This paper analyses the impact of family background, gender and cohort on educational attainment in France and Germany, relying on a theoretical model imbedded in the human capital theory. In a second step, the educational process is decomposed into school and post-school achievement. The same conceptual framework applies at both stages, but a correlation is permitted between them. Empirically, this boils down to estimating a multivariate ordered probit model. The results show that in spite of huge differences in the distribution of education in France and Germany, these countries prove surprisingly similar with respect to the impact of family background and cohorts. However, there are significant dissimilarities depending on the stage observed in the educational career, in particular with respect to gender differences.