Counselor Hiring and Training: How to Turn Good People Into Great Counselors

by Bill McMahon, Co-Director Running an overnight summer camp is a daunting task since at the most fundamental level…

Counselor Hiring and Training: How to Turn Good People Into Great Counselors

by Bill McMahon, Co-Director Running an overnight summer camp is a daunting task since at the most fundamental level…

by Bill McMahon, Co-Director

Running an overnight summer camp is a daunting task since at the most fundamental level it is about being “in loco parentis” for a large number of kids—at Moosilauke, about 140. An overnight camp is responsible for the totality of a camper’s life, including everything from daily hygiene and nutrition, to emotional happiness, to skill development.

Many factors go into a camp’s ability to provide a safe, joyful, and meaningful experience for young people. A sound understanding about how kids learn and grow, and a set of programs, policies and procedures that foster it are central. A positive, healthy and supportive peer culture is also at the heart of a great camp. And of course, a compassionate, skilled, and professional group of counselors is the engine that drives so much of what happens at overnight camps.

In past blogs I have written directly about many of these core underpinnings of a camp experience. In this blog I use a question and answer format to answer the key questions parents should ask prospective camps about their staff hiring and training.

What formal qualifications are required? What is the composition of the staff?

At a minimum, to be a counselor at Moosilauke you must have at least one year of higher education experience and be at least eighteen years old. Each year, Moosilauke sources many of its counselors from outstanding colleges and universities in the U.S., such as Dartmouth, Wesleyan, Colgate, Davidson, to name a few. Many of these young adults will have already been with us for many years as campers, counselors in training, and junior counselors. We also have a number of counselors who attend universities in England, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.

Of course, a great camp will also have in key positions a number of adults well beyond their college years. This summer we have a head of school helping to run our tennis program, a PhD student in Psychology coaching baseball and supervising our residential program, an elementary school teacher overseeing our athletic program, and a middle school physical education professional coaching and umpiring a number of our land sport activities.

In terms of specific qualifications required by area, here are a few: every staff member who will be supervising kids around water must be a certified Red Cross lifeguard; every staff member who will lead overnight wilderness trips must have their Wilderness First Aid or Responder qualification; our head of canoeing and kayaking must hold instructor level certifications from the ACA; and of course our health care professionals must be registered nurses.

As I have written in other places, the most powerful factor at a school or camp is the quality of its peer culture. And a huge influence on a peer culture is whether staff and campers return at a high rate each year or whether a camp has to recreate its culture because of heavy turnover and attrition. At Moosilauke, our camper return rate usually hovers between 80 and 90%, depending on the session. And our staff return rate is also phenomenally high. Most years it runs between 60% and 70%. This means that well over half the staff have been at Moosilauke before so they understand and value our policies, traditions, and culture.

What type of background checks are undertaken?

Moosilauke runs all available background checks on every staff member it hires including the National Criminal and Sex Offender Registries.

What personality traits are desired? Who makes a good counselor?

The obvious traits to look for in a counselor are smarts, compassion, a good work ethic, and some hard skills in the area they will be working in. (At Moosilauke all our cabin counselors are also activity counselors.) On a more subtle level, we look for individuals with a growth mindset (see Why Kids Succeed: the Importance of Mindset and What it Means for How We Provide Praise), and who also don’t need kids to validate who they are. (In other words, they can rise above the fray, not play favorites, and not take things personally when their charges misbehave.)

It is important to note that although talent and skill in an activity area is important, it is not inherently true that the more talent you have the better counselor you will be. In fact, with some people, there can be a reverse correlation. This occurs because sometimes the people who have been all star athletes their whole lives do not have real compassion and empathy for those who are less skilled. Thus, without significant training, they are not naturally wired to be great instructors with kids who acquire skills at a slower pace.

A related note: a great test of a peer culture is how a community (both campers and counselors) treats those kids who learn less rapidly.

What training is provided?

At Moosilauke, we run a week long soup-to-nuts training program that involves classroom sessions run by me and my administrative team, on campus area specific training, off campus training sessions run by professionals in specific areas (like rock climbing), and overnight training trips for wilderness staff.

Here is a partial list of the topics and issues covered during our orientation week:

  • Moosilauke’s mission and desired outcomes
  • Self-esteem and how to foster it
  • Homesickness
  • Peer culture: what is desired; how adults can influence it
  • Growth vs. fixed mindset and what it means for how we provide praise and criticism
  • Behavior and discipline guidelines
  • Competition and sportsmanship
  • Child abuse prevention
  • Trip safety and protocols
  • Technology at camp
  • Emergency procedures: on campus, off campus, and in vehicles
  • Lightning and severe weather safety
  • Fire safety and drills
  • Driving safety
  • First aid
  • Program area safety and basic class period etiquette
  • Program area skill development

During and between units we undertake role-playing scenarios that allow counselors to put what they have learned into action. Throughout the week we also talk about specific “themes” for the summer that encapsulate key notions about what it takes to be a great counselor. Here are a few:

  • “Be a class act”
  • “Be honorable: do the right thing when no one is looking”
  • “Counselor not camper”
  • “100% responsibility”
  • “It’s the little things”
  • “Go B.T.C.O.D.: beyond the call of duty”

As you can see, being a counselor at Moosilauke involves a lot more than just showing up with a lax stick ready to run some drills!

If you have questions about any element of our hiring and training please don’t hesitate to email me at