What to Know About a Master's Degree in Counseling

Professional counselors cover a wide range of specialties, helping people with important life decisions, health issues, and family and relationship troubles. If you enjoy working directly with people, and see yourself employed at a healthcare center, school, or private practice, you might consider pursuing a master's in counseling.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of counseling professions will increase by 12% to 26% (depending on the specialty) by 2026. Student enrollment at higher education institutions is also on the rise, and schools are hiring counselors to meet the growing demand.

Additionally, the criminal justice system realizes the importance of counseling for those struggling with substance abuse and addiction. Sentences for such offenders often include mandatory counseling as part of (or instead of) incarceration. With increasing use of integrated care and specialist counseling, those with a master's in counseling are eligible for exciting, life-changing employment opportunities.

Should You Get a Master's in Counseling?

You have a few options to consider regarding graduate school for counseling. Both online and on-campus programs are available for a counseling master's degree, and some colleges offer a hybrid combination of the two. Online degree programs often appeal to working professionals and people with daytime obligations that would interfere with a traditional on-campus class schedule. Online degree programs offer more schedule flexibility, and are often cheaper than on-campus programs.

Alternatively, on-campus programs give some students the traditional face-to-face experience they may prefer. On-campus programs tend to attract students immediately after completing their undergraduate degrees if they want to move quickly into a credentialed position that requires a master's degree.

Whether you choose the online, hybrid, or on-campus degree format, you will acquire essential skills to be a competent counselor. These skills include the ability to evaluate patient issues and develop treatment goals to modify behaviors or battle addiction. For school and career counselors, critical skills involve guiding individuals through application processes, helping them to make positive career and life decisions, and identifying issues that impede clients' personal progress.

Counseling degrees often offer opportunities to network with like-minded individuals, secure internships, and seek out job search assistance. The relationships you build during your graduate career can help launch your career development following graduation. The master's in counseling helps distinguish you in a competitive job market, and increases your chances for upward mobility in most counseling positions.

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What Can You Do With a Master's in Counseling?

  • School Counselor: School counselors work in state, local, and private elementary and secondary schools. They interact directly with students, usually in one-on-one settings or small groups. These professionals help students plan for their future and deal with stress in their daily lives. They also teach faculty, staff, and students about bullying, drug abuse, college, and careers. Some states and school systems require school counselors to hold both a master's in counseling and a state-issued certification, license, or endorsement.
  • Substance Abuse Counselor: Substance abuse counselors help clients and their families identify addition issues and problematic behavior, and develop treatment plans to work toward recovery. These professionals coach their clients on coping mechanisms and strategies to modify their daily actions. Substance abuse counselors also refer clients as needed to specialists and other resources to ensure they get the care they need. Most counselors in this area of the field must have a master's degree and state licensure.
  • Genetic Counselor: This specialized area of the counseling profession is for those who wish to work directly with patients and evaluate their medical histories, discuss potential hereditary health issues in their futures, and counsel them on how to deal with health concerns. These professionals also refer patients to specialists in particular medical fields to assist them beyond initial consultations and counseling. A master's degree is required, as is a state licensure exam, in most cases.
  • Family and Marriage Therapist: Family and marriage therapists help clients work through difficult times in their lives such as divorce, career changes, and layoffs. These professionals teach clients how to develop good habits that redirect their thought processes, plus coping mechanisms for stressful situations. These therapists start by evaluating their clients, then choose either to treat them themselves or refer them to a specialist. Therapists must have a master's degree in counseling or psychology to work directly with patients. All states require these therapists to be licensed, as well, with 2,000 to 4,000 hours of post-degree supervised clinical experience.
  • Rehabilitation Counselor: These counselors assist clients with mental and physical disabilities, usually when they are going through transitory phases. Rehabilitation counselors work with students while they transition into the workforce, or with military personnel coping with the mental and physical ramifications of active service. These counselors also often work with elderly patients who need assistance with everything from illnesses and disabilities to testimonial assessments for their personal-injury or workers' compensation cases. Most employers require professionals to have a master's degree in counseling or related field. Licensure requirements for these positions differ by state, but you should plan on becoming a certified counselor to increase your employment opportunities.

Master's in Counseling Salary

Position Median Annual Salary Projected Growth Rate
School Counselor $55,410 13%
Substance Abuse Counselor $43,300 23%
Genetic Counselor $77,480 29%
Family and Marriage Therapist $48,790 23%
Rehabilitation Counselor $34,860 13%

Source: BLS

How to Choose a Master's Program in Counseling

When it comes to choosing a master's degree program, you should consider several important factors, starting with whether an online or on-campus program is best for you, depending on your schedule, obligations, and flexibility. You should also take into account how much money you're willing to spend on your degree, considering both tuition and cost of living. Working from home is one thing. Moving to a new city, renting an apartment or house, and finding adequate transportation presents its own set of financial challenges. Also make sure to factor quality of life into your program decision.

