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emBARC Summer Design Academy at UC Berkeley - Should You Apply?

Participating in summer programs in design can significantly boost your college applications by showcasing your commitment to honing your creative talents and gaining hands-on experience. College admissions officers value students who show dedication to their chosen field.

The impact of a program on your application can be influenced by how well it aligns with your academic and career goals and the reputation of the program itself.

Additionally, even if a summer program you take up doesn’t necessarily align with your college major, it shows admissions officers that you explored avenues to develop your skills and knowledge in various fields, that you took up opportunities to build intellectual perspective and creative expression in different subjects.

Programs hosted by renowned schools, creative agencies, or tech companies can carry substantial weight. However, apart from a program's prestige, it is important you highlight your role, accomplishments, and the new design skills you've learnt, as this is crucial to effectively display your dedication to design and your potential contributions to a college community.

In this article, we’ll take you through University of California, Berkeley’s emBARC Summer Design Academy, one of the most sought-after design summer programs at a prestigious public Ivy League school.

What is the emBARC Summer Design Academy?

The embARC program, an intensive, immersive 4-week program, at UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design (CED) is a platform for high school juniors and seniors from diverse backgrounds to explore architecture, urban design, and sustainable city planning through integrated components: an architecture + urban design studio, a sustainable city planning workshop, a digital design workshop, an environmental design conversation series, and a materials exploration workshop. The best part: you can participate with no prior experience in environmental design! Additionally on fulfilling the course requirements, you will receive college credit on an official UC Berkeley transcript.

During the program, you will develop your portfolio for college applications in an area of environmental design — architecture, city planning, and landscape architecture. Classes will include studio time, one-on-one critiques, and gallery showcases. You will also go on field trips, and design and build a project for a local non-profit organization (more on the community build project below!).

This program has residential and commuter options. You will be provided housing on campus if you choose the residential route.

What will you learn?

As an embARC student, you will work on real design projects and actually engage in the process of developing solutions to authentic urban planning questions. The program's multi-disciplinary approach provides a comprehensive framework for placemaking – the urban design concept that prioritizes people over infrastructure. The program’s curriculum will be conducted within these broad categories:

  1. Architecture + Urban Design Studio: You will learn freehand sketching, drafting, model building, and digital representation, which will teach you how to conceptualize and communicate 2D and 3D design ideas.

  2. Sustainable City Planning Workshop: As a genuine stakeholder and participant, you will engage in a community-change process through site observations, research, and the development of an authentic urban planning question.

  3. Environmental Design Conversation Series: Presentations and talks given by professional practitioners and CED-based guest lecturers will provide you with a framework for the ideas and methods that support the theory and practice of environmental design. You will be given the opportunity to engage in the discourses of the discipline in guided discussion groups.

  4. Digital Design Workshop: Building skills in digital representation, this series of focused workshops will prepare you for technology-driven, college-level design curricula, while also introducing you to the latest software and digital tools available in the profession.

  5. Materials Exploration Workshop: Students will explore how a full building physically comes together – from foundation to finishing touches – through multiple precedent studies and drafting exercises. Students learn how to represent and decipher details, think critically about how materials come together, and ultimately design their own tiny house.

  6. Community Build: True to UC Berkeley’s public mission, embARC includes an overall theme of civic responsibility by partnering with a local community organization to design a community improvement project. Through this partnership, students employ the tools they learn in the studios, workshops, and lectures to make an impact on authentic community issues. Check out past embARC Community Build projects here.

On successfully completing the program, students will generally earn 1 semester unit of college credit on an official UC Berkeley transcript. Students also have the option to add additional college-level semester units for consideration at their home school.

How is it structured?

Applications for the emBARC Summer Design Academy 2024 will open mid-December. Check here for updates! For the 2023 session, the applications closed on May 1, 2023. Applications for the 2024 session should tentatively close around the same time.


  • High school students who are rising juniors (11th grade) and seniors (12th grade) can apply.

  • To be considered, students applying must have a GPA of 3.0 or higher.

  • No prior design experience is required, but evidence of academic rigor and intellectual curiosity is crucial.

Dates: The program will be conducted July 1-16, 2024.


  • $4,885 (tuition) - For students in the US.

  • $7,665 (tuition) - For international students.

  • $5,565 (housing fee) - This includes meals.

Here are some resources for housing around the campus.

Need-based financial aid options are available. Make sure to apply before the scholarship deadline (along with your program application).

Is it prestigious?

While UC Berkeley doesn’t fall under the umbrella of Ivy League schools, it is considered to be a part of the public Ivy League school category. The university is well known for its strong academic programs, pre-college, undergraduate and postgraduate. They have an exemplary roster of faculty members, spanning professional experts and leaders in research. This program will definitely add a layer of prestige to your profile.

Pros & Cons:


  1. You will receive great college exposure: Taking part in an in-person summer program gives you a glimpse of college life on campus. You will take classes on campus, interact with peers, faculty in a nurturing environment, and create a level of comfort that will come in hand when you actually go to college in a year or two.

  2. You will learn a range of key skills: A compelling aspect of this program is its interdisciplinary approach. You will learn concepts of urban design, city planning, architecture, build your skills and knowledge with hands-on activities, lectures and group discussions. This learning experience will definitely give you an academic edge when you’re pursuing design in college.

  3. The program focuses on real-world application: With the Community Build project, as the program partners with a local community organization, you will work on a community improvement project using the tools, skills, and concepts you’ve learnt during the course of the program. You will be exposed to actual public policy issues, and will have the chance to make an actual impact.

  4. This is a great change to enhance your profile: Adding this program to your resume will help you build a stronger profile and college application. It shows admissions officers that you’re invested in your subject, and are willing to take the extra effort to build your skills in your chosen field. Not only that, the program is administered by UC Berkeley, a fairly well-regarded school. Additionally, the program will help you build your design portfolio – an essential part of your college application!

  5. You will earn college credit: On successful completion of the program, students will generally earn 1 semester unit of college credit on an official UC Berkeley transcript. International students who need to qualify for a student visa will need to enroll in 5 semester units which they will earn upon successful completion of the program. Students also have the option to add additional college-level semester units for consideration at their home school. Whether these credits will fulfill any degree requirements on an undergraduate level is solely at the discretion of the institution the student attends.

  6. The program is a solid opportunity for personal growth and development: If you choose the residential option, the program has the potential to empower you to independently manage responsibilities while balancing academics, and cultivating a meaningful network of peers and professors.


  1. Cost of attendance: While financial aid options are accessible, you have to take into consideration the tuition and living cost that comes with attending the emBARC program. For some, the program fee may be too expensive. Without aid, you may feel that the program’s value does not match its cost.

  2. You have to be based in Berkeley: Since the program is conducted in-person, you must be based in the area or be able to arrange for travel and accommodation. You may choose the university housing option.

  3. You have to be pretty sure of your subject choice: Since this program is focused on urban design, architecture and city planning, you have to be pretty certain you want to pursue that further, or at least for four devoted weeks in the summer.

Should You Apply?

As a high school student, you can consider applying to the emBARC Summer Design Academy at UC Berkeley for several compelling reasons. It not only offers a window into college life, but also ensures you learn essential concepts in urban design, architecture, and city planning – with a real-world impact. While the cost is a factor you need to consider, even with the possibility of financial aid, emBARC is a strong program that will enhance your college applications and help you build a strong foundation for your future design pursuits. So, if you’re in Berkeley or able to travel there, committed to studying design or at least wish to get a good insight into the field, this program is a great choice.

If you would like to dive further into design and the arts, or are passionate about conducting research, you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students I founded with 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.

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: UC Berkeley seal


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