Guidance Counselor

Guidance counselors help students develop the academic and social skills necessary to lead successful lives. They observe students in the classroom and at play to assess their knowledge and abilities, help them develop academic and career goals, and provide interventions that address shortcomings. They work primarily at the elementary to high school levels, though a smaller number provide assistance through colleges and governmental organizations in educational and social services.

The need for guidance and school counselors continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts a 13% job growth rate between 2016 and 2026, 7% above the national average for all occupations. Students outnumbering counselors contributes to this gap. In the 2014-2015 school year, the national average of 482-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio fell short of the 250-to-1 recommendation by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).

The educational requirements for this profession vary depending on whether the individual works in a public or private school. Some states require a bachelor's degree for public school guidance counselors in addition to other requirements. Most require that guidance counselors hold a master's degree and meet other requirements for licensure or certification. On average, a guidance counselor brings in approximately $49,000 a year, according to PayScale, and geographic location plays the biggest role in the amount of pay followed by level of experience. This resource provides comprehensive information about how to pursue this occupation.

Becoming a Guidance Counselor

Degree Requirements

Individual states play a big role in what level of education individuals need for careers in guidance counseling. Some states such as Alabama and New York require only a bachelor's degree in a field such as psychology. However, most states and the District of Columbia require a master's to meet the minimum degree requirement for guidance counselors. In 2012, 93% of all guidance and school counselors in the U.S. held a master's degree, according to the Occupational Information Network; only 2% held only a bachelor's degree. While many counselors begin their careers with counseling degrees, the ASCA notes that some states such as Louisiana, Kansas, and Connecticut require that counselors hold a valid teaching license or demonstrate their eligibility for it prior to certification. Therefore, some aspiring counselors begin their careers with an approved teacher preparation program and then specialize in counseling.

Some colleges around the U.S. offer counseling programs that students complete fully online, except for the internship and clinical experiences often fulfilled in the learner's community. Others offer hybrid programs that include residency requirements on campus in addition to field experience. A virtual learning format provides working adults with an opportunity to earn a counseling degree while they juggle busy lives. When choosing a counseling program, learners should ensure the program holds accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). CACREP accreditation ensures that counseling programs meet the organization's rigorous standards.

Clinical Experience Requirements

Schools require that learners in counseling programs complete clinical requirements as part of their degree. Most states set guidelines for licensure that include practicum or internship details. The length of the clinical depends entirely on the state's requirements and the type of licensure sought. Students should contact their state boards to ensure that the program they seek to enroll in meets all licensure requirements.

During the supervised practicum/internship, students put the didactic portion of their studies to use within a school environment. The clinical usually begins with a practicum conducted over a limited number of hours during the course of a semester. Participants shadow experienced guidance counselors as they go about their duties, which includes individual and group counseling, individual and group testing, guidance presentations, and meetings with parents. An internship follows that usually involves a full-time commitment of about six hundred hours. Students apply their didactic and practical experiences as they assume the role of counselor while supervised by a preceptor.

Self-reflection and journaling often provide participants with a forum to chronicle their journey from novice to practicing counselor. Working adults must make the necessary arrangements so that employers give them the time off to complete the clinical. If they already work in a school, some programs allow counseling students to complete the internship there. If not, learners work with the school to find an approved site and a preceptor willing to oversee their internship.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

States mandate licensure (some states call this certification) for guidance counselors who plan to work in public schools, and these requirements vary from state to state. Most require guidance counselors to hold a master's degree and complete a supervised counseling internship in a school setting. Some states such as Kansas and Louisiana require those seeking licensure to hold a teaching certificate and at least two years of experience. Many states require candidates to pass a licensure examination such as Praxis, the National Counselor Examination (NCE) by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC), or one offered by the state such as TExES in Texas.

States such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania certify school counselors through their departments of education and other state agencies. NBCC offers professional counseling certification distinct from credentials issued by state agencies. Guidance counselors tack NBCC's National Certified School Counselor (NCSC) certificate onto their National Certified Counselor designation. It ensures that the guidance counselor possesses a high level of proficiency in national standards of practice, which gives an advantage in the job-hunting process and meets some states' requirements.

