Summer Camp USA: Considerations Before Applying
If you are like me, and grew up watching the Parent Trap, you’ll be familiar with the concept of an American overnight summer camp. If you have been living under a rock and have no idea what this is, then buckle up for the ride; I can assure you it’s a hell of an adventure!
I decided to do a summer camp in America because my dad did one in his early twenties on his quest from moving from Fiji to London, and he has always spoken so highly of how much fun it was. This guide will explain the process of applying and then what to expect when you arrive at summer camp. Please note this may vary depending on which camp you apply to, so be sure to read their instructions carefully. I will be completely transparent with all thing’s fees, money, and outstanding costs to help with budgeting, because there were certain things that I and my camp friends wish we had known beforehand. I have summarised the key bullet points here, with further details below.
1. The application
Leave enough time. I created my profile in September, had interviews between October – November, and confirmed my camp in December. I believe the latest you can do all this is between February – March, but you want to make sure you get a camp you want to work at, rather than those that are left over. (Read more on applications below.)
2. Don’t just accept your first offer
It can often be a few weeks between any offers or interviews, and whilst this is daunting, you don’t want to settle for the first one, and later regret it.
3. How much do you like children?
Make sure you really like children before agreeing to live with and care for them for 2 months!
4. Specialist or general counsellor?
First think about how important your personal space and time is, and then how responsible and fun you can be, and this will guide you towards which role would suit you better. However, don’t worry if you don’t secure your ideal position; I made friends who wished they had been doing something else and will be applying for a different role next year – they still enjoyed a great summer. It’s a learning curve!
5. The visa appointment
Double and triple read all the documents you need to take with you to the American Embassy. This can be quite a stressful day so make sure you allow enough time and are well-prepared.
6. Days off
I recommend you stay relatively close to your camp and catch up on sleep! (See more about Days off below.)
Go to your camp with at least £1000 in savings for any costs at camp. Then consider what extra you might need for post camp travels. (See the section on Budgeting below.)
To keep costs low, book a return flight to the city you fly in to; with most airlines you can change the departure city for a small cost. Whatever you do, do not book two one-way tickets, as this works out super expensive. (As an example, one way from London to Boston was £1400, whereas a return was £450, and it then cost $100 to change my return flight to depart from Colorado).
I chose to apply via Camp Leaders as it was one of the first that came up on my Google search, and it had good reviews, but there are lots available to choose from. I created an online profile; I had a scheduled interview with someone from the Camp Leaders team, who gave me the A-OK to apply for a camp position and I then paid the fees.
The total I paid to use Camp Leaders was £379, in 3 instalments, including a deposit before the interview. I know you’ll be thinking that’s a lot of money…and it is; however, you do need the help of these companies. They are the buffer between you and the summer camps noticing your application, and they also help with all relevant documents (keep reading, there was an overwhelming amount of papers required…you are going to want their help with this) and the all-important travel health insurance, which is a necessity when visiting America. It’s worth mentioning that some companies, such as Camp America, charge you more to do the application / take the cost from your pay as they organise your flights for you. Some of my friends at camp appreciated this option, but others felt restricted because they could not choose their flights, and some had very long layovers on their way to America.
You will be asked to complete a DBS, a police check and other important documents required for looking after children. Then comes the exciting part, camp interviews! Your profile is live, and camps start to reach out via the Camp Leaders portal and ask to schedule interviews with you. These are done from USA via Zoom, so make sure you sit somewhere quiet with no distractions.
Before the interviews start, make sure you research 5 key points about the camp, to best prepare yourself. Also, ask any burning questions you may have. Something that could be useful to know is that there are different types of camps across America: there are overnight camps (where the kids typically stay for 6 weeks), or day camps (where the kids come for the day and return home after). With overnight camps, unless there is a 2-week rotation, you will be with the same kids all summer. Day camps allow more time to yourself, but you may not be able to form those strong relationships with the kids that an overnight camp offers; so, it’s useful to have a think about these things ahead of time, to ensure you are allocated the best fit for you.
One thing I would emphasise, is to really think about the kind of summer camp you would like to work in, and keep that front of mind whilst interviewing, and before you accept any position. For example, I worked at a predominantly sports-based camp for boys and girls aged 8-15 years, which was perfect for me, and it also offered a lot of arts facilities. But I had interviews for an all-girls camp and an equestrian camp and decided these were not for me. It’s important to understand what you do and don’t want.
You also need to decide whether you want to be a general counsellor or a specialist. You won’t necessarily have that choice if a camp is trying to fill a particular role, so decide beforehand if you are better suited to one or the other and filter your options accordingly.
What is the difference between a general counsellor and a specialist? Well, it’s simple really. A general counsellor is someone who typically lives with the children all summer and will take on the role of their big brother / sister, taking care of them all day and delivering them to different specialities around camp. This is where the specialists come in, they run the kids’ activities. The roles are very different, but in the case of my camp were often intertwined, with some specialists living with kids, and some general counsellors helping with specialities. I worked as a Fitness Instructor and I did not live with kids, and for me personally, I would choose to be a specialist again.
