As someone who has been involved in hiring a new director at a couple of different camps, my natural instinct in both cases was to turn to the ACA Year Round Jobs email. I still cite this as the first place any person trying to find year round jobs at camp should look - after all, it was the first place I turned when I tried to find a job working at summer camp full time! It really is a phenomenal resource. Thousands of would-be candidates can view your position, and in many cases dozens of them will reach out with the sincere desire to work at your camp someday.
Great for camps, great for candidates, so what's not to love?
Well, as someone who has been through both sides of the process, there can often be heartache on all sides involved. I've heard many people complain that they weren't even responded to when applying for a job (this happened to me as well), and as someone who has also done the hiring, I'll say that the quality of applications is all over the map as well.
I figured I'd write something up to give candidates a better sense of what people like me are looking for when hiring out a position, so you can give the camps you hope to work for the best possible picture of who you are, and why you'll fit in. I also hope to share some of the things that worked for me in actually getting a job at a place that didn't know me or my references at all, as well as the things I've seen that have caused me to hire complete strangers and put them in charge of really important things. Let's dive in.
Mastering the Application Process Part 1: The Initial Email
Of the 73 candidates that reached out to us about working at Longacre, fewer than 10 of them included any real understanding of our programming in their initial email. Every single person who reached out and demonstrated any understanding at all as to what we do was invited to take part in the next step in our hiring process. This isn't to say we dismissed the generic "To Whom it May Concern" emails out of hand, but it was pretty hard not to. My name was on the job listing, as was the name of the camp, as was a lot of information about who we are and what we are looking for. Skipping to the end for the contact email and sending a generic email just feels like cutting corners, to be honest, and it's painfully obvious to the people reading your initial emails.
From the perspective of the person doing the hiring, we were scared as heck that we wouldn't find a passionate and qualified candidate. Here's the thing, we know that many people responding to these emails are just sending out the same email to a dozen different camps in a given geographic region. It's hard to get excited when you get what amounts to a generic inquiry email.
Here's an example of an email that was amazing, and eye-catching:
Wow! What a cool program you all are running over at Longacre! I've always been passionate about teen leadership, and love that it all takes place in a farm setting. I've always loved working with animals, and to be honest, I've even pictured myself having a farm of my own some day! I'd love to take a look at a formal job description, and know more about the application process!
Site unseen, this person has communicated that she A) understands my program, B) is an effective communicator, and C) is taking my time seriously in this application process. She didn't even wind up pursuing an interview when she learned about the exact details of the job, which was actually amazing. From start to finish she approached the whole interaction with integrity - learning as much about us as possible before reaching out, and being honest with herself about her interest in working the job we had put forth. Thanks to you, if you're reading this, for being an A+ person!
Mastering the Application Process Part 2: The Purpose of Your Cover Letter
So you already reached out and let me know that you know about my camp. I've given you a job description, and asked you to pass along a resume and cover letter. What am I looking for?
Let's start with the cover letter. First of all, and this probably goes without saying, but make sure you pay very close attention to detail here. I literally had someone claim to be huge on paying attention to detail who then went ahead and didn't put a period at the end of multiple paragraphs. This may seem harsh, but it almost doesn't matter what your resume says if you don't take the time to make sure you can put together 3 professional paragraphs. I recognize that writing isn't everybody's favorite thing, but in the world of modern camping, writing is still the number 1 way we are going to communicate with our camp families.
If your writing skills aren't stellar, that's okay. Just call your friend who is always saying things like, "I can't help but correct your grammar - I'm an English major, after all!" and have them look over your cover letter. Tell them to be mean. Tell them to let you know what doesn't make sense, and to explain the difference between passive and active voice. Just trust me on this one.
Once the mechanics of your writing are attended to, it's time to think about the content. You will instantly separate yourself from the field by not just using a form cover letter format.
I had multiple applicants submit a cover letter that contained almost this identical word for word opening paragraph:
"I think the opportunity of working as a Camp Director at Longacre Leadership Camp would be an amazing and exciting one. I have provided my resume to show my ability to succeed in the position of Camp Director."
Unfortunately, the main skill demonstrated by this paragraph is the ability to Google around for cover letter formats.
Here's the thing, once you're a camp director, you will not be able to perform in your role by Googling for form emails. Don't be afraid to sound convesational and go off the beaten path. No one is comparing your cover letter against some International Standard of Cover Letters. We just want to get to know you. We want to know what makes you tick, and why this position feels just right.
