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What is RISD, should you attend? Is it worth it?

The Rhode Island School of Design Summer Pre-Collegiate Program is considered one of the most prestigious summer programs for aspiring art students. It's one of those programs that CollegeVine recommends you attend despite its whopping tuition. So, as a RISD Summer Alum, I will share a bit about my experience.

Illustrated and Written by Melody Zhang


Contrary to your rose-tinted expectations, RISD isn’t all graphic glamor and artsy aplomb—most of the time, it’s steamrolling over art blocks, hoarding ice cream, languishing over back-to-back all-nighters, and more ice cream.

Rest assured, it’s still a fun-fest of artistic affairs and newfound friends. Everything is incredibly hands-on, tactical, and very much “mess around to find out”. You’ll be wielding artistic mediums that you’ve never even thought of touching—gouache, watercolor, micron, three-dimensional boxes, printing service, and so on. The people there are all breathtakingly friendly and forgiving; the homework load… less so. The RISD pre collegiate program is infamous for its back-breaking course loads, and this sort of infamy is well-deserved. Perhaps this paints RISD in a terrifically terrifying light—and it really is terrific and terrifying, all at once—but every upside has a downside, and RISD has so, very many upsides.

First of all, to answer the one question that’s been doubtlessly floating at the forefront of your mind: is it worth your time? My answer: yeah.

Moving on: how does one get into such a program that has been so indubitably, undoubtedly, doubtlessly proven to be worth your time, as made incredibly evident by my incredibly thorough answer? Just fill out an application on their pre-collegiate website, wait a bit, then you’re in! RISD doesn’t necessarily look for technical brilliance—picture the ideal: polished linework, perfect anatomy, and so on—but, rather, imaginative perspectives. Technical skill is learnable; creativity is innate. The application asks for all the basic things applications ask for, such as money, more money, so much money, and a little blurb about what you’ll bring to the program (hopefully, it’s money).

To be frank, this program requires a great deal of dollars. Not only did I spend a gazillion bucks on merely the application, but I also spent another couple gazillion for the art supplies upon arrival. At the very least, the RISD art store’s only a five minute walk from campus, so it was always ready and convenient to receive my gazillions during my stay.

And my stay was certainly a comfortable one. The dorms at RISD are spacious and primed for decorating, with walls for you to pin your works on and empty desks just begging for a sculpture or ten. It’s highly likely you’ll be landed with a roommate. It’s also highly likely that either one of you two will be the messy one—clothes coating the floor like the ocean blue, art supplies scattered here and there like surprise land mines, and the door, blockaded by bins and laundry and so tragically inaccessible. At the very least, it’s also-also highly likely your roommate will be a nice person! Just not a very organized one.

Despite being shared by a floor full of sleep-deprived, barely conscious art students, the bathrooms were neat and clean, in spite of the rumors of foot fungus and rats. I personally never saw a single rat but instead a plethora of bunnies (outside, not inside the dorms), which, in my opinion, is always a step up from a rat. The students are about what you’d expect from art students: an eclectic, eccentric mass of dyed hair and fandom hype fixations. There’s somewhat a skill disparity, since the application for this program was less skill-based and more of a pay-to-get-in, but everybody nonetheless tries their best to adjust.

Oh, and the RA—the resident advisor, AKA the actual college student meant to babysit a hoard of high schoolers who have never lived on their own beforehand. They’re also generally nice people. Honestly, it seems like most people in not only RISD but Rhode Island as a whole are nice—alarmingly, disarmingly so—as if they remain untouched by the depressive, isolating ideal of “kill or be killed” that permeates every other city in America.

A myriad of invariably important services are mere minutes away from campus: Staples for their printing services, CVS for their everyday essentials, and boba stores for their boba. The cafeteria—whimsically known as the Met—is open for a majority of the day, with free, unique breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, along with all-around ice cream, which is yet another everyday essential. I unquestionably needed to regularly refuel my energy with sugar sweets while trekking through my third all-nighter in a row.

After all, signing up for the RISD experience is synonymous to signing away your sleep schedule.

Each student is assigned to four classes: drawing foundations, design foundations, critical studies, and the major of their choice. As is written on the tin, the foundation classes teach you all about the basics of art—quick-hand figure drawings, gouache radial patterns, the elements of design, the importance of design, and the synthesis of an environment’s shapes, textures, and colors into an abstract sci-fi landscape (perhaps that last isn’t exactly basic).

Gouache radial patterns, but slapped into one of the many, many self-portraits RISD makes you do. In this one, I’m having a headache!

Meanwhile, the critical studies class consists of what is essentially one extraordinarily passionate archeologist rambling to you about the insane, almost unreal history of an artwork, all the while interspersing lesson material with equally insane, almost unreal anecdotes of his own life, like how a kid at his school apparently had his face blasted with a gun (incredible!). Although, that experience might be a tad more subjective. Not every teacher’s the same.

When it comes to majors and their assorted personalities of teachers, it’s truly akin to a lottery. Some majors might land you with an easy-going, laid-back teacher who fully understands the fright you’re in. “It’s a foreign environment with foreign people; of course we’ll take it slow! Maybe we’ll even have a moderately sized project at the end, for our final. How about that?”

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum: “Hey, I know you’re completely unused to any of this, so let’s kick off with a gigantic, sleepless project for you to lose your mind over. Just a little something to dip your toes into. Are you learning yet?”

That was my graphic design teacher.

I chose the graphic design major under the woeful misconception that it might not only be fun, fresh, and educational, but also considerably easier than something more traditional, like, say, illustration. I was wrong. Dreadfully so.

Graphic design class was the number one reason I became both a night owl and a daytime corpse. The assignments ranged from sketching pages of observations in nature to transplanting fusions of those sketches onto three-dimensional boxes. We sped ran the process of learning Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, doing our best to work with our limited time and experience to produce creative packaging, colorful posters, and cohesive projects. We agonized over finicky exacto-knives as we chipped away at our simultaneously painted and digital die-cut business cards.

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