First of all, thank you for working at camp — it makes a world of difference. If you’re reading this article you already know that, but not all hiring managers do.
I’m talking with a young professional who is struggling with his plans for the summer. For the last two summers, he’s been a counselor at the camp where he grew up, but he feels pressure this summer to commit to an internship that will “help his resume.” He loves working at camp and giving back to the place that taught him so much, believes it will help him develop skills as an aspiring teacher, and appreciates the leadership opportunity he can take on over time, but the voice of his career service advisor is loud, telling him to strengthen his professional skill set.
I’m interviewing an early career professional for a competitive fellowship, asking her questions about her deep work and internship experiences so far. When I ask her to describe a time when she resolved a conflict successfully, she pauses and asks for a moment to think about it. After a few moments, she looks at me sheepishly and says, “I’m sorry, I can’t think of a professional or academic example, but I guess I can think of a good example from when I worked at a camp.” My heart breaks a little, and before she tells me the story, I ask about the camp where she worked and share with her my background in and respect for the camp profession. She shares her conflict resolution story, and we move on with the interview.
These are real examples that I’ve experienced in some form many times. Camp has a serious image problem — many people believe that camp is just a fun experience. It is indeed fun, and it is so much more . . . attending camp is an extraordinary learning opportunity, and working at camp is an extraordinary professional development opportunity. You can and should leverage your work at camp on your resume and wherever you demonstrate your professional value.
Working at Camp Provides Important Professional Skill Sets
You already know this, but it needs to be said — by working at camp, you learn and demonstrate skills that are valued in the workplace. Activities are the tools for life-skill development.
Hiring managers across all different industries look for some common skill sets in their hiring. Organizations are looking for professionals who demonstrate dedication, strong communication skills, effective collaboration skills, adaptability, problem solving, and willingness to take on challenges, among other things. Do these sound familiar?
- Collaboration — the counselors who together manage to get a dozen excited boys to quiet down at bedtime.
- Adaptability — the art program leader who, with no notice, translates the open-ended drawing project into something the camper who loves robots will enjoy.
- Problem solving — the counselor who makes a team of preteen girls. Enough said.
- Communication — the village leader who makes a call to parents successful.
- Dedication and taking on challenges — well, these don’t even need examples, do they?
I am not suggesting that working at camp provides all the skills you need for a given job. Of course, you need to gain skills specific to the industry and function in which you wish to work. If you want to be an engineer, there are plenty of technical skills you need that you won’t find at camp. If you want to be a classroom teacher, you can get some teaching skills at camp but, of course, you’ll want school-based experience. In fact, if you want to become a camp director, you may want work experience in different settings to broaden your horizons.
I am not suggesting when you should work at camp versus other settings. I am, however, suggesting that when you’re looking for a job (or an internship, acceptance into college or grad school, or the like), you should proudly translate your camp experience to the many professional skills it will have strengthened. And that means when you’re choosing whether to go back to work at camp in some future summer, you can consider the professional value it will offer you.
Showing the Value of Your Work at Camp
It’s not always easy to demonstrate the professional value of your camp experience. After all, most people think of working at camp as a fun job for young people. And the words that appear in camp stories don’t always sound like professional experiences . . . swimming, rest hour, cabin, soccer, and more. But these words are only the context, just like microscopes and statistical software might be contextual words for a research internship. Neither set of words describes the skills that the experience has allowed you to build. The good news is that you are in control of the words you use.
There are dozens of different ways to go about packaging your skill set for potential employers. You may wish to develop a personal brand statement, strengthen your LinkedIn presence, and more. The following tips are meant as suggestions to get you started, but certainly not as a comprehensive guide, and include mostly general tips rather than camp-specific ones. At the core is the need to translate your experience to the skills sought by your potential employer.
- Follow basic presentation guidance — use consistent, neat formatting; leave margins and white space to help make the page more readable; put experiences in reverse chronological order; proofread; and always tell the complete truth.
- Start each line with an action verb — read down the list of verbs that start the bullet points on your resume . . . do they tell a story? Consider these two phrases, each of which could be a bullet point on your resume: (1) “Staff a cabin at overnight camp, making sure to keep campers busy all day” and (2) “Develop and implement routines and activities for unstructured time periods during residential camp program.” The second phrase paints a much more specific picture that can be meaningful to people outside of the world of overnight camp.
