9 Essential Things Camps Are Looking for in Their Staff
And How to Make Yourself Stand Out
The summer camp hiring process can be surprisingly competitive. Many camps see a flood of applications each year from former campers eager to return to their favorite summer stomping grounds as counselors, or from folks who are keen to work at a different camp than the one they went to as a kid. Plenty more applications come pouring in from folks who never went to camp themselves, or attended but haven’t yet worked at one, but are excited about spending a summer at camp while interacting with youth. Camp work is also a popular path to a travel visa for folks interested in international travel, which adds another large demographic to the hiring pool. Fortunately, camps are often looking to strike a balance between familiar faces and fresh perspectives, and the seasonal nature of camp work means each season brings a good haul of new opportunities.
Here are some of the key things camps are looking for when they hire new staff:
Camps are fairly rustic settings, and while they are usually well-stocked with art supplies, costumes, watercraft, and sporting goods, they rely on people to make the fun and magic of camp truly come to life. One of the most important things a prospective staff member can bring to the table is strong creative energy. This energy doesn’t necessarily need to be loud or theatrical; it could just as well be quiet and crafty. Be ready to use your application and your interview to talk about—or, better yet, show examples of—your creativity. Double bonus if you can show that you have experience planning and leading creative activities for young people (think babysitting or helping with after-school programs).
A Well-Developed Sense of Humor
Along with creativity, a sense of humor is an absolute must when it comes to landing a camp gig. By the end of your first camp summer, you will have sung more silly songs, dressed up in more wacky costumes, and acted in more goofy skits than you even thought possible. Your sense of humor is your best equipment for making these experiences fun and engaging for yourself, your peers, and—most importantly—the campers!
Experience Working with Youth
We were all kids once. Unfortunately, that doesn’t quite cut it in the ‘experience working with youth’ department. Camp staffs are usually fairly young, so no one is expecting you to have decades of experience at the head of a classroom or anything. That said, it helps to have some experience working with young people. Babysitting, teaching music or swimming lessons, coaching children’s team sports, or participating in school mentorship programs for younger students are all good, relatively common ways to get this experience. Better yet, maybe you have worked for a day camp through a community organization like the YMCA, a local church, or a recreation center. If you don’t have any formal experience working with young people, don’t sweat it, but find simple ways to get some informal experience. Offer to watch the neighbors’ kids for an afternoon or volunteer for a local after-school program. It’ll help you make sure camp work is a good fit for you, and will be helpful in demonstrating your commitment during the application process.
Demonstrated Interest in Young People and the Outdoors
You should be able to speak convincingly about why you want to work at a summer camp, and some part of this answer should include evidence of an interest in young people and the outdoors. This outdoorsy interest is less crucial if you are applying to work at a special interest program like a language or robotics camp, but outdoor recreation is central to the philosophy and mission of the lion’s share of summer camps. You don’t need to be a champion cyclist or a backwoods survivalist, just a person who enjoys being active outside.
Leadership Skills (or Leadership Potential)
Camp work usually entails being in charge of a group of young people, so good leadership skills are important. Depending on your life and work experience, you may not have had too many chances to practice leadership skills in a formal context. Think about situations where others have looked to you for input or guidance, and how you responded or acted in these situations. Be ready to articulate what kind of leader you are or might become, and have an example or two handy of how you have dealt with conflict or group problem solving in the past.
First Aid Training or Experience
Many camps provide or coordinate first aid training for their staff, but it doesn’t hurt to show some initiative and get some training on your own. Organizations like the American Red Cross and Wilderness Medical Associates offer all levels of first aid and wilderness medicine courses all over the country. Don’t go crazy, but a basic first aid and CPR training is affordable and useful whether you end up working at a camp or not. If you have a more serious interest in backcountry medicine, a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) or Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course might be of interest.
Camps always need lifeguards. As with first aid training, many established camps offer lifeguard training internally because it’s such an ever-present need. That said, if you are already certified, you’ll have a leg up and often qualify for a pay bump. It’s usually easy to find a convenient training program near where you live.
Specialized Skills (e.g. Art, Music, Sailing, Archery, Swimming, Language, Wilderness Skills)
Some camps are themed or focused on specific skills or activities. If these are the camps you are interested in, odds are you already have experience in the relevant areas. When applying to these specialized camps, it is even more important to do your research ahead of time. Learn as much as you can about the culture of the camp, and their philosophy. If they’re a sailing camp, what kind of boats do they run? If it’s a language camp, how do they group campers by age and fluency? Being articulate and informed in your interview will demonstrate your preparedness and your ability to ask the right kinds of questions.
Common Sense & Good Judgment
This may seem like an obvious one, but common sense and good judgment are critical in summer camp work, as they are in all work that involves young people. Camps have to carefully manage all kinds of risks (waterfront safety, medical conditions, complex social dynamics among campers) and they need staff who can be aware of these risks and make smart decisions on the fly.