École Polytechnique

École Polytechnique
Motto Pour la Patrie, les Sciences et la Gloire
Motto in English
For the Homeland, Science and Glory
Type Grande école
Established 1794
President Jacques Biot
General Director General Engineer Yves Demay
Students 2,888[1]
Postgraduates 500 polytechnic engineers,
439 masters[1]
Location Palaiseau, France
48°42′47″N 2°12′32″E / 48.713°N 2.209°E / 48.713; 2.209Coordinates: 48°42′47″N 2°12′32″E / 48.713°N 2.209°E / 48.713; 2.209
Colors      Red
Nickname L'X
Affiliations ParisTech, Université Paris-Saclay, CGE, CDEFI
Website polytechnique.edu

École Polytechnique (also known by the nickname "X") is a French public institution of higher education and research in Palaiseau near Paris.

Polytechnique was established in 1794 by the mathematician Gaspard Monge during the French Revolution,[2] and became a military academy under Napoleon I in 1804. Today, the institution still runs under the supervision of the French ministry of Defence. Initially located in the Latin Quarter of central Paris, the establishment main buildings was moved in 1976 to Palaiseau on the Saclay Plateau, southwest of Paris.[3]

Polytechnique has engaged in partnerships to improve its international renown. It is thus a founding member of ParisTech, a grouping of leading Paris-area engineering colleges established in 2007. In 2014 it became a founding member of the confederal "University of Paris in Saclay". Among its alumni are three Nobel prize winners,[4] one Fields Medalist,[5] three Presidents of France[6] and many CEOs of French and international companies. It is currently ranked as world's third-best small university by Times Higher Education's World University Rankings.[7]

In the 19th century, its specific model has inspired the foundation of many similar schools throughout the world, also named "Polytechnic" such as Caltech, the École Polytechnique de Montréal or the Swiss École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and ETH Zurich.


The cadets of Polytechnique rushed to the defence of Paris against the foreign armies in 1814. A statue set in the honour courtyard of the school commemorates this deed. A copy was installed in West Point.

Polytechnique has more than 200 years of tradition:[3]


Historical entrance of the École Polytechnique Paris' campus at the junction of the rue de la Montagne Saint-Genevieve and rue Descartes
École Polytechnique Saclay's campus map

Early locations

In 1794, Polytechnique was initially hosted in the Palais Bourbon. One year later, it moved to Hôtel de Lassay, an hôtel particulier in the 7th arrondissement of Paris.

Montagne Saint-Geneviève (1805-1976)

Napoleon moved Polytechnique to the Quartier Latin in 1805 when he set the school under a military administration. The Paris' campus takes place near the Panthéon, in Descartes Street, 5. It is nicknamed "Carva" by the students.

Palaiseau (from 1976)

At 15 km from Paris, the campus of the École Polytechnique is a privileged setting. It offers about 164 ha (including 120 ha of green space) teaching facilities, student housing, food services and hospitality and an exceptional range of sports facilities dedicated to the 4,600 people who live on a daily basis campus. The nearest regional train (RER) station is Lozère (RER line B, in zone 4). A number of buses also connects the Ecole Polytechnique with the larger RER and TGV station Massy-Palaiseau.[8] The campus is close to other great scientific institutions in Saclay (CEA Center), Orsay (Université Paris-Sud) and Gif (IHES and some CNRS labs). The campus will be at the heart of the Engineering and Innovation sector of the confederal "University of Paris in Saclay". Major works are in progress to expand it and connect it to automatic metro line direct to Paris.

