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California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) Should You Do It?

If you’re a high school student considering a future in the arts, summer programs like the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) can be a crucial stepping stone. In today’s blog post, we’ll deep dive into why participating in such pre-college programs not only allows you to refine your artistic skills but also enhances your college applications. Programs like this provide a platform to explore and develop your creative talents in a supportive and immersive environment.

What is CSSSA?

CSSSA is an intensive, residential four-week summer arts program held at the California Institute of the Arts, designed for high school students passionate about the arts. The program offers specialized courses in seven different artistic disciplines: Animation, Creative Writing, Dance, Film, Music, Theater, and Visual Arts. Each course provides a core learning experience and is supplemented by visiting accomplished professionals in the field as well as practical activities and projects, ensuring holistic exposure to your chosen field. The program’s aim is to nurture talent and creativity, providing you the tools and knowledge needed to push your artistic boundaries.

Is it prestigious?

CSSSA is one of the most exclusive arts schools in the country that has been at the forefront of arts education since 1987. Admission to CSSSA is extremely competitive - only twenty to eighty students are admitted to each course of the program per year. This ensures that only the most dedicated and talented students are selected, and simply mentioning attendance of the program on your resume adds an enormous amount of prestige. CSSSA alumni often go on to illustrious careers in their respective artistic fields, and the alumni community boasts such names as Adrian Molina of Pixar, Zac Efron of High School Musical, Katharine McPhee, Phoebe Bridgers, and many more. The networking aspect is particularly beneficial, as it will give you an opportunity to connect with industry professionals and like-minded peers, building relationships that are particularly critical for a career in the arts.

How is CSSSA structured?

The CSSSA summer session begins on July 6, 2024 and ends on August 2, 2024. The courses on offer are the following:

  • Animation: In this course, you will engage in an intensive curriculum from Monday to Saturday, exploring various animation techniques through workshops in storyboarding, life drawing, and digital animation, among others. You'll learn from leading artists in the field, study the history of animation, and gain inspiration from guest artists like Alex Hirsch and Pendleton Ward, both alumni who went on to create acclaimed shows for Disney and Cartoon Network. The program includes field trips to places like the Los Angeles Zoo and various local museums and animation studios, enhancing your experience and exposure. Over the summer, you will complete several animation projects, acquiring a robust set of skills to express your creativity through animation.

  • Creative Writing: Here you will receive individualized lessons in poetry, fiction and scriptwriting. You will be subdivided into small groups and work with award-winning faculty, and also interact with visiting writers, journalists, poets and literary agents.  There will even be weekly open readings of your work, and you will have the exciting opportunity to publish your anthology at the end of the program.

  • Dance: At the CSSSA dance program, you will immerse yourself in a diverse array of dance styles including Chinese, Flamenco, Bollywood, and African dance through master classes and performances by distinguished guest artists. The curriculum also integrates essential knowledge on dance history, anatomy, and injury prevention, paired with practical field trips to Los Angeles dance events, culminating in a showcase of student-developed routines. Weekly classes cover ballet, emphasizing proper alignment and technique to prevent harmful habits, and modern and contemporary styles, where you will learn and perform original choreography. Additionally, improvisation classes enhance your spontaneous creative expression, while composition classes focus on choreographic skills and personal style development. You'll also attend Jazz, Hip-Hop, and Funk classes, led by prominent dancers and choreographers. The program includes Pilates-based dance conditioning to build core strength and sessions on injury prevention and nutrition to support a healthy, sustainable dance career. Each summer, the program features lectures and performances from world-renowned guest artists and companies, such as Alonzo King and LINES Ballet, providing a unique opportunity to gain insight and inspiration from leading dance professionals.

  • Film: In this course, you will immerse yourself in an extensive film production program, learning from pre-cinema history to modern experimental filmmaking. The curriculum is designed to mimic a collegiate BFA course and is tailored for self-starters keen on challenging the boundaries of traditional filmmaking and developing their artistic visions. You will take part in classes covering Narrative Filmmaking, Documentary Filmmaking, and Cinema Theory, creating projects that incorporate your learning and personal experiences. Fridays and Saturdays are dedicated to production classes, touching on aspects such as post-production sound design and art direction. The program features regular evening screenings and a weekly outdoor showcase, allowing you to present your work to the CSSSA community. The program also includes field trips to locations like Paramount Pictures Studios and various prop houses, providing even more exposure to the film industry.

