In the long run up to high school graduation, many camp families may face a Hobson’s choice of camp or college, as it may not really be viewed as a choice at all. And truth be told, that may turn out to be a very good thing.

Hobson’s choice: a choice of taking what is available or nothing at all.

As campers mature and begin to contemplate the monumental task that has become the college search and admissions process, they are often confronted with seemingly competing demands: continue to go to camp or better prepare themselves to succeed as a college candidate and, ultimately, as a college student. This simply adds more stress to an already volatile process while creating the potential for unhealthy, and sometimes unforeseen, outcomes.

The Pressure of Preparation

With the stakes seemingly higher than ever, rising high school students often feel tremendous pressure to “build their résumés” by taking summer courses (Harvard faculty created a robust curriculum guide, Choosing Courses to Prepare for College, to inform the academic choices of prospective applicants [1993]) or finding work in a professional area of interest. The Web site even goes so far as to suggest an “Eighth Grade College Prep Plan” (Edvisers Network, 2012).

No wonder kids are feeling the heat. It’s practically become a full-time job.

In her column “The Burden of the College Admissions Process,” New York Times contributor Tara Parker-Pope (2012) focuses on the stressful nature of the college admissions season and the heavy toll it takes on students, offering f irsthand accounts of teenagers filled with doubt, anxiety, and fear of failure and rejection.

So synonymous with stress is the college search and selection period that its link to “maladjustment domains” (including substance use) has been studied by the likes of Columbia University’s Suniya Luthar (2012).

According to research conducted by the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), some of that substance use actually takes place during overnight visits to the colleges and universities high school students may be considering: Roughly one in six surveyed teens (16 percent) who had been on an overnight college admissions visit reported drinking alcohol while there. Five percent also stated that they used drugs other than alcohol. For many, those were first-time experiences with substance use (2012).

Well-managed stress is one thing. Poor coping skills are another. Thus, in an article titled “Stress, College Admissions, and the Parent’s Role” on, Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, actually counsels parents to begin preparing their children early: “Parents of young children may have their greatest influence on preventing worrisome adolescent behaviors by teaching youngsters a wide repertoire of positive coping strategies. Children equipped with healthy ways to manage stress will choose those strategies rather than dangerous quick fixes” (2012).

A More Balanced Approach

Fortunately, some schools offer a slightly more balanced approach to preparation. Vanderbilt University, for example, while advocating for academic rigor (“Take a demanding college preparatory curriculum — the most appropriately demanding schedule your high school has to offer”), also suggests: “Outside of the classroom, find your passion and pursue it to the fullest. As impressive as it may seem that a student is involved in numerous different organizations, it’s equally (if not more) impressive to see a student who is involved in just a few organizations during high school and is in a leadership position in each of them. Think quality not quantity in terms of activities. Many schools will also place a value on service work that is done outside of the high school requirements” (2012).

One such passion for many is the summer camp experience through which teens may have ample opportunities for leadership and service.

Such is the case at Cape Cod Sea Camps (CCSC), where parents tell me their sons’ and daughters’ camp tenure has not only helped them prepare to get into college, but has also helped them succeed in college, rather than wasting the first semester — or first year — trying to figure out how to live independently.

Survival Skills

Many have long linked what is commonly known as the twenty-first century skill set (Partnership, 2011) to what kids learn at camp:

  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Initiative and self-direction
  • Social and cross-cultural skills
  • Productivity and accountability
  • Leadership and responsibility

As American Camp Association CEO Peg Smith wrote in USA Today, “The camp experience is a viable, generative process that recognizes the individual, sees the value of small groups, creates community, and teaches lessons that are transferable to the twenty-first century global community. All of this is happening in a natural learning environment supported by research and camp professionals” (2012).

