“We totally understand why you like your fiches de civilisation so much: they are incredibly reassuring, and they give you a definite sense that you are learning. But they are no substitute for mastering the knowledge of current affairs that you actually need for the concours.”
Do you keep fiches on subjects of civilisation for the épreuve d’anglais? Chances are they are very detailed and comprehensive, containing everything you need to know about the founding of America and its Constitution, the British parliamentary system and the role of the British monarchy.
But how much of all this do you actually need to know for the concours? Very little, we suggest!
How, for example, would you be able to use any of that information in a commentary on a text dealing with, say, mental-health issues in the armed forces, or with a novel way of diagnosing dementia, with the death of New York bookshops, or with the car industry’s response to the difficulties of the current market (all texts used by HEC in 2019)? Similarly, what help will a fiche on the American Constitution be when you are given a text on the debate around lengthening school summer holidays, or on banning work emails at the weekend (both used by EDHEC in 2019)? Historical facts might be of use in a completely open essay that said, “Discuss the pros and cons of the American constitution”. But no concours uses such questions.
As you can see from this sample of typical [N.B.] oral exam sujets, the texts that the examiners choose do not require you to know anything about the American constitution or the British monarchy; in fact they don’t allow you to talk about those things even if you know about them. In recent years, the examiners have clearly chosen texts intended to frustrate students’ attempts to recite a few facts about the monarchy no matter what text they are given. With such texts as those mentioned above (typical not just in HEC and EDHEC but in the vast majority of the major concours), if you try at all costs to force the knowledge from your fiches into a commentary, it will simply appear artificial and unnatural (to say nothing of being entirely hors sujet), leading to the examiners’ frequent complaint of placage prépa or placage de cours, by which, of course, they mean placage de fiches de civilisation!
Now, this does not mean that you do not need any understanding of British and American institutions; you obviously need a certain amount of background knowledge in order to be able to talk intelligently on a whole variety of subjects. But, at best, historical and cultural facts will only really help you avoid making embarrassing gaffes, such as saying that Scotland has a king, or that Barack Obama is a Republican (both things candidates have said during oral exams in recent years). Above all, you must not fall into the trap of believing that this background knowledge is all you need to know, or of thinking that a commentary can be built on names and
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