Organization and administration

Specific status

Polytechnique flag guard on Bastille Day Military Parade 2010

Polytechnique is a higher education establishment[9] running under the supervision of the French ministry of Defence, through the General Directorate for Armament[10] (administratively speaking, it is a national public establishment of an administrative character). It has always had a double status, being both a engineering school that formed civilian engineers and scientists (the quasi totality of French higher administration in technical ministries is issued from Polytechnique, similarly to the graduates of Ecole Nationale d'Administration for non-technical ministries) but also officers for the three armies (Army, Navy and Air Force). These two components being part of the same project of providing french state with a scientific and technical elite that could lead the country in a very 19th century like "positivist" vision of state. These two components, formation of civil servants and officers, have weakened after 1950, and nowadays only 10 to 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). However, the polytechniciens are still seen as "the officers of the economic war", which justifies their military status. The school is the first in the order of precedence of all civil and military schools in France, and takes the first rank of the infantry parade of the Bastille Day, under the traditional uniform dating from 19th century.

Though no longer a military academy, 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.[11] Both male and female French undergraduate polytechniciens are regular officers[12] and have to go through a period of military training before the start of studies.[13][14]

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, similarly to the use of academic dress in Cambridge or Oxford Universities.

Activities and teaching staff

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 other CNRS, INRIA and CEA laboratories as well as the 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.[15]

Contrary to French public universities, the teaching staff at Polytechnique are not civil servants (fonctionnaires)[16] but contract employees operating under regulations different from those governing university professors. An originality of 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 partial-time teaching staff (exercice incomplet) who do not do research on behalf of the École and carry only a partial teaching load.[17] Part-time teaching staff are often recruited from research institutions (CNRS, CEA, INRIA...) operating inside the École campus, in the Paris region, or even sometimes elsewhere in France.

Academic profile

Benoît Mandelbrot during his speech at the ceremony when he was made an officer of the Legion of Honour on 11 September 2006, at the École polytechnique

The polytechnicien studies

The mission of the École Polytechnique is to train students capable of devising and achieving complex and innovative projects at the highest level possible, thanks to a strong pluriscientific culture. Our mission is also to train young men and women in leadership skills so that they can become tomorrow's outstanding scientists, researchers, managers and public officials.[18]

The Polytechnicien program is broader than typical French university studies, often including topics beyond one's specialty. This focus on breadth rather than depth has been hotly debated over the years, but it nevertheless forms a characteristic of the Polytechnicien program. It is particularly useful for cross fertilization purposes between different fields, as graduates from Polytechnique most often have abilities in several disciplines; for example, they must follow at least six different topics during their second year. Humanities and sports are also mandatory parts of the curriculum, adding to the differences with most French university programs.

In addition to the 2000 polytechnic engineer students (yearly class size of 500), the institution welcomes about 439 master students and 572 doctoral students, for a total enrollment of 2,900.[1]


Foreign students of the École.

The undergraduate admission to Polytechnique in the polytechnicien cycle is made through a selective entrance examination, and requires at least two years of preparation after high school in classes préparatoires. Admission includes a week of written examinations during the spring followed by oral examinations that are handled in batches (séries) over the summer.[19]

About 400 French students are admitted each year.[20] 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"). Foreign students can also apply through a "second track" ("EV2") following undergraduate studies. In total, there are about 100 foreign students each year.[21] Some foreign students come for a single year from other institutions in Europe and the United States.[22]


Four years of study are required for the engineering degree:[23] one year of military service (for French nationals only) and scientific "common trunk" (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 another institution than Polytechnique, was introduced.

Students wearing the uniform of Polytechnique.
First year

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).[24] 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.[24] 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.

Second year

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.

Third year

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).

Fourth 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. Increasingly, students chose to spend their fourth year studying in a foreign university. About a quarter of 3rd year students chose this path in 2008. American universities are a favourite, but the École Polytechnique has agreements with universities in a large set of countries.

Class rank and career path

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 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, 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 Polytechnique, identifying them as particularly qualified elite members of Corps among all graduates of 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.

Tuition and financial obligations

For French nationals, tuition is free as long as the full curriculum is completed, and a salary 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), redistribute some of their salary to foreign students, most of whom also benefit from grants.

There is no particular financial obligation for students following the curriculum, and then entering an application school or graduate program that Polytechnique approves of. However, French students who choose to enter a civilian or military corps after 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 will pay for the tuition fees which are then called the pantoufle (slipper).