The Summer Camp Experience

Such lessons line up nicely with CCSC’s “metrics of success” for each camper, including independence (uses the many community resources available to ask for help and support); self-reliance (makes positive choices and accepts responsibility for personal behavior); self-confidence (expresses confidence in his or her ability to succeed educationally and socially); exploration (embraces opportunities to try new things, make new friends, and contribute positively to the community as a whole); and respect (demonstrates respect for oneself, for others, and for the institution). Just as important, camp helps older campers develop a high sense of self, both a measure and outcome of a young person’s progress on three critically important developmental tasks of adolescence.

Teens with a high sense of self feel more positive about their identity, growing independence, and relationships with peers than do teens with a low sense of self. How does this relate to summer camp? Simply because camp experiences:

  • Support a wide sampling of interests, activities, and age-appropriate behaviors (identity formation)
  • Encourage separation from parents and age-appropriate independence in decision making (independence)
  • Teach peer-to-peer social skills (positive peer relationships)

It is important to note that high sense of self teens also more frequently report feeling smart, successful, responsible, and confident. In addition:

  • High sense of self teens are more likely to avoid alcohol and drug use and are more resistant to pressure from peers to make poor choices.
  • Low sense of self teens are more likely to use alcohol and “harder” drugs, such as ecstasy and cocaine.

Finally, a teen’s sense of self also relates directly to mental health. For example, teens with a low sense of self are more likely than teens with a high sense of self to report regular feelings of stress and depression.

Out of the Mouths of . . . Teens

But what do the campers think? I wanted to know, so much like New York Times contributor Tara Parker-Pope, I asked them! They speak forcefully about the transformative nature of their summer camp experience, expounding on such outcomes as maturity, leadership, personal development, social skills, adaptability, confidence, independence, and responsibility.

My development as a leader has been my most significant accomplishment. The values that I’ve gained from going to camp have served me well in my everyday life. The experience of living with the same group of people for seven weeks, four years in a row, most of whom are very different from me, has broadened my horizons socially and taught me to be adaptive and effective in different social circumstances. — Michael

Since I was nine, I’ve lived in a cabin for at least three weeks every year with at least eleven other girls. I’ve learned to share, to clean, to organize, to comfort, to agree, and, overall, to coexist with others. I’ve learned how to take care of myself while my parents aren’t around, whether it’s applying sunscreen or dragging myself to the nurse when I know there is something wrong. Camp has given me more confidence and independence, and I plan to carry this over to my college life. — Allison

My experience at camp has truly shaped who I am today. I am now more mature, more responsible, and a true individual. — Barbara

I believe camp has prepared me to be an independent person. I have also learned how live and work with other people so that differences in personality and preferences do not cause problems. I also think that camp has helped me become very responsible and more than able to take care of myself, even under the stress of college. — Daniel

Camp has allowed me to live out a great childhood of amazing and memorable summers filled with bonfires and lifelong friends. It has let me figure out who I am and ground my feet in a safe environment. — Wendy

Camp has taught me that deadlines have to be met and that everything one does should be done with full focus and energy. Otherwise the tasks that need to be done will either not be completed or will not be done as well as they should be. The most important thing that camp taught me is that in order to be successful, I also have to be able to listen to constructive criticism and use the guidance given to better myself. — Charlie

Camp has single-handedly prepared me for college more than any other activity I have been a part of. Camp helped mold my people skills and also helped me become more outgoing as a person. Most important, camp has prepared me for the hard work and dedication that college will require of me. — Mark

The biggest thing camp has prepared me with is a sense of independence in a supportive community. From that independence, I have learned self-control and personal responsibility. — Catherine

Camp has helped to prepare me for college in that it gave me a sound grasp of the principles of moral reasoning, integrity, and honesty, and it helped me analyze my personal strengths and weaknesses in a constructive manner. I feel I am able to approach unfamiliar situations with confidence. I learned to respect the needs, views, and feelings of others and to always be open-minded. I believe these skills will surely help me to succeed in college (and life). — Matthew

