Much like British A-Levels or American high school diplomas, the baccalauréat allows French students to go on to tertiary education or to obtain a professional qualification that will enable them to get a job in a particular field upon completion of high school. However, it's legally an academic degree, which means the examination must be headed by a university professor. The students in lycée could choose not to sit for the baccalauréat at the end of the lycée, as it is in law more an exam for entrance into university than a lycée completion exam.
The word bac is also used to refer to one of the end-of-year exams that students must pass in order to get their baccalauréat diploma: le bac de philo, for example, is the philosophy exam (which all students must take, regardless of their field of study).
There are three main types of baccalauréat degrees:
- the baccalauréat général (general baccalaureate);
- the baccalauréat professionnel (professional baccalaureate);
- the baccalauréat technologique (technological baccalaureate).
Each of these categories encompasses several somewhat specialized curricula. For entrance to regular universities, however, there are no real restrictions as to the type of baccalauréat that was achieved (with a few exceptions of course). Furthermore, it is also possible to enter a university without the bac by taking a special exam, the diploma for entrance to higher education.
Though most students take the bac at the end of secondary school, it is also possible to enter as a candidat libre (literally, "free candidate") without affiliation to a school. Students who did not take the bac upon completion of secondary school and would like to attend university, or feel that the bac would help them accomplish professional aspirations may exercise this option. The exam is no different from the one administered to secondary-school students.