In terms of number of students, École Polytechnique (also known as l’X) has to admit its small size.
With about 2,000 students on campus, École Polytechnique has 20 times fewer students than my home university ( Southeast University in China). The small size means there is a limited quota of places, and the university is highly selective - which explains the difficulty in gaining admittance.
The calibre of students is ensured by the rigorous selection tests, and the highly qualified faculty creates excellence. As students, we benefit from a high teacher-student ratio. The teachers and staff are very kind, and it is always possible to put forward your own needs. Every lecture is followed by small exercise classes, which really helps us to master the various scientific concepts. This is not easily feasible in big universities.
Most of the students have a solid foundation of mathematics, and almost every course is based on maths. You may think that the importance given to theory would restrain our development of practical skills, especially for engineering students However, it actually helps us adapt rapidly to many subjects. That’s one of the reasons why students who graduate from École Polytechnique can work in many various fields.
In my home university, I used to study engineering communications and I am now studying applied mathematics and economy. Switching specialties is very common in France.
Small also doesn’t mean a lack of diversity. In fact, École Polytechnique has just been ranked 16th most international university in the world by Times Higher Education. As international students, we can get extra care to help us integrate.
For example, during our first year we learnt French in the south of France for four months and then we spent one week in Normandy with other French mates, where we experienced various military activities, as École Polytechnique - a former military academy - is under the supervision of France's Ministry of Defence. If I had not been studying at l’X, I would have never imagined it was possible to participate in the 14 July Military Parade at the Champs-Elysées, which I did last year.
More from students at small universities
Another feature is the importance of sport. We can choose between 16 different sports and we get open access to an incredible amount of sports infrastructure and facilities. I chose fencing as my major sport, which I never practised in China. With some friends, we had to compete and we organised several fencing competitions, including the international fencing challenge X-Systra.
In this small university, what we get is more educational resources per capita, more opportunities, more diversity and higher cohesion. It may be small but it is really enriching.
Jianfei Zhang is a Chinese student who currently studies at École Polytechnique.