The commentary – two fatal mistakes you must not make, part 1

One of the exercises in the épreuves d’anglais that students find most difficult is the commentary in the épreuve orale of the concours – whether for HEC, Polytechnique, ENS, Centrale, Mines, Agro-Véto/BCPST, or any other other grande école. There seem to be so many misconceptions about what is expected here, but in fact the examiners give you very precise information in their annual rapports about what they require. The purpose of this blog (and the accompanying second part) is to introduce you to these requirements and to give you a méthode which will help you put them into practice.

When students first start their courses with us, their commentaries typically suffer from two key problems:

  1. They demonstrate no knowledge of the key debates in Anglophone current affairs.

  2. They make no comment on the text itself, but speak about a vaguely related theme.

It’s no coincidence that these two errors are the same ones that the examiners complain most often about – and this confirms that many students either have not been taught or have not mastered the required method even at the end of two years of prépa. The result, as the examiners point out, is that the commentary is a catalogue of clichés, banalities, platitudes, truisms and description. You might think this isn’t important, but it is: firstly because the épreuves de langues are, after all, about much more than mere language, but also because when a commentary only contains banalities and descriptions, the language will also be very basic (present simple, “have to”, “can”), as we’ve said elsewhere; in other words, form suffers when the content is weak. In the commentary, form is content, content is form:

On ne saurait trop insister sur l’importance d’enrichir le vocabulaire, par la lecture, l’écoute et le visionnement de documents authentiques. Ce travail linguistique rejaillira également sur la qualité du commentaire (Centrale-Supélec 2019).

Rather than being a list of descriptions and truisms, then, a commentary should analyse, assess, engage, and above all commit to a line of argument. In our experience, this is a major surprise to most students, so let’s have a look at the evidence for what we’re telling you.

What the examiners say

Regarding the first error above – that of not showing (or not having) any knowledge of Anglophone current affairs – the examiners are clear: no rapport de jury has ever said “sit in class in prépa for two years and that will be enough”. Rather, they all stress the need to read the news regularly:

Le jury invite les futurs candidats à suivre l’actualité tout au long de l’année, en lisant la presse et en écoutant la radio ou des podcasts. Les documents proposés s’inscrivent dans cette actualité et en être informé en facilite grandement la compréhension et l’analyse (Centrale-Supélec 2019).

Important: if you are aiming for a business school, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the advice in this quotation and the previous one (both taken from a rapport for an école d’ingénieurs) does not apply to you: every rapport de jury makes the same point: we could have provided a long list of quotations here but that would have taken up a lot of space; so we’ve chosen these ones because they convey the message most succinctly; the same is true for all the quotations in this blog.

Remember that your épreuve orale will be 15-20 minutes long, depending on your filière, and most of the talking in that time will be done by you. So if you only know a couple of statistics about Brexit or can only remember a couple of platitudes from seconde about the death penalty, your commentary will be far too short, and short commentaries are something which all examiners say are “lourdement sanctionné”. In order to fill the time, you will be forced to invent things on the spot (we see this all the time), and that is a recipe for disaster for two reasons: first because your content will be banal, and second because your language will contain more errors and be less sophisticated. The end result is a commentary which, to the examiners, sounds like unconnected fragments from half-remembered lessons, or worse, a “one-size-fits-all” pre-prepared speech, which the student tries to caser à tout prix:

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