The Bachelor programme

The Bachelor is a three-year program fully taught in english opening 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.[25] During the first year of the programme, students will follow a pluridisciplinary curriculum based on mathematics. On the second year, students will have to choose between three double majors (Maths-Physics, Maths-Economics, Maths-Computer Science).

The master's programme

Ecole Polytechnique organizes various Master's programmes, 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 programmes are offered:

Polytechnique also takes part in two degrees awarded by ParisTech:

About 50% of highly qualified Master's students come from abroad. Most master courses are taught in English.

Aerial view of the École polytechnique campus.

The doctoral program

The school also has a doctoral program open to students with a master's degree or equivalent.[26] 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.

About 35% of doctoral students come from abroad.

Research centers

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, or also INRIA.


Student life

Students are represented by a board of 15 students otherwise called "Kes", elected in December by promoting each newly arrived on campus. Kes manages the relationships with teachers, management, alumni and partners ParisTech. It publishes the weekly students, Infokes and animates the life of promotions during the year. Students benefit from a great freedom of initiative to initiate cultural, artistic, social or sporting associations over a hundred students, called "binets."

Campus life is very rich and punctuated and cultural events, performances, lectures, exhibitions and events of all kinds. These student demonstrations are usually held in the evening and are open to the public. The fact that all students (even foreign students) receive a mensual salary makes the student life particularly rich, since everyone can easily find funds to create an event. The AMIX, Association of Master's students of the École Polytechnique. X'Doc brings together students from the graduate school of the École Polytechnique.[27]

An annual gala is organized since the 19th century in Paris Opera in april, the "Bal de l'X" where students go in 19th century uniforms and dresses. It is one of the major events of Paris social life and is regularly visited by high level officials such as Defense minister, CEOs or the french President, who traditionally offers the annual first prize of the Tombola.


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 even an equestrian center on campus. The "Jumping de l'X" is an international jumping competition hosted by the school.

Henri Becquerel (X1872), Nobel Prize in Physics 1903.
André Citroën (X1898), founder of Citroën.

Notable alumni and academics

Many 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.[28]

International rankings

University rankings
Ranking World Europe National

QS[29] 40 13 2
THE[30] =101 44 2
ARWU[31] 72 24 3

In international rankings, Polytechnique is often placed among the best universities of the world. The Academic Ranking of World Universities, also known as the Shanghai Rankings, places Polytechnique in 2010 at 201–300 worldwide, and 8–13 in France.

In 2015 Times Higher Education Small Universities Rankings, Ecole polytechnique is ranked 3rd, after Caltech and Ecole Normale Supérieure of Paris.[32]

The THE-QS World University Rankings and its successor QS World University Rankings[33] (From 2010 two separate rankings are produced by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the QS World University Rankings) have placed Polytechnique in 36th position in the 2011 rankings, second among French institutions, behind École Normale Supérieure.

Year Rank (Change)
200637 (Decrease 27)
200728 (Increase 9)
200834 (Decrease 6)
200936 (Decrease 2)
201036 (Steady 0)

The Polytechnique was also ranked in the 39th position in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings in 2011.[34]

The Mines ParisTech : Professional Ranking World Universities, which looks at the education of the Fortune 500 CEOs, ranks Polytechnique 7th in the world in its 2011 ranking (1st being Harvard University), second among French institutions behind HEC Paris.[35]

Year Rank (Change)
20074 (Steady 0)
200815 (Decrease 11)
200914 (Increase 1)
201012 (Increase 2)
20117 (Increase 5)

Polytechnique is known for its extremely competitive entrance exam.[36] It is one of the most selective French engineering schools,.[37]