Instead of using a form letter, why not just conversationally talk about why you think you are a good fit for the position? Here are some questions I'd ask and things I'd include if I were helping someone write a camp cover letter.
1) Do you have specific experience in the exact type of camp I'm hiring for? For example, did you used to work at a farm camp, and now you're applying to my farm camp? Did you grow up in the Methodist Church, and you're applying to work at my Methodist Camp? This type of connection really matters. It's not necessary, but communicating that you speak the language of and know the culture of the organization to which you're applying can make a difference.
2) Do you have an example of something that happened in your life that shows that we share the same values? Say you were applying to work at Camp Stomping Ground. You'd read the website, and find out that we seem to care a whole lot about empathy and communication. You're excited, because you really think the world needs more empathy.
You think of a time when you were at camp, and there was a kid who showed up from the inner city who seemed to be struggling with a lot. You became friends, and started to think about what it might be like to live in her shoes. After seeing the power of summer camp in that experience, you've been dead set on creating diverse environments where kids from all number of backgrounds can get together and learn to love one another. If you communicate this in a future job opening for Stomping Ground, you'll get an interview - I promise.
But here's the thing, stories work a lot better than claims. Everyone can claim to love diversity and empathy (and in fact, who wouldn't claim to love such things?), but showing that you've thought about it enough to recall a specific instance in your life where these values really solidified will separate you from other candidates who make more generic claims.
3) Do you have a few specific dreams that you'd like to see come to life at my camp? I remember applying to work at my first year round job, and at the time I was all about what I called "land justice." This is the idea that summer camps own tons of land, but often times don't even use half of it. I wanted to find a camp that would let me turn some portion of the property into an organic garden to feed the campers and donate some to local people in need. I'm sure many camps thought this was a pretty uninteresting idea, but the camp that hired me was REALLY excited about the idea, and elected to interview me even though my resume was pretty crappy at the time. You've got some big dream bottled up inside of you (hopefully). Feel free to share it in some fashion like this:
"I've always dreamed about working at a camp like Stomping Ground that seems to share my vision to make the world a more empathetic place. I'd love to chat with you about how I can help Stomping Ground fulfill its mission, and would also love to talk about some ideas I have to help Stomping Ground fulfill its mission in other ways. For a long time I've dreamed about setting up a community garden where people could come work the soil, grow healthy food for kids, and give back to the community at the same time. Stomping Ground seems so full of possibility, and the perfect place to try something like this."
Sharing your vision can be a risk, but it's also honest. Think about finding a job like finding a life partner. You might be able to get by at first on niceties and fluff, but ultimately you're going to be doing hard and important work together. Might as well bare yourself as quickly as possible to make sure that you're a fit to the organization where you're applying, as this will lead to the highest chance of a good long term fit.
4) And lastly, you can keep things open ended. Don't feel the need to list ALL of your experience. Your resume is a better place to go deep on that. Feel free to offer one idea, and then say something like, "My mind is spinning on a number of different ideas on how to help Longacre grow. I'd love talk about them at your convenience!"
Think about your cover letter as a conversation starter rather than a complete picture of yourself. If you keep me wanting more when I'm reading through your cover letter, you've done a wonderful thing.
Mastering the Application Process Part 3: The Resume
One quick nuts and bolts recommendation to start: save your resume in some format that isn't editable. If you save it in a PDF, for instance, you will know the exact formatting of the document you're sending along. You'll see if your columns line up, if your pictures show up in the right spot, and so on. There are so many different versions of Microsoft Word alone that formatting can get really distorted from one to the other. While I understand that this is not on most people's radar, some percentage of hiring committees will just think that you didn't take the time to make the thing look good.
And to that point, looks DO matter. You don't need to have the same form resume that everyone uses, but do your best to make things look professional. Now that might mean different things to different people. If you're applying to a camp that seems funky and off-beat, lots of colors and images are probably a good thing. If you're applying to a 120 year old camp that has a bunch of lawyers sitting on its hiring committee, maybe you want to go more formal. But, as always, just do what feels natural to you. If nothing feels natural, just do what makes you feel most confident.
And then, what to include? Well, lead with whatever your camp experience is, of course. Specifics are great here. Did you help with ACA Accreditation? How many staff were you in charge of? How many kids? Did you launch any new programs? Design staff training?
Do you have any other relevant camp experience, like being a part of some continuing education program? This can include things like Go Camp Pro or the Summer Camp Society, but can also include simply attending camp conferences and reading blogs. Showing that you have taken time to perfect your craft outside of the usual channels communicates that you're the type of person that takes this really seriously. Again, this will separate you from a huge percentage of the would-be candidates.
