Raymond (not his real name) is an experienced camp director on the East Coast. When it comes to interviewing staff, Raymond feels especially confident about his ability to "sniff out the good ones." Raymond says of his interviewing strategy: "I like to get them into a spontaneous conversation and see what kind of a feeling I get. I watch for good eye contact, spontaneity, give-and-take, and other nonverbal signs of communication. With the guys I like to schmooze about baseball. It gets their guard down and shows me how they really relate to people. When I'm talking with them I ask myself, 'how would this guy be with kids?'"

When it comes to interviewing staff, Raymond is like a lot of camp directors. He has his theories about what makes a good interview, a great belief in his intuition and "the feel" he gets for a candidate, and a pocket full of his favorite interview questions.

The problem with Raymond is he believes the same myths many interviewers believe — not just in camp, but in many fields. We pride ourselves on our intuition; we have what we consider our best questions; and we "get a feel" for the candidate. None of this is very scientific, mind you. For example, few if any camp professionals actually rate their staff before the summer based on their interview — and then compare that rating with an independent rating of that same staff member's actual performance at the end of the summer. Having done this myself over the course of several years, I have a few things to say about how camp professionals can bring more practical skill to their interviews.

A camp director friend of mine once said that trying to predict what kind of a counselor someone might be based on a thirty- to sixty-minute interview is like "trying to figure out what a movie is about based on looking at just a few frames of the film." What we are trying to divine from an interview is what someone will look like in the middle of a camp season working with other people's children. Regardless of what "feeling" you get for a candidate, the question remains: How good a predictor is any answer to any question?

Predictive Value

The notion of predictive value was something I first learned about at a fall conference held by the Association for Independent Camps in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in the late 1990s. A spokesperson from The Walt Disney Company's human resources department was telling the group of private, independent camp directors that at Disney World alone they do about 35,000 interviews a year to hire everyone from hotel maids to bus boys to amusement ride operators to caretakers for their sprawling park in Orlando, Florida. Working with an outside company that specializes in what is known in the industry as "selection," they developed a set of "behaviorally based" interview questions built on the competencies for each different job or role in the park. These questions were founded on the simple truth that, to date, the best predictor of future performance is past performance. Therefore, the questions Disney developed focused on what prior experience candidates might have that would demonstrate the specific competencies needed to excel at the job they were applying for.

Many of the questions I have heard camp professionals use in interviews over the years have been clever, interesting, and even sound like they might be useful in identifying potentially strong counselors. Some of them are as follows:

  • What's your favorite TV show and why?
  • If you could have dinner with any famous person from any time in history, whom would you choose and why? 
  • What do you think works best with children in terms of discipline?
  • Tell me about your favorite celebrity or sports player.
  • What do you think of kids? • What are important parenting skills?

The problem with each of these questions is they have no predictive value — meaning that however the candidate answers, that response won't tell you much about how the candidate sitting across from you in January will actually perform on a hot summer day in July when he or she is surrounded by other people's children!

The first task in developing questions that have more predictive value is to figure out what it takes to be a truly great camp counselor. After all, if you don't know what you are looking for, you can't very well develop questions to find it! The way we established the competencies of the best counselors was to ask campers, parents, and camp professionals around the country who their favorite counselors were and what it was they did that made them their favorite. After collating that information from more than 2,000 respondents, we came up with the following core competencies for the general camp counselor:

  • The ability to put the needs of others ahead of your own (nurturing).
  • The ability to take a stand for something that is right even if unpopular (leadership).
  • The ability to work consistently, follow through on your commitments, and put in a strong effort even when tired or when conditions are taxing (work ethic).
  • The ability to resolve disputes or conflicts (conflict resolution).
  • The ability to come up with activities or a plan of action when conditions changed suddenly (creativity).

There were actually ten competencies we identified in the original study, but after years of testing the system, we discovered the five mentioned here are the most critical. Without some competency in most or all of these areas, one can't perform well as a camp counselor.

Competency-Based Questions

The questions developed to test for these abilities or competencies are called competency- based or behaviorally-based questions. They focus on a candidate's actual prior experience, not necessarily as a camp counselor, but in any aspect of life where one of these competencies might have been demonstrated. It turns out that a competency demonstrated in one area or situation most often transfers to other areas of life. Someone who is nurturing often demonstrates that tendency no matter what situation he finds himself in.

Specific Questions

  1. Tell me about a time when you put the needs of another or others ahead of your own. Probing Questions: What was the situation? What was the relationship between you and the person/people? How did you handle the situation? What did you learn? How did it go?
  2. Tell me about a time when you took a stand for (or stood up for) something you believed in, but that was an unpopular position. Probing Questions: What was the stand you took? What was the principle or who was the person you stood up for? What did you do and say? What resistance or negative feedback did you encounter and how did you handle it? What was the outcome? Looking back on it, what is your thought about what you did or didn't do? What did you learn about yourself from this situation?
  3. Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a friend or an employer or an authority of some kind (teacher, parent, coach). Probing Questions: What was the conflict? Who was involved? What did you do? What was the outcome? What did you learn from the situation?
  4. Tell me about a project in school or something you've had to do around the house / some job you've had / volunteer position where it took much more effort than you originally thought it would. Probing Questions: What was the situation? How did you deal with it? What things did you actually do or say that helped you through? What was the outcome?