Notes and references

  1. 1 2 3 4 "About École Polytechnique". École Polytechnique.
  2. Michel Nusimovici, Les écoles de l'an III, 2010.
  3. 1 2 "École Polytechnique – History and heritage". École Polytechnique. Retrieved 2 November 2013.
  4. Becquerel, Allais and Tirole.
  5. Jean-Christophe Yoccoz (1994) ; Yoccoz was not a student at Polytechnique because he chose to be educated at École Normale Supérieure (1975-1979), but he completed his Ph.D. under Michael Herman in 1985 in the Centre de mathématiques Laurent Schwartz of École Polytechnique, a research centre which had been created by another Field medalist and a professor at Polytechnique : Laurent Schwartz.
  6. Sadi Carnot (who was the nephew of Carnot the physicist and the grandson of Carnot the École founder), Lebrun and Giscard.
  7. École Polytechnique – Un cadre unique. Polytechnique.edu. Retrieved on 16 June 2014.
  8. Code de l'éducation, L675-1
  9. Arrêté du 12 septembre 2005 relatif à l'exercice de la tutelle du ministre de la défense sur divers organismes publics confiés à la délégation générale pour l'armement, article 1
  10. Décret n°96-1124 du 20 décembre 1996 relatif à l'organisation et au régime administratif et financier de l'École polytechnique
  11. Décret n° 2008-960 du 12 septembre 2008 fixant certaines dispositions d'ordre statutaire applicables aux élèves français de l'École polytechnique
  12. First Period : General Education, web site
  13. Arrêté du 14 août 2001 relatif à la formation militaire et à la formation à l'exercice des responsabilités des élèves français de l'École polytechnique prévues à l'article 2 du décret n° 2000-900 du 14 septembre 2000 fixant certaines dispositions d'ordre statutaire applicables aux élèves français de l'École polytechnique
  14. Partners, official web site
  15. Décret 87-16 du 14 janvier 1987: by exception to the general rule that staff in public establishments of an administrative character are civil servants, the teaching staff of Polytechnique is hired on contracts.
  16. Décret n°2000-497 du 5 juin 2000 fixant les dispositions applicables aux personnels enseignants de l'École polytechnique
  17. “Welcome”, the Polytechnique web site
  18. The French 'Grandes Écoles', École Poytechnique web site
  19. Until 1988, the number of newly admitted French students was around 300 on a yearly basis ; and until 1952, it was between 200 and 250.
  20. "An International Institute". Ecole Polytechnique. Retrieved 2 November 2013.
  21. International Exchange Program
  22. Ingénieur Polytechnicien Program, an English-language page from the school's website, describing the engineering degree.
  23. 1 2 ""Ingenieur Polytechnicien"" (PDF). (5.79 MB) p. 74
  24. https://portail.polytechnique.edu/bachelor/en/admissions/interview
  25. Admission École Polytechnique web site
  26. École Polytechnique – Vie associative. Polytechnique.edu. Retrieved on 16 June 2014.
  27. Joly, Hervé (2012). "Les dirigeants des grandes entreprises industrielles françaises au 20e siècle". Vingtième Siècle. Revue d'histoire. 2 (114): 16–32. doi:10.3917/vin.114.0016. Retrieved June 20, 2016 via Cairn.info. (registration required (help)).
  28. "QS World University Rankings 2015/2016". QS official website. 10 September 2015. Retrieved 2015-09-15.
  29. "Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-2016". Times Higher Education. Retrieved 2014-10-04.
  30. "Academic Rankings of World Universities". Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Retrieved 2015-06-05.
  31. The world’s best small universities 2016, January 25, 2016
  32. QS World University Rankings – 2011. Top Universities (19 December 2012). Retrieved on 16 June 2014.
  33. World University Rankings 2010–2011. Times Higher Education. Retrieved on 16 June 2014.
  34. Archived 18 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  35. Clark, Burton R. (1993). The Research foundations of graduate education: Germany, Britain, France, United States, Japan. University of California Press. p. 162. ISBN 978-0-520-07997-7.
  36. The École Polytechnique has the smallest resignation rate among French Grandes Écoles. Statistics of the entrance exam


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