Life as a specialist
My job was so much fun because I was passionate about my speciality – and I would stress the importance of this, because otherwise it could be a pretty miserable 2 months. As a specialist, I got to know nearly all the kids at the camp who came to my sessions; by contrast, general counsellors only really know the children in their bunk and age unit.
Typically, you have more freedom as a specialist counsellor because you are not always responsible for children, just when you run a session. This has both perks and drawbacks. For me personally, it was often stressful having 8-year-olds in a gym with 200lb weights around, because it was potentially a hazardous situation. So, you always need to be switched on and paying attention. For this reason, I would only recommend a specialist role to people who can say with confidence that they are responsible and aware around children. The role of a general counsellor could be compared to babysitting: caring for basic needs and looking after the children; but during the activity sessions, the responsibility of care is typically placed in the hands of the specialist.
During the day, you are scheduled ‘periods off’ otherwise known as PO’s, usually 1-2hrs where you can rest, or join an activity at camp. I would either catch up on sleep, swim in the lake or get involved in something creative such as ceramics.
In the early days, you will receive training on how to support children at camp with homesickness as they miss their families. However, inevitably you will begin to feel homesick yourself as you adjust to being away from home. My time at my summer camp was the longest I had ever been away from home, friends and family, and it was definitely challenging in the beginning and at random moments throughout the summer. Don’t be surprised if you suddenly feel a pang of homesickness or if something reminds you of home, as this can make you have a slight wobble. Speak to your friends, who will no doubt be experiencing similar feelings, and those in support roles at camp who will know how to help you.
Support at camp
I was fortunate that I worked at a supportive camp and had a very positive experience for the summer. But I know that, unfortunately, this isn’t always the case; some people have to arrange to leave early if things aren’t working out. It is important to note that, due to the cost to the company and camp of arranging your visa, you may get charged if you return home early, which can be quite expensive.
If you are struggling at camp, you always have the option to reach out to your agency who are equipped to deal with camp issues and can guide you on the best option. At times, it can be incredibly challenging working at a summer camp – being short on sleep and dealing with energetic children with emotional needs that need to be met – and it is completely normal to feel overwhelmed and tired. However, for me, those feelings were outweighed by how much fun I had over the summer. This wouldn’t have been the case if I didn’t really enjoy being in the company of children and caring for them; in fact it would be a living hell, and some of my friends were shocked that I wanted to do it as it’s not their idea of fun. So, be sure you know what you are signing up for – it is hard work but very rewarding, and you will return home full of memories and stories to tell!
I know what you’re thinking, ok…I’m living at this camp, do I get any time off? The short answer is yes but no, and I wish I had been better prepared for that. In total, over the summer, I had 5 days off. Yep, that’s right, only 5. It was exhausting! So, definitely prepare to be tired, but it is so worth it.
Days off are scheduled with other specialists and general counsellors at the camp, and you can drive and stay away from camp and return the next day, ready to work. However, it is worth mentioning that days off can be expensive. I wouldn’t recommend travelling far to enjoy your free time, as you will want to spend as much of it as possible just relaxing.
It is really important to be aware that you don’t do summer camp for the money, it is more for the experience. You will spend around £400 on the application itself, and on top of that there’s a return flight to USA, which for me cost £500.
Your camp will agree how much they pay you in your camp contract. Frustratingly, there is no way around using an agency if this is your first year at a summer camp for the reasons explained above, and as a result, they are paid by the camp as well. I was paid $1750 for the summer, and my agency received $1700. If you return to the same camp for a second year, the agency is no longer needed, and therefore you get paid closer to $3000, plus possible bonuses or pay rises you may receive from doing well at your previous job.
So, you have spent around £1000 before you get there; your accommodation and food is included for the summer; what else is going to cost money? Budget for anything you want to do off-camp in your free time, such as sight-seeing and meals, as well as life post-camp during your visa grace period.
Travelling post camp
After your time at the camp, you are given a 30-day grace period on your visa which allows you to explore USA. Before I left for camp, I read several blogs that advise you not to make any post-camp plans until you are working there. I remember finding that incredibly daunting, because what if I didn’t make friends, or what if places got booked up etc. Now, with hindsight, I highly recommend doing the same. You’ll make friends who will want to travel a similar route, whether that is working your way down the East Coast or venturing across to the West, there is always plenty to see and do. And, worst-case scenario, no-one has similar interests, and you want to come home early, you can call the airline to adjust your flight date, usually for a small fee if done in advance.
Please note that the above recommendations are from my personal experience at one summer camp. Other camps will have different highlights and challenges, and not every experience will be the same. Most importantly, a summer camp can be great fun and lots of people go on to work with children in their full-time careers!
Find out more about working abroad:
How to Start Teaching English Abroad or Online
Grad Bites: Working Remotely Abroad