  • Music: The music program at CSSSA is designed to reflect a multicultural society and offers a rich curriculum that includes music theory, history, and diverse genres such as African Drumming and Dance, and Indonesian Gamelan. You will receive applied instruction tailored to your specific instrumental or vocal areas, and participate in studio classes with peers in similar specialties. The program also features ensemble placements ranging from jazz and rock bands to string quartets, depending on faculty evaluations. Additionally, the program includes artist forums where professional musicians and industry leaders such as Benny Maupin and Wayne Kramer share their experiences and engage in direct dialogue with students. These sessions, along with numerous performance opportunities in venues at the California Institute of the Arts, provide a solid learning experience. This comprehensive nurtures technical skills and encourages interdisciplinary collaborations, preparing you effectively for both academic and professional pursuits in music.

  • Theater: The Theater Program is an intensive, professional acting training designed for students serious about exploring acting and theater arts. It emphasizes physical actor training through rigorous daily classes in disciplines like Tai Chi Ch'uan, movement, physical comedy, stage combat, and voice, alongside a curriculum that extends from Monday to Saturday over a four-week session. There is a strong focus on process over product, with no final performance, instead hosting a weekly assembly titled Bits & Pieces where work is shared, critiqued, and refined within the CSSSA community. This setting fosters a collaborative learning environment that also includes weekly Connections seminars to discuss performances and class experiences. Your exposure to the industry is magnified through seminars and interactions with visiting professionals, including actors, casting agents, and theater companies.

  • Visual Arts: The virtual arts course is structured to challenge you with a curriculum that includes critical thinking, problem-solving, and the exploration of historical and contemporary art practices. Through studio classes tailored to your expressed interests like ceramics, digital media, acrylics, photography, printmaking, and sculpture, you will learn how to express yourself through multiple kinds of media. Beyond this, all participants have to engage in mandatory courses in figure drawing, design, and a special seminar course titled "Art and Culture," which includes lectures and guest artist presentations. The program also offers special workshops, performances, and field trips to local museums and galleries to provide broader exposure and practical experience. With the studios remaining open in the evenings, you will have ample opportunity to work on your class projects and your personal art pieces, providing a deeply engaging and creative environment to facilitate your skill building. 

Who is eligible to apply?

CSSSA’s courses are open to students currently in grades 9 through 12, including those entering grades 9-12 in the upcoming fall or who have just graduated high school. However, each course has its own unique set of criteria in terms of the submissions required, which you can find in complete detail here:

How much does CSSSA cost?

The tuition cost for CSSSA is as follows:

  • CA State Residents – $4,600

  • Out-of-State and International Students – $7,000

CSSSA also offers full and partial financial aid based on demonstrated financial need. Because CSSSA is funded by CA taxpayers, only CA residents and first-time California attendees are eligible to receive financial aid.

Pros and Cons of attending CSSSA


  1. It is an in-depth and intensive learning opportunity: Each CSSSA course is rigorous and intense, with a holistic blend of lectures, projects, practical sessions, and industry exposure. The pedagogy is designed to ensure that you learn everything from the core fundamentals right up to the latest industry standards and expectations, and actually implement your newly acquired skills on a weekly if not daily basis.

  2. You will gain access to professional networking: You will get to meet and learn from industry leaders and established artists, not limited to CSSSA’s own alums and veterans. You will also be visiting established studios, museums, art houses etc. and of course, interacting with peers. Given CSSSA’s prestige as well its proximity to Hollywood, these opportunities are highly valuable on their own.

  3. The program serves as good preparation for college: If the depth of learning and the networking opportunities alone weren’t enough, the prestige of the program alone can help enhance your college application. Given the selectivity of CSSSA’s courses and how they help you build and showcase your own portfolio of work, it should provide you a significant leg up in your college applications.


  1. The program is very hard to get into: The selective nature makes admission tough. You’ll need to have a back-up plan in case your application doesn’t go through.

  2. The program does not allow absolute beginners to apply: The application requirements for each of the courses clearly indicates that they are not exactly meant for beginners, more for students who already have some serious exposure to or have already put effort in building their portfolio and working in their art stream of choice.

  3. The program can be expensive: While financial aid is available, the base cost may be a barrier for some.

Conclusion: should you do it?

CSSSA is an excellent opportunity if you’re serious about pursuing the arts and have already been putting efforts into it and want to build your profile further. It offers a rare combination of professional training, exposure to various artistic disciplines, and a chance to connect with industry professionals and peers. If you are dedicated to advancing your artistic skills and can handle an intense, immersive learning environment, CSSSA could be the perfect summer plan for you.

If you’d like to engage in a rigorous research program in the arts open to high schoolers, you may want to consider the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded by researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here

Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students. Last year, we had 150 students on full need-based financial aid!

Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a PhD student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.

Image Source: CSSSA logo


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