All states require candidates to complete background checks. Licensure or certification may not prove necessary if the guidance counselor plans to work in higher education or in a social-service setting. In whichever setting the individual plans to work, NBCC credentialing remains vital to enhance the individual's employability -- whether the state or institution mandates it or not. Organizations such as ASCA and NBCC provide information useful in determining each state's licensure or certification requirements. Guidance counselors pursuing licensure must acquaint themselves with state boards and these requirements.

Undergraduate Degrees vs. Graduate Degrees for Guidance Counselors

Some counselors begin their profession by pursuing a bachelor's degree in one field and pursuing guidance counseling once they get to the master's level. The following sections lay out the requirements for both baccalaureate and master's degrees in counseling.

Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's degree in psychology or education prepares learners for master's degrees in guidance counseling. Students may also complete a degree in social work, which some schools accept. Students usually spend four years in whichever baccalaureate program they choose, with the junior and senior years focused on the major. Graduate-level counseling programs usually require prerequisite courses since few bachelor's degrees in counseling exist.

Programs focused on any of the three fields mentioned above may provide learners with internship opportunities that supplement didactic learning; these tend to focus on guidance counseling given that an advanced degree incorporates the necessary internship hours for state licensure.

Since most states require guidance counselors to complete a CACREP-accredited master's program, those who decide to limit their education to a bachelor's degree find limited employment prospects. The Occupational Information Network notes that only 2% of guidance counselors held a bachelor's degree in 2012, compared to 93% with a master's. Further, if a guidance counselor wants to earn NBCC's National Certified School Counselor certificate, a master's degree serves as the minimum educational requirement.

Sample Courses

  • Lifespan Human Development: Focuses on the social, intellectual, personality, and physical development of humans from childhood to adulthood. It delves into the major theories that explain the inherent lifespan changes people experience.
  • Abnormal Psychology: Explores abnormal behavior in the population, how psychological scientists classify abnormal behaviors in diagnostic categories, the causes of these disorders, and the interventions used to treat them.
  • Counseling Techniques: Introduces students to the various stages of the counseling process beginning with counseling objectives, interviewing skills, and intervention strategies. Students may learn from immersion in discussions, role playing, videotaping, and peer critiques.
  • Educational Psychology: Examines teaching and learning theories and their practical applications in the classroom, with topics such as cognitive processes, conditioning, testing, and grading.
  • Developmental Disabilities: Students learn about developmental disorders over the lifespan. They study individual progress, policies and services for students with disorders, and school interventions.

Master's Degree

Many master's programs in guidance counseling require 48 credits that learners complete in two to three years of study. Guidance counseling programs generally incorporate a practicum or internship requirement -- 100 hours for the practicum and 600 hours for the internship. They conduct both in a school setting under the guidance of a supervisor.

Some schools offer master's in psychology and counseling programs with a specialization in guidance or school counseling. Learners may also choose to specialize in a particular area of school counseling such as pre-K-12 or bilingual-school counseling. Faculty may require that students complete a capstone or thesis to culminate the degree. Some programs require prerequisite courses in areas such as sociology or psychology, depending on the learner's baccalaureate major.

A master's in guidance counseling provides the holder with the minimum educational credentials necessary for licensure. Without licensure, finding a job could prove difficult; this remains particularly true for public schools since these institutions must meet state licensure mandates for educators and counselors.

Sample Courses

  • Counseling Theories: This course serves as an examination of the counseling process through the theories and techniques used by counselors. Students learn how to apply these techniques in diverse settings.
  • Social and Cultural Issues: This course focuses on the topical issues that influence human behavior and impact the counselor's practice, including multiculturalism, sexuality, and poverty.
  • School Counseling: This course provides an in-depth analysis of the philosophical, sociological, legal, and ethical issues involved in school counseling. It helps the student understand the importance of the role and helps them develop a counselor identity.
  • School Counseling Program Planning: Students learn how to use data to plan, develop, and implement a school counseling program that meets the needs of the school and students.
  • Academic and Career Counseling: Learners delve into career counseling theories and the strategies necessary to help students make the right academic and career choices. They learn about interventions such as career education to facilitate this process.

