How to Become a School Counselor

School counselors care about children and want them to succeed. If you feel similarly and want to join this profession, you'll likely need to earn a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. Earning both degrees can take around six years of study but leads to a rewarding career of helping students become successful in their academic and personal lives. Whether you want to switch your career path or advance in your current job, this guide can teach you more about how to become a school counselor.

What Does a School Counselor Do?

Counselors serve as important resources for elementary, middle, and high school students, and these professionals take on different roles for learners of different ages. For instance, a high school counselor might help students apply to colleges, while an elementary school counselor might assist with programs like kindergarten round-up (i.e., a welcoming event that often includes assessing children's classroom readiness skills).

Regardless of the learners they oversee, school counselors work directly with students, helping them negotiate academic, behavioral, social, and familial problems. Counselors also meet with parents to discuss a child's strengths and weaknesses and with teachers to make sure curricula and expectations meet student needs. Ultimately, a counselor's goal involves helping students succeed academically and socially.

What Does It Take to Become a School Counselor?

Counselors should approach their charges with empathy, especially if children wrestle with heavy issues. Counselors must also be able to step back and examine their students' problems from an analytical perspective.

Analytical Skills: Children often hesitate to reveal everything about their social or home lives. Therefore, counselors often need to read between the lines to help students overcome their problems. Counselors often assess students and interpret results before deciding how to help.

Compassion: Troubled children may struggle to express themselves, and counselors should respond compassionately and consider the circumstances that might shape bad behavior.

Interpersonal Skills: School counselors often work with children who act out for attention or who shut down because of anxiety. Counselors should be able to create meaningful relationships with all students.

Listening Skills: Adults tend to make assumptions about children and how young people understand the world. School counselors should be able to listen to children without interrupting them.

Speaking Skills: School counselors must communicate with children and break down difficult concepts. They should also possess the ability to speak in an engaging and non-condescending manner.

How to Become a School Counselor

The guide below outlines general requirements for becoming a school counselor. Keep in mind that the process varies by state; an individual's education level, certification, and experience can also impact this process. Make sure to investigate your state's requirements before enrolling in a program.

Earn a Degree

Almost every state requires school counselors to hold a master's degree, and state licensure permits counselors to find jobs in the public education system. Graduates with only a bachelor's degree may be able to find counseling-related jobs to gain work experience before earning their master's degree, while other students pursue master's degrees in a different field and then pursue work as school counselors. For instance, a graduate student might earn a degree in psychology but specialize in counseling children or students.

  • Bachelor's Degree in School Counseling: Before attending graduate school, students must earn a bachelor's degree. Students can choose from several undergraduate programs that offer degrees in school counseling. Bachelor's programs typically require four years of study, although this may vary if students enroll in an accelerated or part-time program or pursue a double major. Bachelor's tracks ask students to complete general education classes and counseling coursework. Additionally, some schools only offer school counseling as a concentration; for example, students who intend to eventually pursue a master's in counseling may major in psychology while taking some counseling-related classes.
  • Master's Degree in School Counseling: Once students earn their undergraduate degrees, they can move on to graduate school. Specific curricula for master's programs in school counseling vary, although most master's programs expect students to complete supervised work (e.g., internships or practica). Students usually take less time to complete their master's degrees than their undergraduate programs. Graduate students typically spend 2-3 years in master's program, depending on whether they enroll full or part time.
  • Doctoral Degree in School Counseling: School counselors do not need to earn doctoral degrees in school counseling to find jobs at public schools. However, professionals in the field sometimes opt to earn a Ph.D. in counseling if they enjoy conducting research. Individuals who earn this terminal degree might stay in academia, working as a faculty members at universities. Alternatively, they might carry out research at a corporation, nonprofit, or other research organization. Earning a Ph.D. demands more time than earning a bachelor's or master's degree; students can spend 5-10 additional years pursuing a doctoral degree.

Accreditation for School Counseling Programs

When researching potential school counseling degrees, look for programs that hold accreditation. Accreditation agencies evaluate academic programs to make sure students receive a quality education. Without an accredited degree, becoming a school counselor may prove impossible. Most master's programs list accredited bachelor's degree in their admissions requirements. Additionally, if students graduate with an unaccredited graduate degree, they may not qualify to sit for licensure exams. Employers also consider whether potential hires hold accredited degrees.

Three main agencies accredit programs related to counseling and psychology. The American Psychological Association Commission on Accreditation assesses academic degrees within the field of psychology, while the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs evaluates counseling degrees. Additionally, the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council focuses specifically on master's degrees in this field.

Aspiring students should also ensure that their university possesses institutional accreditation, at either the regional or national level.