With each year that I returned, I became increasingly independent and felt I could take care of myself in many respects. Also, I have learned so much about the value of community from camp. I have fostered lasting and close relationships, and I have come to fully appreciate what it means to be a part of a supportive group of people who care about one another. When I attend college, I hope to again help create and be a part of such a community. — Bobby

The weeks spent each summer at camp have changed me more than ten months at home. You are completely cut off from the media, general technology, and your parents, and it gives you the chance to actually understand yourself and how you interact with other people. I learned compassion, empathy, and responsibility. I understand the importance of my actions and the impact that they have on other people. Not only have I experienced the independence that others are first exposed to at college, but I have also learned how to handle the responsibility of having freedom and opportunities. — Davida

Camp has taught me the value of friendship, teamwork, diversity, independence, tradition, responsibility, volunteering in the community, and fostering and creating an inclusive environment. — Betsy

Camp has prepared me for college [and has given me] the ability to give myself a name and grow as a person in a new environment. I was able to mature mentally and emotionally by being able to take care of myself for weeks without needing my parents. Camp also helped me with my people skills. — Jimmy

Living away from home, I learned to cooperate with various opinions, perspectives, morals, and attitudes. I significantly matured each summer, learning more about myself and breaking out of my shell when meeting and befriending others. I feel ready for a new chapter in my life where I must create my own friends, adapt to my new surroundings, and devote myself to balancing academics with social activities on campus. — Karen

Camp changed my life. Living away from home for seven weeks made me a more independent person, and I have learned that the best kind of rewards are those that are earned with hard work. — Maggie

Most important, camp has given me character, which I believe has prepared me for college. — Jack


Summer Study and Internships?

For sure, summer classes and internships, particularly those related to a young person’s intended course of study, provide valuable learning and, in the case of a job, a unique context in which to catalog eventual classroom learning.

But lately, there has been some criticism aimed at the latter. In “Hard Labor: Inside the Mounting Backlash Against Unpaid Internships,” Josh Sanburn notes that “If unpaid interns are working jobs . . . that would otherwise go to entry-level employees, federal law (The Fair Labor Standards Act) mandates compensation.” He goes on to quote Eric Glatt, a frustrated ex-intern and party to a class-action lawsuit as saying, ”This will be the last summer that students do [unpaid] internships without recognizing that there is something fundamentally wrong with them” (2012).

Camp and College

In the final analysis, there is space and demand for mult iple approaches to preparing for college — and one doesn’t preclude another. Thus, parents and teens need not ask, “Camp or college?” but state “Camp and college!”

CARE/Susquehanna University and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). (2012). CARE/SADD survey investigates risky behaviors by teens on college visits. Retrieved from
Edvisors Network. (2012). Search for colleges and get college admissions help. Retrieved from
Ginsburg, K. R. (2012). Stress, college admissions, and the parent’s role. Retrieved from
Luthar, S. S. & Barkin, S. H. (2012). Are affluent youth truly ‘at risk’? Vulnerability and resilience across three diverse samples. Development and Psychopathology, 24(2) pp. 429–449. Retrieved from
Parker-Pope, T. (2008 April 29). The burden of the college admissions process. New York Times. Retrieved from
Harvard faculty. (1993). Preparing for college. Retrieved from
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2011). Framework for 21st century learning. Retrieved from
Sanburn, J. (2012 May). Hard labor: Inside the mounting backlash against unpaid internships. Time. Retrieved from,9171,2114428,00.html
Smith, P. (2012 February 12). Camp and 21st century skills: Oxymoron or ideal? Retrieved from CampToday120203.pdf
Vanderbilt University. (2012). Preparing for college. Retrieved from

Stephen Gray Wallace, MSEd, author of the book Reality Gap — Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex: What Parents Don’t Know and Teens Aren’t Telling (Union Square Press, 2008), has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University and director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps. For more information about Stephen’s work, visit

© Summit Communications Management Corporation. 2013 All Rights Reserved

Originally published in the 2013 January/February Camping Magazine