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What One College Admission Counselor Thinks Of Summer Camp Experience


A few weeks ago I stumbled across an interesting article by Erika Christakis. It was posted back in July and titled “Summer Camp: Can It Make Kids More Responsible?” Go ahead, give it a read.

In it, Christakis brings up several interesting points but one line in particular got me thinking: “Even high school students worry that a summer-camp job isn’t substantive enough to put on a college application.”

Yikes. Is this true?

I reached out to my buddy Jay, who works in admissions, to find out. Here’s our Q&A:

1. How much is real life, roll-up-your-sleeves work experience valued when reviewing college applications?

Less and less applicants these days have real world, significant professional experiences. A lot of the issue is attributed to how much attention college admissions gets in the media these days. If you listen to the news or read the papers, you might think the only way to get into a college is to perform research that cures cancer and/or go on a two week mission trip to Guatemala to perform community service, all while getting straight A’s in AP courses and a 1600 (or 2400) on your SAT. But that is just NOT true. A part-time job is just as valuable as any of your other extracurricular experiences and activities. In fact, just last application cycle, I looked at my boss and said, “Why don’t any of these kids have jobs anymore?” My father pretty much forced me to get a part-time position when I was 15. I realize that most employers don’t hire students that young anymore, but there are a lot of great qualities to be learned with part-time employment. You work with people you may not have had the opportunity to work with before. You’re forced to be responsible and accountable. You start building your critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills. These are what you are going to need in college, and more importantly, afterwards in any field you go into. So to answer the question, real life, roll-up-your-sleeves work experience is just as valued as any other experience that you prove you are interested in, passionate about, and involved with.

2. What types of work experience look best on a college application?

As college admission professionals, we get this type of question a lot. “What type of community service are you looking for?” “What clubs or organizations should I join?” The answer: one you’re going to like, one you’re legitimately interested in, and one you care about. I wish college admissions was an equation: you need X GPA + Y SAT score + part of A, B, and C clubs and organizations with a leadership position in B = ACCEPTANCE. The truth, college admissions isn’t a science, it’s an art. There is no equation, and that’s where you’re stress comes from. The decision on your application is in my hands, not yours. We all want to have control of your own destiny, but you have no idea what the other thousands of applicants look like. So, if you pick a job that you are interested in and care about, you’re going to perform better in that position. You’re going to get glowing recommendations and you’ll probably understand what you learned on the job, beyond how to scan library books, or fold jeans (my first job was at the Gap), or serve hamburgers and milkshakes. It’s those hidden qualities in part-time employment that we look for in college applications, not strictly the fact that you babysit.

3. Do you value experience as a summer camp counselor? How does it compare to more traditional office internships?

I absolutely value the experience as a summer camp counselor. I remember going to summer camp every summer as a 11 – 15 year old. I completely idolized my counselors. Looking back on it, I’m not sure they (16-18 year olds) necessarily understood just how much impact they had on their campers. I still listen to The Smashing Pumpkins and their album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (this is not supposed to be an endorsement, but listen if you haven’t!) because of one of them. But obviously it goes beyond musical preference. Camp counselors are role models for these kids. What you do, they do. And camps know this, that’s why there is typically a year of being a CIT (Counselor in Training) before you have your own set of camper to mold. It takes a year to truly get what encompasses being a camp counselor. You learn a lot about working with others, other counselors and campers. You learn how different people react to different attitudes. You learn how to discipline. But most importantly, you learn about yourself. It’s easy to look around and understand your strengths and weaknesses while working as a counselor. Focus on those weaknesses, and improve on them. But also continue to improve those strengths.

I can’t say that I value the camp counselor position any more than I value a traditional office internship. And I can’t value it any less either. It goes back to what I was saying above. If you genuinely care and like what you’re doing, then you’re going to get more out of it. If you seriously like working in a hospital, helping patients, then so be it. If you seriously like learning about accounting practices from your dad’s CPA friend, then so be it. If you like being with and teaching children, then so be it. To each his own. But in all of these types of positions, focus on becoming the kind of person that you want to be. Work on those hidden skills and attributes that come with the experience. Not strictly the experience itself.

4. Several recent articles have detailed the many “soft skills” that teenagers learn while working at camp, which of these skills—teamwork, empathy, cross-cultural understanding, ability to work with others, etc—matter most when it comes to applying to college?

Interesting question. I don’t know if I can put one attribute above the other. Collaboration is always a buzz word in higher education. Working in groups is inevitable, especially at liberal arts institutions, where I have my experience. Open-mindedness and diversity efforts are always at the forefront of an institutions priority list too. It’s been proven time and time again that the more diverse the student body, the more meaningful the education that that institution provides. And I’m talking about diversity on a broad scale. It certainly includes racial/ethnic, cultural, religious, geographic, sexual orientation, etc. But interests and activities come into play too. We don’t want to admit a class full of oboe players only. That would be boring (and loud). We want some who are involved with athletics, some in community service, some who are a part of Model UN, some involved with chess club, some involved with… get my point. So, what matters most is that you are you and no one else. It’s my job to get to know you as best as I can through your application.

5. What is the best way for a camp counselor to highlight these skills?

On the common application there is a short answer section that reads, “Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below.” That section would certainly be appropriate to expand on these skills. In fact, that’s what it was put there for! You could also write your personal statement or essay on your camp counselor experience. I’m sure, in fact I can almost guarantee, that you have an entertaining story that will grab the admission officer’s attention while highlighting these skills. Either place would work, without a problem. Another great idea would be to ask your supervisor for a letter of recommendation. This third party character reference would surely hire these skills. They saw these skills in you when they hired you, and you probably proved them right. We always cherish an employer endorsing a candidate for admission.

6. Any words of wisdom?

My biggest piece of advice sounds like it’s impossible, but I assure you, it’s not. ENJOY THE COLLEGE APPLICATION PROCESS. Of course it takes some time management, organization, and most of all, will power. But I can always tell when an applicant enjoyed the process. The application feels more human. When that happens, the application is much more fun to read. The more fun it is to read, the outcome can only be more positive. Enjoy the process and don’t stress out. Whatever happens, happens. You will get into college, and wherever you go, it will be the best four years of your life. That is why I got into college admissions. I want to give students like you the opportunity to have those best four years. There is nothing like it. I wish I could go back everyday.

Jay Jacobs is an Assistant Dean of Admission at Colgate University (Hamilton, NY). Previously, we was an Admission Counselor at The College of New Jersey (Ewing, NJ) from 2009 – 2012 and earned his M.S. in Higher Education Administration from Drexel University in 2011. His opinions are his own and not that of any institution of higher education.

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