As for your other experience, it matters, but most of it will seem like white noise unless it's really unusual for some reason. Prioritize including times when you were in charge of something (i.e., include being a manager of a McDonalds before you include being a bartender at a local restaurant that I've never heard of), as well as unusual life experiences. I love to hear that you were a part of the Peace Corp., or that you traveled for 2 years after college, and so on.
There isn't a lot you can do to change your resume for the better besides not mess it up and get more experience. To that end, seeking an entry level seasonal or shoulder season position is a great start. I know Jack Schott also wrote a great piece about trying to find your first camp job out of college, and he relays how he and Laura broke into the camp world with the same level of experience that the rest of us had coming out of college.
Mastering the Application Process Part 4: The Best Possible References
Probably the most common (and accurate) criticism of getting a job in camping is that it's more "who you know" than "what you've done." The second most common (and accurate) criticism is something like "how do I get experience working year round in camping when I don't have any experience working year round in camping when all of the year round jobs require year round experience in camping?"
Fair criticisms, both. But there is actually a way to use this for your advantage. If you're reading this, chances are great you are really interested in working at camp for a reason. Likely, that reason is that you've worked at some other camp in the past. If you're a great candidate for a job like this, chances are you've impressed the heck out of some person you've worked for in the past, but your camp is simply out of full time jobs. If that's you, you have an incredible resource at your fingertips: the people you've worked for. They love you,right? They want to see you succeed. And chances are, if they have worked full time at camp for a while, they know people at other camps.
Go talk to them. Ask them if THEY know anyone who is currently hiring out a full time position. Go one step further - ask them to reach out in advance of you passing along your introductory email to give people a positive expectation of you.
The secret to me landing my first year round camping job is that my old director reached out to the hiring committee at the camp where I applied and told them that they at least needed to interview me. He didn't even know them personally, and did this without my even asking. And you know what? It was so unusual that it made a HUGE impression on that committee. They gave me a chance they certainly wouldn't have given my resume at the time (which included no year round experience, of course). As someone who has hired these types of jobs twice, I will let you know that not a single person has ever reached out to me preemptively to get me excited about a candidate. If you can find a reference willing to do this for you, it will make an enormous difference. It doesn't have to be much, either. Just an email like:
"Hey Jackie! Hope all's well at Your Camp USA!
James Davis here! We met at the ACA National Conference a couple of years ago. I just wanted to let you know that Jack Schott, whom I worked with at Stomping Ground, is thinking about applying for your Camp Director position. Jack is the actual best - he worked with me for a couple of years at a couple of different camps. If he does apply I'd absolutely interview him. I'd love to have hired him here, but we simply ran out of room to promote him given the people we already have in place! Best of luck in your hiring process either way!"
The woman we wound up hiring at Longacre came with a 10/10 reference from someone we knew personally and respected. I only knew him from camp conferences, but that made him the most trusted reference I spoke to of any candidate by far. We had never worked with her, but that level of reference means so much more than talking to an old employer I've never met. Everyone can find 3 people to say nice things about them, so try and separate yourself by making your references stand out.
In summary, don't wait until you've already basically gotten the job to tap into your references - use them as a resource to get you in the door in the first place.
Mastering the Application Process: Concluding Thoughts
So there you have it. Looking for camp jobs can be really hard. We did get 73 resumes for our one job at a small camp in Western Pennsylvania, and I can imagine that the bigger and better known camps get many times that. By taking a little extra care at every step along the way, you absolutely can get your resume moved to the top of the pile. We wound up interviewing several stone cold strangers, some with very little experience, just based on the fact that they actually seemed to know about our camp and took the time to demonstrate it.
Being intentional has a cost, for sure. It might mean applying to fewer camps. This is probably a good thing. Remember that you don't need to get a job offer from EVERY camp, just from the one you really want to work at. And to be honest, you won't get serious consideration from the camps that are a bad fit for you anyway. Instead of applying to 5 camps, 4 of which are realistically outside of your interest level, skills, or experience, why not go all out applying to the 1 that seems like the perfect fit?
And listen, I know this process can be painful. These jobs are hard to get for a reason - precious few people get to blend business with pleasure the way full time camp pros do. Hard? Yes. Possible? Definitely. If you follow Jack's advice on improving the level of candidate you are, and then approach applying to one job at a time as seriously as you approached rocking the camp where you grew up, the dream is absolutely within reach. Best of luck to you on your journey!