Other Pointers for More Effective Interviews

  • Get yourself into the right frame of mind before you do an interview by slowing down, taking a few minutes to review the questions, and thinking about your approach. Too many camp professionals approach this critical task without preparing for it mentally. Interviews require energy and concentration, so preparing for them will pay off.
  • Interviewing is like any other set of skills — it takes practice. The more you practice, the better you will become.
  • We have found that one art of interviewing is knowing when to probe for more information, when to move on to another question, and when to quit altogether! If a candidate does not have any experience where they have put the needs of other people — relatives, friends, children — ahead of their own, it is probably not worth continuing with the interview. Being nurturing is a critical requirement of anyone — volunteer or paid staff. Without it, there is little hope of being a good camp counselor.
  • Competency-based questions are tough because they force candidates to reflect and think deeply about their prior experience. The more comfortable you are with silences and letting them struggle a bit, the less you influence their response and the more reliable it will be.
  • This protocol can be easily adapted for use over the phone or on Skype. There does not need to be a separate procedure for doing phone or Skype interviews. The only factor is that candidates who are not physically across from you as the interviewer tend to max out earlier than if they were face-to-face. Therefore, phone interviews should range between thirty-five to forty minutes tops; Skype a bit longer. Getting everything down to that time frame takes practice.
  • The interview questions presented here are based on a "job competency model" for the general counselor. They were not developed to test competencies for group leaders, division leaders, unit directors, and so on.
  • When you set up the interview by Skype or phone, give yourself a range in terms of time. You want to balance the need of the candidate to plan ahead with your need to bail out quickly if the candidate is not worth pursuing. What seems to work well with someone you will be seeing face-to-face is to say, "We will need between fifteen and forty-five minutes." For phone interviews, say that you will need "between fifteen and thirty-five minutes."

A Step-by-Step Progression

Like any endeavor that requires skill, a good interview follows a progression — almost like a road map. I have created a four-part process that has been successful with many camp professionals around the country.

Step One: Joining

The first part of an interview is designed to connect with your candidate and set a friendly tone with them. Explain first who you are and what your role is at camp. Then do a quick initial probe about any past camp experience, how they found out about your program, what they know about your camp, and what ideas they have about how life will be for them at camp if they sign up.

After a short exploration of these questions, give out some specific information about your camp program, such as dates, essential responsibilities, and so on, so you can check quickly to see if there is a "fit." If the dates don't work or the program you describe does not work for them, you save yourself the time and bother of going through the entire protocol.

When you give out this information, take time to give a thumbnail sketch of the kids you serve and the daily routine, as well as some details of the job. For example, are you a coed program? Do you have a religious affiliation? Do you observe any particular religious rituals? What is the rest of the staff (including volunteers) typically like? What are the hours of duty, time off, and so on? What is a typical day at camp like?

Talk a little about the primary roles and responsibilities of staff and volunteers — a description of what people will be expected to do, such as the following: wake kids up; get them to meals and activities on time; help them clean up; make them feel part of the group; resolve conflicts; help them make friends; be on your feet all day; anticipate problems before they happen; recognize the sick, sad, or self-conscious child; and so on.

From this concise, but somewhat detailed description, you immediately ascertain whether people are available for the dates of camp; whether they truly want to make the commitment; whether what you describe sounds like what they imagined; and so on. It is wise to have a uniform camp description given out by each interviewer. Hammer out this brief description of your camp, camp population, and core duties ahead of time, and then get it rehearsed!

Another objective of this first part of the interview is to establish whether the candidate has any preconceived ideas, feelings, or expectations about camp that might affect his or her performance. Remember that a candidate can just as easily have unrealistically high expectations about camp as they can have a bad taste in their mouth from a prior experience. In case you hear about a past camp experience that was negative, it is important to master the use of probing or follow-up questions, such as the following:

  1. What are your feelings about that now?
  2. How do you think this will affect your being in camp this summer?
  3. What have you done to resolve your feelings about that experience?

Step Two: The Set Up

At this point in the process, it is best to pause where, unbeknownst to the candidate, you make a quiet decision as to whether the person is worthy of your time to continue. If you do not want to continue, you have options about how you get out of the interview at this point. The first is to be honest: "You know, after listening to you for these last few minutes, I am not sure that our camp would be a good match for you. There are a lot of camps in the United States, and it makes sense to be at one where you have a good chance of being happy and feeling like the fit is good. I just don't think we have what you need or are looking for." This approach works if the candidate is new to camp, and you are sincere about what you are saying.

Another approach is to thank the candidate for her time (now about fifteen to twenty minutes into the process) and say that there are many other people you need to interview and that you will get back to them within a week to ten days. This approach works only if you actually send out a letter saying that you are sorry, but that all the positions they qualified for are full.

Once you decide to go ahead with the interview, you need to prepare them for the competency-based questions to follow. Announce that you have a series of questions that are about the candidate's experience. There are no right or wrong answers, and many people need to take a few minutes to think about their experience before they answer, and that's okay. Also mention that you will be taking a few notes as you go along to help you remember what the person says. Reassure your candidate that they will have time at the end of the process to ask any questions they might have about camp and the position for which they are applying. Then you are ready to move ahead!

Step Three: Competency-Based Questions

This is the meatiest and longest part of the interview, where you get measures of the competencies or abilities required to do the job. Again, probing and follow up questions are key to getting better information. You need at least three solid, positive responses in each competency to hire with any degree of reliability.

Step Four: The Close

If you really like the candidate, offer them a conditional contract. The conditions might be as follows:

  1. Finish the application process (complete forms, get references, etc.). 
  2. Agree on a salary, if any.
  3. Confirm dates of camp, as well as any training dates, once again.
  4. Make note of any certifications (life saving, driver's license, etc.).
  5. Confirm how you will get back to the candidate and when. This is also a time to allow your candidate to ask you any questions they may have about camp, the campers, the program, and so on. Don't hire someone you don't feel good about. My experience is that you will regret it later in the season.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. 

Originally published in the 2011 September/October Camping Magazine.