is completed, and additional monetary allowance is received throughout the school years at the level of a reserve officer in training. French students, through the student board (Caisse des élèves or Kès), can redistribute a part of this money to foreign students.
There is no particular financial obligation for students following the curriculum, and then entering an application school or graduate program that École Polytechnique approves of. However, French students who choose to enter a civilian or military corps after École Polytechnique are expected to complete 10 years of public service following their admission to the school (i.e. their 3 years at school count towards their time of service). If a student enters a Corps but does not fulfill those 10 years of public service (e.g. resigns from his or her Corps), the tuition fees are due to the school. Sometimes, when an alumnus quits a Corps to join a private company, that company or the alumni will pay for the tuition fees which are then called the pantoufle (slipper).
The Bachelor is a three-year program fully taught in English which opened in 2017. Either French nationals or international students are eligible. Applications are opened to final year high school students. Selection is made through an online application file and an oral interview. During the first year of the programme, students follow a pluridisciplinary curriculum based on mathematics. On the second year, students have to choose between three double majors (Maths-Physics, Maths-Economics, Maths-Computer Science).
École Polytechnique organizes various Master's programs (which are more specialized training programs as compared to the Polytechnien Engineer program), by itself or in association with other schools and universities (in the Paris region, École Normale Supérieure, Université Paris-Sud, Université Paris VI, École Supérieure d'Électricité (Supélec), other member institutions of ParisTech, Toulouse area and foreign partner universities) on a wide variety of topics. Previous Polytechnicien undergraduates make up about one half of the students. The following Master's programs are offered:
École Polytechnique also takes part in two degrees awarded by ParisTech:
The school also has a doctoral program open to students with a master's degree or equivalent. Doctoral students generally work in the laboratories of the school; they may also work in external institutes or establishments that cannot, or will not, grant doctorates.
École Polytechnique has many research laboratories operating in various scientific fields (physics, mathematics, computer science, economics, chemistry, biology, etc.), most operated in association with national scientific institutions such as CNRS, CEA, Inserm, and Inria.
Students are represented by a board of 16 students known as "la Kès", elected each November. La Kès manages the relationships with teachers, management, alumni and partners. It publishes a weekly students paper, InfoKès.
Sports are a large part of the X life, as it is required for all students (except those in exchange programs) to do 6 hours of sport a week. There are competitive sports and club sports ranging from parachuting and judo to circus or hiking. There are two swimming pools, dojo and fencing rooms, and an equestrian centre on campus. The "Jumping de l'X" is an international jumping competition hosted by the school.
Many École Polytechnique graduates occupy prominent positions in government, industry, and research in France. Among its alumni are three Nobel prizes winners, three presidents of France and several leaders in business and industries. Researchers at the French National Centre for Scientific Research have found that most business executives in France have traditionally been alumni of the École Polytechnique.
In international rankings, the École Polytechnique is ranked 61st worldwide by the QS World University Rankings 2021, and 93rd worldwide by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020. The Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Rankings, places École Polytechnique in 2019 at 301–400th worldwide, and 14–19 in France. In 2020, the ranked the École Polytechnique at 342th in the world and 148th in Europe with its "Engineering Subjects" placed at 451th globally.
In 2020, the ranked the university at 475th globally with its "Engineering Subjects" placed at 451–500th in the world. In 2020, it is ranked 509th in the world by the University Ranking by Academic Performance.
The , which looks at the education of the Fortune 500 CEOs, ranks École Polytechnique seventh in the world in its 2011 ranking (1st being Harvard University), second among French institutions behind HEC Paris.
French grandes écoles, including École Polytechnique, are criticized for being "elitist" and therefore lacking diversity within its students' cohorts. In particular, the INSEE has found that children of parents who work in the national education or are directors are more likely to join the écoles than children of families with lower incomes. A more recent report found that children of white-collar workers are 50 times more likely to be at Ecole polytechnique than children of blue-collar workers.