Next, decide whether you want to study full time or part time, as this may affect your program options. Working professionals often prefer the flexibility of part-time enrollment, especially in online programs. Full-time students, however, usually finish their degrees in less time and may ultimately save money on living and commuting expenses. Most master's programs require students to undergo an internship or period of supervised time in the field. Some may also require a written thesis or final project, based on original research.

Consider what you hope to get out of your professors and coursework. Review past course catalogs to learn each prospective program's strengths and weaknesses. If you want to focus on a particular specialization, make sure your prospective program offers that option.

Programmatic Accreditation for Master's Programs in Counseling

Master's programs in counseling must be accredited by the right organizations. Accreditation ensures that students are receiving a quality education, and may be assigned on either a regional or national level. Counseling programs should have their own accreditation, as well, ideally from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC).

Each of these organizations have its own standards regarding clinical hours, curricular foci, and faculty qualifications. MPCAC focuses on master's degree programs, while CACREP offers accreditation for both master's and doctoral programs. To be eligible for licensure, some states require that students graduate from a CACREP-accredited program, so be sure to check your state's requirements. Counselors seeking licensure may petition to be exempt from this rule, but it's easiest to follow state regulations when preparing for your career. If you do not graduate with the correct credentials, you have to petition or relocate to another state to obtain licensure.

Master's in Counseling Program Admissions

Each student application undergoes a careful review process by admissions officers to determine whether applicants would thrive in their chosen programs. Personal statements and writing samples, if required, play a particularly critical role. Applications for enrolling in a master's in counseling online are about the same as applications for traditional programs, if not slightly more involved. In most cases, prospective students will submit a standard application, a resume or CV, a statement of purpose, official transcript copies, letters of recommendation, and GRE scores.

The admissions process for online counseling degree programs may also include a FaceTime interview between you and the admissions committee. Students seeking a master's degree in counseling online should plan to apply to about six schools: two dream schools, two target schools, and two safety schools. When selecting your prospective programs, consider your GPA and test scores, plus how well you would fit with the department's philosophy, strengths, and curriculum.

Prerequisites

  • Degree: Students applying for a master's degree program in counseling must hold a bachelor's degree. Their undergraduate degrees don't necessarily need to be in counseling or a related subject, but prior academic experience with counseling may help you craft a better application and narrow down your interests in the field.
  • Professional Experience: Exact requirements vary between schools, but usually, little to no counseling experience is required for admission to a master's degree program. If you apply to a school that recommends you have prior experience, do your best to highlight any comparable work experience you do have.
  • Minimum GPA: Graduate counseling degree programs usually require a minimum undergraduate GPA of between 2.7 and 3.0. If you have already completed some graduate courses, you may be expected to have a GPA of 3.0. Some schools may let prospective students to take graduate courses before they are formally admitted to the program, allowing them the opportunity to boost their GPA if necessary.
  • License: Most states require counselors to pass a licensing exam prior to working with patients one-on-one, and state regulations are strictly enforced. You should not practice in a state that requires a license before obtaining your official certification. Doing so will result in prosecution to the full extent of the law.

Source: Counselor-License.com

Admission Materials

  • Application: For the 750 colleges using the CommonApp system, you only need to complete one application. It takes three to five days to complete a CommonApp application, and most colleges now allow applicants to submit all their materials online, including letters of application and test scores. Letter of recommendation writers usually send their letters directly to the school.
  • Transcripts: Most schools require that you have your previous school send them official transcripts. In some cases, you may be able to submit sealed and stamped transcript copies with your application materials. Transcripts are usually required at the beginning of the application process.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Colleges often request three letters of recommendation to be submitted electronically by the letter writers themselves. These letters should come from previous professors who can speak to your academic capabilities and work ethic. It helps if they are experts in counseling or a related field. You should give your writers at least several weeks to prepare their letters. The more time you give them, the better.
  • Test Scores: The GRE is still the standard graduate exam for the humanities, social sciences, and related fields. Not all schools require the GRE for admission. An acceptable or competitive score depends on where you apply and what the competition in the applicant pool is like that year. One preparation option is to study hard and take a dozen practice exams ahead of time, and when you are ready to take the GRE, take it only once and then move forward with your application. Don't spend too much time and energy re-taking the exam, when you could dedicate it to other application areas.
  • Application Fee: Application fees vary for each school. Some students may qualify for application fee waivers -- contact your prospective schools and ask if waivers are available. Waivers are often reserved for students from marginalized groups.

