How can you possibly choose a summer camp for your child with any level of confidence? According to the most recent estimates, there are over 14,000 camps in the United States. That’s more than there are colleges and universities (between 4,000 and 5,000, depending on how you count), and we all know how involved the college search process can be.

No “best” summer camp will fit every camper and satisfy every family. The best summer camp for your child may not serve the unique learning style and personality of another child, and vice versa.

Faced with such an overwhelming number of choices, you may be tempted to leave it to chance and go with whatever camp comes up first in a Google search — or pick one out of a hat. Or you might just let momentum take control and send your child to the same camp they attended last summer, or the camp your older children went to, or the camp everyone else in the neighborhood is going to.

We don’t think choosing a summer camp should be as hard as picking a college. But we do think summer is too valuable an opportunity for learning, exploring, and growing just to roll the dice and hope for the best.

No “best” summer camp will fit every camper and satisfy every family. The best summer camp for your child may not serve the unique learning style and personality of another child, and vice versa.

To help parents find the best-fit summer camp, we recently published a free step-by-step guide, “10 Steps to Find the Perfect Educational Summer Camp.Our 10-step guide will help you organize your search, stay on track, and uncover options you may not have considered.

We also thought it would be helpful to get some pro tips from someone who knows summer camps inside and out: EXPLO’s president, Moira Kelly.

Pro Tip #1: Don’t Overlook the Value of Word of Mouth

The people who can give you the most unbiased opinion about a summer camp are often the children who have attended it in the past and their families.

As we said above, not every camp is a good fit for every child, so take word-of-mouth recommendations with a grain of salt. Seek out families whose children have similar interests, backgrounds, and learning styles as yours, Kelly says.

“If there’s a child in school who is similar in some ways to your child, make contact with their parents and — being respectful of their time, of course — ask, ‘What has your child done for the summer?’” Kelly says. “Some camps will also help set up these conversations by putting you in touch with reference families that are similar to yours.”

Pro Tip #2: A Website Can Say a Lot About a Camp

Nearly every search for the best summer camp these days starts online. But know what to look for on a camp’s website, Kelly cautions. Camps that are serious about their missions and their philosophy tend to be proud of it; they aren’t shy to trumpet online what makes them different.

A cookie-cutter website may indicate a cookie-cutter camp, perhaps one run by a corporate entity.

“What camps put on their website is what they think is important,” Kelly says. “You certainly want to know what they offer — what the programming is like, what trips, activities, and sports they provide. But if you dig deeper than that, you should be able to learn more about the philosophical approach of a camp.”

Also, surf over to the section that describes a camp’s administrative team (if such a page exists).

“When you can't find out who's running the place, who lives there, it makes you wonder: ‘Is the person who is planning the programming during the academic year the same person who is going to be on the ground running things during the summer?’” points out Kelly.

Pro Tip #3: Ask, ‘Do You Run All Aspects of Your Program?’

In some ways, a summer camp is like a school. It’s not just about the teachers, but many different professionals who contribute to a complete experience. There are the residential advisors, the dining staff, the healthcare providers, the maintenance team, and so on.

Some camps may look to third-parties to provide some of these services. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it’s done to cut down on staffing costs. Other times, it’s because it’s simply not an area of expertise for anyone at the camp — food service, for example.

What matters most is that camps are open about their third-party vendors so that you can do your due diligence as a parent.

“Many camps have very high standards and only work with the highest-quality third parties. But when they don’t even let you know what the third party is — and whether they have a good reputation or not — how can you be sure who will be interacting with your children?” Kelly says. “When you talk with camps, ask point-blank, ‘Do you run all aspects of your program? And if you don’t, who does?’”

Pro-Tip #4: Ask to Speak With Someone Who Works at the Camp During the Summer

It’s always a good idea to speak with representatives from a camp so you can ask questions and get information that goes beyond what you might find on a website or in a brochure. If you can meet in person, all the better. But even phone conversations can be valuable.

When you call or attend an information session, however, make sure you know who you’re speaking with, Kelly advises.

“Whether it’s in-person or on the phone, ask the person, ‘Have you ever spent time on campus during the summer?’”

Beware of telesales representatives who are merely reading off a script.

“If the person hasn’t worked at the camp over the summer, they won’t be able to give you much information about what your child can expect,” Kelly says. “Ask to speak to someone else.”

Pro-Tip #5: Think Long Term

There can be benefits to your child experiencing a new place every summer. But there can also be benefits to growing with a camp. Some camps cater to a range of age groups, allowing children to return summer after summer, forging special connections to their “second home.”

“The more people get to know you, the more you feel at home, the more willing you will be to take risks, be vulnerable,” Kelly says. “You’ll be more willing to explore.”

If a child jumps from activity to activity every week of the summer, and from camp to camp every summer, they won’t have the time to develop relationships.

“Your child won’t necessarily have the time to gain confidence in a place,” Kelly says. “If you can find a camp that will grow with your child, that can be pretty transformative over time.”

Start Making Your List of the Best Summer Camps

To get you started in your search for the best summer camps for your child, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorites. These camps span the continent and cover everything from theater, to outdoor recreation, to engineering. Click below to access your free copy of “The Secret Sauce of the Best Academic Summer Camps and 15 Camps to Consider.