Skills Gained in a Guidance Counseling Program

Counselors need a specific repertoire of skills to effectively address the problems clients face. While counseling students should possess an acceptable level of skill sets upon entry into graduate school, graduate programs specifically address deficiencies. They do so with immersion in best practices through classes with skilled professionals, opportunities for role-play, and through their own field experiences.

  • Interpersonal Skills: The everyday people skills individuals use to interact with people prove especially vital in the helping relationship. These skills include emotional intelligence, communication, diplomacy, and mediation. The guidance counselor must relate to a diverse group of clients, and all of these skills serve as vital to build trust in the counselor and the counseling process.
  • Communication Skills: Counselors rely on listening and the communication of their thoughts and ideas in order to effectively address the needs of the client. Counselors use reflection, clarification, and questioning skills as part of verbal communication. These skills build rapport and engage the client.
  • Listening Skills: Counselors learn how to refine their active listening skills so they understand the client's messaging. Listening involves a comprehension of verbal and nonverbal cues such as facial expression, posture, and physiological responses. Without effective listening, the counselor misses or misinterprets important cues and messages leading to an incorrect assessment of the client.
  • Organizational Skills: With increasing client caseloads and limited school resources, counselors must master organizational skills such as time-management and self-discipline to effectively complete each day's responsibilities. They must manage each day's appointments, delegate responsibilities when possible, and effectively use resources to maintain a high level of efficiency.
  • Critical-Thinking Skills: A collection of skills contribute to effective critical thinking, including observation, analysis, reflection, and evaluation. Each session between counselor and client involves the use of these skills, as does successful interaction and negotiation with school staff, leadership, and parents.

Employment and Salary Outlook for Guidance Counselors

With a projected 13% employment growth forecast through 2026, guidance and school counselors enjoy buoyant job prospects. This percentage exceeds the average for all occupations, which stands at 7%. The highest amount of employment for educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors falls in the category of elementary and secondary schools, with 133,780 positions. The next largest group of guidance counselors, 62,430, work in colleges, universities, and professional schools.

The three industries with the least concentration of guidance counselor are junior colleges at 21,270; vocational rehabilitation services at 12,070; and individual and family services at 7,550. According to the BLS, guidance counselors in elementary and secondary schools; junior colleges; and colleges, universities, and professional schools earn the highest pay.

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Elementary and Secondary Schools 133,780 1.58% $66,180
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools 62,430 2.07% $51,950
Junior Colleges 21,270 2.89% $58,440
Vocational Rehabilitation Services 12,070 3.65% $41,230
Individual and Family Services 7,550 0.33% $43,600

Source: BLS

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Vocational Rehabilitation Services 12,070 3.65% $41,230
Educational Support Services 5,640 3.17% $56,930
Junior Colleges 21,270 2.89% $58,440
Technical and Trade Schools 3,140 2.35% $52,840
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools 62,430 2.07% $51,950

Source: BLS

How Much Do Guidance Counselors Make?

The pay for guidance counselors depends on a number of factors, including years of experience. PayScale notes that a guidance counselor with 0-5 years of practice earns an average of $42,000. Experienced counselors with 5-10 years of practice make $47,000; 10-20 years, $52,000; and 20 years or more, $63,000. The location in which a guidance counselor lives also impacts pay, as does the industry and job title. Specialization in an area such as bilingual school counseling makes a guidance counselor more marketable in districts that seek to address the needs of particular populations.

Salaries for Guidance Counselors by Experience

  Entry-Level (0-5 Years) Mid-Career (5-10 Years) Experienced (10-20 Years) Late-Career (>20 Years)
Guidance Counselor $42,000 $47,000 $52,000 $63,000

Source: PayScale

Top-Paying States for Counselors

Location remains a key factor for how much pay a guidance counselor makes. As of May 2017, the five states with the highest number of employed educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors rank as follow: California at 30,050, Texas at 24,380, New York at 22,430, Florida at 14,820, and Illinois at 11,180. Those states also post some of the highest earnings for guidance counselors -- with California leading the way at $68,000, followed by New York at $67,100, and Texas at $60,210. Guidance counselors should consider other factors that impact their careers within the state, including cost of living, salary potential, and population stability and growth. The latter remains particularly important since it impacts the number of students who will need their services.

