Anyone who includes a camp job on a resume begins a fight. Thanks, in part, to movies like Meatballs, Friday the 13th, and Wet Hot American Summer, camp counselors must struggle against a pop-culture image of camp that includes food fights, panty raids, and crazed killers.
Yes, I know, the last time someone actually flew underwear up a flagpole was 1965, but most employers don’t know that.
Geographer and commentator Dr. Jon Malinowski has written wryly and wisely on this countervailing force against which all camp professionals wrestle. He refers to it as “The Curse of Kumbaya.”
That is shorthand for the misconception that camp jobs are not real jobs. Who would want to hire a young adult who spends his or her summer drinking, tanning, and singing hackneyed songs with 8-year-olds?
Wouldn’t those young adults who interned at Bear Sterns—er, Goldman-Sachs—make better managers?
The truth is leadership experiences at high-quality summer camps teach life skills, and hone a work ethic that pays dividends throughout an equally demanding non-camp career.
Reverse The Curse
To reverse the curse, staff members must choose their words wisely, copy edit carefully, and describe the magnitude of their responsibility. On a resume, everything matters, including printing on watermarked paper with at least 25-percent cotton-fiber content.
No one cares what you write on when you’re at camp—an index card, the back of your hand, or a piece of birch bark—but in the outside world, it matters.
Coach staff members to switch gears and embrace a professional presentation, not just a professional description, of their work at camp.
Choosing words wisely begins with shedding camp lingo. No one in the corporate world—or anywhere else outside your camp—will understand what it means to have been “Head Weebelo” or “Chief Bob” or “Scollege Monster” or “Master Firefly.”
I get it. You had a fun camp nickname, and so did your position. Now let it go. To a prospective employer, you were “Division Leader for Youngest Boys” or “Director of Arts and Crafts” or “Assistant Waterfront Director.”
Next comes careful copy editing. Here I must state the core principle with the utmost clarity: There can be no typos on a professional resume. Not a single one.
When I find a typo on a resume, I immediately think three things:
1. This person did not care much about how he or she presented themselves.
2. This person did not have a friend proofread this singularly important piece of paper.
3. I want to hire someone who actually cares, so who is next in the pile?
Those who think that my little thought-train sounds harsh are the ones who won’t get choice jobs. It’s as simple as that. Proofread every word of your resume for misspellings, omissions, and non-grammatical constructions.
Say It Like A Pro, Because You Are
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is describing the magnitude of the responsibility camp staff members have. In the sample resume included with this article, I’ve presented contrasting descriptions of the same job.
Here are some additional examples of the distinction between an informal and a professional way of describing camp jobs.
A program director has either “Scheduled games and activities for campers, and worked with staff to be sure they covered everything” or “Orchestrated a dynamic program of sports, arts, and games for children ages 8 to 12, and “Coordinated activity leadership, and conducted periodic staff and program safety audits.” Same job; different description.
A front-line camp counselor has either “Got kids from one activity to another, and made sure the kids weren’t bullying each other” or “Led children and teens through a creative sequence of challenging activities” and “Responded decisively to misbehavior and social conflict by implementing collaborative problem-solving, logical consequences, and one-on-one counseling.” Which will spark the interest of a future employer?
An activity specialist has either “Run girls’ archery most of the day, swept the equipment house, and re-fletched broken arrows” or “Supervised the progressive instruction of target archery and range safety for girls ages 10 to 14,” and “Actively maintained a clean and safe collection of recurve bows and cedar arrows for period use and inter-camp competitions.” Which sounds more impressive?
A Real Job
No responsibility rivals that of caring for children. If staff members have fulfilled this responsibility successfully, they should be able to communicate that success clearly. Indeed, resumes, cover letters, and interviews should convey professionalism so clearly that they eclipse the distorted, pop-culture image of summer camp.
When I graduated from college and continued working summers as the waterfront director at YMCA Camp Belknap, I was often asked, “When are you going to get a real job?” As if preventing drowning, treating homesickness, and teaching swimming and sailing were not real.