- Focus on the specific accomplishments, not a general description of your work. Look at these two options: (1) “Monitored and organized a waterfront program serving up to 60 children per hour and 300 per day, ensuring safety protocols were clearly defined, practiced, and followed” and (2) “Served as waterfront coordinator for lower camp program.” The first translates camp jargon into specific numbers and also focuses on some core strengths, including organization and responsibility; the second phrase is a loose description of a job activity. Another way to put this tip: Your resume should include a list of results and should not read like a job description. Show the impacts of your activities.
- Personalize each cover letter so it serves as a bridge between your resume and the job description you are hoping to fill.
- Include two or three specific examples in your cover letter that bring to life experiences you’ve had. When your experiences are at camp, make sure to translate your experiences so they (a) remove camp jargon, and (b) highlight the professional value you bring rather than reinforce any stereotypes that undervalue camp employment. For example, you might wish to show your strength in organizing and planning — you could do this by sharing that you “planned an overnight trip” or you could explain that you “coordinated transportation and communication logistics for an eighteen-hour trip in collaboration with the staff of a national park.” This isn’t about manipulating the reader, but rather making sure your strength shows.
- Use the active voice rather than passive voice (yes, just like your ninth-grade English teacher said).
- And remember, don’t try to fit everything into a cover letter — your letter should leave the reader (upon skimming) with only a couple of distinct ideas about you. If you try to cram too much into a cover letter, it shows. A great cover letter might leave the reader knowing you’re (a) passionate about social justice, (b) knowledgeable about child development, and (c) skilled at collaboration. If you also added examples to show that you are a strong boating instructor, great at science, detail oriented, and good at writing, your one-page cover letter would just be a long list of examples without any clear takeaway messages.
- Practice, practice, then practice some more. You can prepare for many of the questions you’ll be asked in interviews. Especially for introductory questions (like “Tell me why this job is a good fi t” or “Walk me through your work experience”), you should walk into an interview having identified what main messages you’ll want to share.
- Many interview questions ask you to tell the interviewer about an experience you have. This is the perfect time for you to highlight those great camp experiences, where you can control how camp jobs are perceived. Prepare to tell several stories about your experiences — common topics from camp jobs could include working with children, collaborating with colleagues, or handling conflict or stress. Consider a range of experiences you’ve had that describe skills relevant for the job opportunity. And most of all, practice telling your story so it demonstrates professionalism. A story about “that really stressful camper who refused to go swimming” is substantially less compelling than a story that highlights your creative problem solving that helped a camper who was scared become more comfortable in the camp aquatic setting. You already have the stories!
- Remember that an interview also allows you to assess your fit with the potential job and organization. Bring some questions for which you really want to know the answer, and that will demonstrate you’ve researched the opportunity you’re interviewing for.
One More Thing . . .
One of the best ways to highlight your professional skill sets is to ask for feedback from your supervisors. So when it’s performance-evaluation time, don’t just go through the motions. Ask for specific feedback. Talk to your supervisor about how his or her feedback might apply as you expand your professional horizons. Getting to know your supervisor or other camp leaders has he added benefit of building you potential references.
P. S. — Pay It Forward
And finally, when you are the hiring manager for some job now or in the future, please ask candidates about their camp experiences. Listen to their stories, and show them that you recognize that working at camp offers great professional development. Help build the professionalism of camp employment for all of us.
Camp Spirit. “Writing Camp Jobs on a Resume.” http://campspirit.com/wp-content/themes/CampSpiritTheme/docs/magazine/CB_Resume_Sept_2011.pdf 
Jenn Bender is CEO of New Sector Alliance, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening communities by providing experiential training that helps people persist and thrive as social sector professionals. Jenn serves on the American Camp Association Board of Directors and the Seven Generations Board of City Year Boston. Reach out to Jenn at email@example.com .
Originally published in the 2014 May/June Camping Magazine
Photo courtesy of Camp Fire Green County, Tulsa, Oklahoma