Related Careers for Guidance Counselors

The skills guidance counselors hold often transfer to other occupations such as teacher and substance abuse counselor. In fact, some states mandate that individuals seeking certification hold a teaching certificate and at least two years of experience in order to meet state eligibility requirements for guidance counselors. Further, many guidance counseling master's programs prepare participants to address the issues clients face, such as addiction, mental health issues, and behavioral disorders. Therefore, a guidance counselor may transfer some of their acquired education and skills in these areas to a career as a counselor specializing in substance abuse, behavioral disorders, and mental health issues -- provided that they complete all of the additional educational and licensure requirements of the state in which they live.

A master's degree in counseling with school counseling as a concentration gives a guidance counselor the opportunity to easily migrate to other areas of counseling when necessary. Guidance counselors can also enhance their employability skills with certifications from NBCC or the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

Occupation Description Salary Degree Level Required
High School Teachers Teachers prepare students with the academic and career skills necessary for life after high school. Guidance counselors complement teachers because they address other areas such as students' behavioral and social skills. $59,170 Bachelor's
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors Specialized counselors who provide treatment and support to clients help them modify destructive behaviors and improve their lives; the issues guidance counselors confront often come from their student population. $43,300 Master's
Marriage and Family Therapists Therapists who specialize in helping couples and families address mental disorders, emotional disorders, and other challenges that negatively impact the unit. $48,790 Master's
Social Worker Social workers employ many of the skill sets used by counselors. They counsel individuals on how to cope with various life challenges, and clinical social workers diagnose and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral issues. $47,980 Master's
Correctional Treatment Specialists These specialists serve in a counseling role as they assess law offenders, providing them with access to several social services, such as job training and addictions counseling. $51,410 Bachelor's

Source: PayScale/BLS

How to Find a Guidance Counseling Job

Once an individual completes the educational, internship, and licensure requirements, they need to find a job. A well-developed resume serves as the first introduction between an individual and an employer. Job seekers should make sure the document harbors no flaws. It should succinctly outline all of the applicant's education, work experience, and skills. If individuals pursue additional specializations, they must include those on the resume -- if applicable to the particular position.

Every school boasts a career center which students and alumni use to access resources such as resume-building workshops and job postings. Job fairs provide an excellent opportunity to meet employers in person; some may offer opportunities for employers to interview job candidates on the spot as part of pre-screening. Guidance counselors should keep abreast of job fairs happening around the country through their school districts and through Teacher Job Fairs. This website markets itself as the leading repository of teacher jobs fairs in the U.S., hosting thousands of career opportunities for educators, including career counselors.

Another invaluable resource for guidance counselors includes membership in a professional organization such as the American Counseling Association, American School Counselor Association, or Association of Child and Adolescent Counseling. They offer member services such as job search resources, professional development, publications, and networking opportunities.

Professional Organizations for Guidance Counselors

  • National Education Association: The NEA serves as the largest labor union and professional organization for educators in the U.S. The organization oversees a large body of resources, including publications on issues such as bullying, behavior interventions, and technology.
  • School Counselor Resources: This source serves as a repository for publications, videos, and other materials that school counselors can use to build effective counseling programs at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.
  • SCOPE: School counselors use the site to keep up-to-date on the latest trends, technology tools, and resources available in the field. It includes a "tools" section that lists free software and apps educators use in areas such as organization and evaluation.
  • Teachers Pay Teachers: Educators buy, sell, and share educational resources on this online marketplace developed for and run by educators. Teachers Pay Teachers offers many free resources, tips, and special offers.
  • Southern Teachers Agency: This agency serves educators around the country who want to work in private schools in the South; it also provides services to guidance counselors.

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