Almost as irksome were my camp colleagues, who kept making a distinction between “the camp world” and “the real world.” As if camp were imaginary.
How can staff members present themselves as youth-development professionals if they believe they do trivial jobs in a make-believe world? Wake up, camp staff! You must first take yourselves seriously if you want others to take you seriously.
You are leaders and youth-development professionals, but no one will ever know that unless you present yourself professionally. And if you must make a distinction, please have it be between “the camp world” and “the outside world.” Both are real; one just has far less violence, strife, and cruelty.
I decisively silenced the doubters in my circle of friends and family by authoring research papers and a book about camp. Somehow, peer-reviewed publications made my commitment to camping unambiguous.
What about front-line camp staff? Well, whether the members stay in camping or apply their skills elsewhere, all staff must ensure that their most scrutinized publication—their resume—also passes muster.
And each must be ready to answer “When are you going to get a real job?” with the solemn and inspiring retort: “I change kids’ lives. It doesn’t get any more real than that.”
Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father, and educator. He co-wrote the Summer Camp Handbook and co-founded ExpertOnlineTraining.com, a source of video training modules for camp staff. Chris also created a DVD-CD set called The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, which reportedly lowers the intensity of first-year campers’ homesickness by 50 percent. He can be reached at email@example.com or follow him @drchristhurber.
Consider the following sample résumé entries that describe a camp job. Note the format, writing style, and content of each entry. What do you notice when you compare the weak and strong entries?
Weak: This summer and last summer I was a camp counselor at Camp Chinook, which is somewhere in New Hampshire. These were the summers of 2010 and 2011. It was a fun experience because I love working with kids and I had a lot of free time.
Strong: Cabin Leader—Camp Chinook summer 2010, 2011
Coordinated activities and supervised ten 9- and 10-year-old boys at a traditional overnight camp on Lake Winniper, NH. Designed and led adventure programs on a 26-element low-ropes course.
Weak: Camp Counselor
Worked really hard with some other college-age girls at an all-girls camp in Maine (also known as Vacationland).
• Lerned a lot about woking with kids and deligating responsability and working as part of a team and the importance of sleep.
Strong: Division Leader—Camp Placid summer 2010, 2011
Collaborated with a team of six peers to implement safe and exciting individual and group activities during four two-week sessions at a traditional girls’ overnight camp in New England. Responded rapidly to parents’ concerns with telephone calls and emails. Completed end-of-summer evaluations for divisional staff.
Weak: WD: — Worked at a camp waterfront and did lifeguarding, taught swimming, and helped with the sailing program. Made schedule for teaching and lifeguarding for other staff. Maintained sailing fleet
Strong: Waterfront Director—Camp Jonah summer 2009-2011
Managed a 36-member aquatic team who instructed a full range of waterfront activities at a coeducational day camp. Trained staff to assess risks and respond to emergencies along a 1,500-foot shorefront. Coordinated and performed daily maintenance on a fleet of 24 J-class racing sailboats.
Weak: Besserer Head – this summer – 24/7
Hired as head of the Besserer Division and lived in Cabin Y (Skunk Band). Got to choose Sunday Special, as well as, which mountain to climb on mountain day.
Strong: Division Head—YMCA Camp Trout summer 2009-2011
Led a group of five experienced cabin leaders and three leaders-in-training for a division of 56 campers during four successive two-week camp sessions. Designed unique special events co-led by older campers.
Strong résumé entries use action verbs, the active voice, and emphasize responsibility, creativity, initiative, innovation, and consistency. Descriptions show evidence of leadership, management, and personnel skills. Misspellings and poor punctuation automatically disqualify you for most positions. (Forget about spelling ability … Who wants to hire someone who can’t even use a spell-checker?)
Strong résumés also have attractive, easy-to-read formatting, without overdoing it. The overall look of the résumé should convey a sense of professionalism and seriousness of purpose. Have a colleague proof it and give you feedback. Always use a high-quality printer and off-white bond paper with a minimum of 25-percent cotton content. To distribute your résumé, use online services such as Monster.com (posting PDFs) in addition to regular mail.