Licensure and Experience Requirements to Become a School Counselor

Each state demands different requirements for school counselor certification. First, prospective counselors must often pass a licensure exam; states administer PRAXIS, PLACE, or state-specific tests, although some do not require individuals to sit for an exam at all. Second, most states require prospective counselors to hold a master's degree before they can apply for licensure, although a handful of states allow for some flexibility with this requirement. Third, states typically expect students to hold a certain number of supervised counseling hours, which learners usually complete in the form of an internship or practicum. Finally, some states require school counselors to possess teaching experience. While some states expect counselors to hold experience leading a classroom, others allow student-teaching experiences to fulfil this requirement. Prospective counselors must also pass a background check. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) publishes a list of certifications for each state.

School Counselor Requirements by State

As mentioned earlier, understanding the specific school counselor requirements in the state where you intend to apply for certification is incredibly important. One misunderstood requirement can set prospective counselors back a year -- or longer -- in their quests for licensure.

Once licensed, many states allow counselors to transfer their credentials if they move across state lines. However, some states require additional paperwork, while others may not accept another state's certification at all. Requirements for renewing and maintaining licensure also vary across the country. Read more about specific requirements for school counselor licensure here.

Types of School Counselors

School counselors perform different job duties, depending on where they work and the age of their students. For instance, high school students preparing for college require a different type of guidance than elementary school students struggling with foundational skills like reading and writing. The list below describes common roles held by school counselors.

  • Elementary School Counselor: These workers help children as they navigate through different school experiences for the first time. These professionals may identify students struggling with developmental problems or learning disabilities and help children wrestling with difficult home lives or social obstacles. Elementary school counselors often keep in touch with both parents and teachers to help track students' development.
  • Middle School Counselor: Like professionals who work with younger children, middle school counselors guide students grappling with behavioral, developmental, academic, and social problems. However, middle school counselors also help students navigate the difficulties that come along with puberty; for example, they might teach students about their developing bodies and help teachers cover sex education.
  • High School Counselor: In addition to helping students with academic obstacles, high school counselors advise students on their futures after high school. These professionals might provide students with reading materials related to colleges, careers, and apprenticeships. They may also help students fill out college and job applications.
  • Career Counselor: Career counselors work with high school students, college students, and adults who need professional guidance. These workers may evaluate their clients' skills, desires, and career goals to help them find suitable positions.
The Largest Employers of School and Career Counselors
Elementary and Secondary Schools; State, Local, and Private 44%
Junior Colleges, Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools; State, Local, and Private 34%
Healthcare and Social Assistance 10%
Other Educational Services; State, Local, and Private 4%
Self-Employed Workers 3%

Source: BLS

Salary and Employment for School Counselors

Several factors can influence school counselor salaries, including their education level, professional experience, and location. Additionally, different schools and industries operate with different budgets. Private schools, for example, might pay differently than public schools. The same goes for universities and community colleges.

Average Salary for School Counselors by Experience Level
Entry Level $44,000
Mid Career $49,000
Experienced $57,000
Late Career $63,000

Source: PayScale (July 2018)

Average Salary for School Counselors by Industry
Elementary and Secondary Schools; State, Local, and Private $62,990
Other Educational Services; State, Local, and Private $49,570
Junior Colleges, Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools; State, Local, and Private $49,150
Healthcare and Social Assistance $37,300

Source: BLS

How to Find a Job as a Licensed School Counselor

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of school and career counselors will grow by 13% between 2016 and 2026. This rate of growth is almost twice that of the average job in the nation.

Entering the job market can be intimidating. To help make this process less daunting, consider joining a professional association. These organizations help recent graduates and students connect with seasoned professionals who can offer tips on resume writing and interviews. By networking, job hunters can also learn about career opportunities that might not appear on general job boards.

Consider joining associations like the American Counseling Association, ASCA, or American College Counseling Association. All of these organizations provide members with access to a variety of helpful resources. For instance, ASCA runs a podcast and publishes a magazine. Additionally, blogs like School Counseling from A-Z and The Counseling Geek offer advice and guidance.

Resources for School Counselors

  • School Psyched Podcast: In every episode of this podcast, three school counselors interview an expert in mental health. They chat about topics like risk assessment in schools and childhood anxieties. The podcast also gives listeners access to a Google Drive full of mental health counseling resources.
  • The Guidance Group: This group provides therapy materials and mental health tools for counselors who work with children. Professionals can find resources to help at-risk youth and children struggling to develop their social skills.
  • Journal of School Counseling: Published by Montana State University, this academic journal publishes the latest research in the field of school counseling. Counselors can subscribe to stay up to date on topics related to theory, research, and professional development.
  • What Works Clearinghouse: This site operates a database of resources for professionals working in education. Counselors can find intervention reports and practice guides to help complete their daily responsibilities.
  • Julia V. Taylor's School Counseling Resources: Run by an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, this website hosts a library of counseling references and resources. Counselors can also find organizations that help with important issues like bullying, alcohol, and drugs.