Nightmarish Bureaucracy

Beware of Bureaucrats! (street art found in Ottawa)

Beware of Bureaucrats! (street art found in Ottawa)

I have never been lucky with bureaucracy in France. In Fact, it’s almost a joke among my friends: my full name doesn’t fit on most applications, and I don’t fit in most boxes anyway. Somehow, I always ended up being the exception.

Moving to Canada turned my luck around. I find the Canadian government quite efficient and accommodating and so far, I haven’t had any major problem.

Until I decided to take some classes at university.

Last year, I showed up at the university to register for the summer session and everything went fine… until the woman realized I was French. “You need to take an English proficiency test“, she said. “Sure, where can I do that?“. She looked up at me, probably surprised by my eagerness: “the TOEFL will do“.

I came back home and registered to take the TOEFL test. It was early June and the closest test date was late August. I had realized, by then, that I wouldn’t be able to attend summer classes, but I didn’t mind too much. I spent the summer practicing for the TOEFL instead.

But two days before the test date, I received an email from TOEFL saying my test had been rescheduled… to October. Bye bye Fall session. I went back to the university and begged: “please, let me attend classes, and if I don’t pass the test in October, just kick me out!“. But the university was inflexible. I missed the Fall session.

I studied for the TOEFL again. It was rescheduled. Again. I was finally able to take the exam in December 2008, a few days before our Latina America trip. I passed quite easily: 115/ 120. Gee, thanks, I can speak English.

In April this year, upon coming back from the trip, I went to the university again, my TOEFL scores in hand. “Can I register now?“. “Sure, but in which program? Do you have the prerequisites?

I explained I had a three years degree from a French university. That I had been working as a teacher for the past four years. That I had taken a few additional classes in linguistic and in history here and there, but hadn’t been able to complete my French Master degree because I had moved to Canada in between.

Make a formal application and we will see if we can give you equivalences… otherwise, you will have to start from the scratch“.


Not willing to start in undergrad year 1 again, I gathered all the paperworks. It wasn’t easy: in France, universities are “free” but we have no services. My transcripts are just print outs with a half-erased stamps from the registrar office. I had to provide all the classes’ descriptions — this is where I realized that my degree didn’t exist anymore, thanks to last year’s reform in France. I had to prepare a resume because I’m considered as a “mature student” (at 26 years old!) and show my motivation to take classes.

I printed and copied until both machines died and applied.

I’m sure most North American are familiar with the process, but for a European, it is quite daunting. It is necessary to apply online, and then to bring all the documents at the university, where they are certified. Then, you just wait and see…because you may not be accepted.

So I sat and waited. Until the day when I logged on to the intranet to see my application status and saw it was “incomplete“. I was missing… the results of my TOEFL test. See, normally, TOEFL send the results to four university of the applicant’s choice. I had listed the two universities in Ottawa, so the results must have been there. Quod erat demonstrandum.

I went to the university with my own TOEFL report in case of. The copy of the report wasn’t accepted, but my original was taken.

I sat and waited some more.

A week later, my application was still incomplete. I went back to the university: “we don’t accept applicants’ reports, score reports must be mailed by TOEFL“. “But I already requested a report for you!“, I pleaded. “We don’t accept applicants reports…“. Gotcha. Since the university is bilingual, I asked if I could register in French instead. “You have to prove you speak French“. “But… I’m French“, I stated, unsure of whether is was a joke or not. “You have to prove you speak French anyway“. “I’m French“, I repeated, this time a bit louder. “How can I not speak French?“. “You have to prove you speak French“.

I was so frustrated I almost bought every chocolate I could find on the way home. I asked again TOEFL to send the results to the university. I paid again, of course. Apparently, it would take about 6-8 weeks.

I went back to the university with the printout of my test reorder. “See, I reorder the scores. Given that you already have the original of my test results, could you please make a decision on my application?“. “When we will receive the official scores“.

I argued that I was due to start the summer session soon, and that I was not going to take summer classes if my application for September was refused, that it was a waste of time. “Your fault, you should have applied earlier“.

As a Canadian, I’m way too polite, so I kept my mouth shut. But the French in me was seething with anger. I need to have some kind of Canadian education to improve my chances to get another job. I am willing to pay to go to university. I made it through immigration (and almost citizenship). I speak both official languages. And yet, I’m facing a wall of bureaucracy.

I really, really hope I eventually get accepted and get credits for my degrees in French.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Hey Zhu,

    Congrats on your TOEFL grades: very good – we hadn’t noticed you knew how to speak English LOL ;)!
    I studied in an University that lectured classes in English (in Lisbon), and when I expressed the wish to take a summer course at a university in London, I also had to take an English proficiency test…oh well…

    Girl, Europe has reformed its entire educational system in 2006…now we are all under the Bologna Treaty (3 years undergraduate, 2 years Masters)…most people had to start from scratch, go figure.

    Yeah, on this side of the world, all we need to do is to register, pay and that is it. In North America they can decline your application: wow.

    What? But you are French…so why do you have to proof you are French?
    Anyway, TOEFL is very incompetent in Canada, isn’t it? I am shocked!

    “I was so frustrated I almost bought every chocolate I could find on the way home.” – LOL LOL LOL oh, you are one of those…. lol 😉

    ““Your fault, you should have applied earlier“.” – oh my God!!! You did apply earlier…but TOEFL kept re-scheduling it *nodding*! Incompetence!

    Girl, I wish you all the luck in the world: do not quit!!! Ok? 🙂
    I am rooting for you!


  2. @Seb – No no, I still can’t take classes! But after ranting, I felt better already. I see stars and bears 😉

    @Spyder -Isn’t it!

    @Linguist-in-Waiting – I’m sure you can feel my frustration, as a student yourself! As of today, my situation is still stuck… but I’m keeping fingers crossed. I’m sure the teachers are fine, this is just plain old stupid bureaucracy!

    @Max Coutinho – That is so stupid — I mean, you obviously speak English fluently, studied the language officially at university, and still had to take the test??? Wow, TOEFL is a big business…

    Yes, the famous university reform. Some loved it, some hated it… I can’t say it went smoothly at my former university, because it was a “grande école” (like sciences-po) and had its own weird system. Maybe on the long run…

  3. Hey Zhu,

    First, I just realised I made a mistake in my comment: I asked why you need to prove you are French; when I wanted to ask why you need to prove you SPEAK French *nodding*…I am getting old LOL ;)…

    You are right: TOEFL is a huge business! But it is not alone, now you have also the British Council’s IELTS (however it is more beneficial than TOEFL because with this certificate you can present it when applying for a job [to prove your proficiency in English]).

    Here in Portugal, many hated it too (but I personally, loved it because the old system was a complete waste of time…with this one you can get a part-time job while studying at the same time, it has less subjects [we used to have 16 subjects per year – it was crazy] and it is more specific).

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  5. I remember when, eager to re-enter education in France, I went to the local university to see what was on offer. They turned up their nose at my U.K. degree, wanted me to start the whole mess over again starting from year one general studies and kindly allowed me to sit in on a lecture which was, from a U.K. perpective, a farce! What they didn’t do was to see if I spoke, wrote and read French.

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