What Else Can You Expect From a Master's Program in Counseling?

Graduate programs have a lot to offer their students, including library resources, access to faculty mentorship, and well-designed courses. Departments that strive to keep up with the field can set you up for success. Seek out schools with resources that will support your specialized research interests and help you grow as a scholar.

Concentrations Offered for a Master's in Counseling

Concentration Description Careers this concentration prepares for
Child and Adolescent Treatment In this concentration, you learn to understand the mental health needs of this vulnerable population. From familial issues and race to bullying and stress, counselors help children from early childhood through adolescence who deal with these issues. These counselors learn how to diagnose and treat a variety of common issues experienced by patients in this group.
  • School Counselor
  • Private Practices/Specialist
  • Healthcare Center Counselor
  • Nonprofit Organization/Educator
Expressive Arts Therapy Students in this concentration learn how to utilize the arts -- such as drama, dance, music, painting, and poetry -- with their counseling work. They implement cutting-edge research in neuroscience, education, and psychology. This concentration is best for counseling students who already have a background in the arts.
  • Registered Expressive Arts Therapist
  • Registered Educator
  • Nonprofit Organization/Educator
Sexual Orientation Concentration Counselors with this specialization work on college campuses and at schools and private practices as mental health workers. They work specifically with patients dealing with gender identity and sexual orientation issues. Professionals in these programs embrace all lifestyles and sexual identities, and provide safe, inclusive spaces for people from all walks of life.
  • College Campus Counselor
  • Nonprofit Organization/Educator
  • Private Practice Counselor
Marriage and Family This concentration prepares counselors to face many different types of family scenarios. Marriage and family therapists gain exposure to a myriad of social and cultural contexts, so they can provide the best care for each client. Some counseling degree programs allow you to focus on life span development, domestic violence, or general theory and practice.
  • Private Practice Counselor
  • Government Employee
  • Healthcare Center Staff
Trauma and Crisis Intervention This concentration prepares you to help individuals and communities recover from trauma or disasters. You will learn the theory behind trauma therapy, intervention strategies, and the standard treatment models needed to support those in crisis. Many counseling degree programs also help you develop leadership skills to teach effective crisis management skills and establish trauma counseling services.
  • Disaster Relief Organizations
  • Private Practice
  • Nonprofit Organization
  • Healthcare Center Staff

Courses in a Master's Program in Counseling

Colleges build their curriculum around their faculty, so course offerings differ between schools. However, you'll find some iteration of certain courses in virtually all counseling degree programs. A sample curriculum is listed below:

  • Foundations of Counseling: In this introductory courses, you learn the philosophical foundations of the field and how it is studied academically. These courses cover the foundation and theoretical concepts necessary for counselors to work with individuals, groups, children, and families. These courses give students a general understanding of professional counseling in multicultural contexts.
  • Growth and Development: As a graduate student, you will study the development of individuals and families and lifespan transitions. You will also conduct behavioral analysis and learning processes, and explore common addictions and trauma-related events that plague patients of all ages.
  • Theories of Counseling: These courses give students the opportunity to apply counseling techniques they studied in previous classes. They apply the theories and methods with careful consideration for the social, cultural, and ethical contexts for each given scenario. Your professor may orchestrate simulated counseling sessions to help you practice these methods.
  • Family Therapy: Counselors must hold a unique skill set to work with groups of people and families. In these courses, you will explore theories for navigating complex family relationships and their issues. Most of these courses include experiential-based activities to situate course content within real-life contexts.
  • Addictions and Substance Abuse Counseling: As a popular specialization in the counseling field, courses on substance abuse help master's students understand the diagnosis and treatment of chemical dependencies and other addictions. Some programs focus on the family unit and its positive or negative influences on addicts. Others focus on evaluating services available to individuals with addictions and their families.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's in Counseling?

Earning a graduate degree is always time-consuming, but it's up to you how much time you want it to take. Master's degrees typically take full-time students two to three years to complete. Some programs take longer than others depending whether they require internships, fieldwork, or practicums. Part-time students must work at their own pace, enroll in fewer classes, and take required courses as they become available and fit their desired schedule.

Online degree programs may allow you to take more credits per semester than an average "full" course load. Taking extra courses can sometimes be a challenge for traditional on-campus students, as classroom space can be limited. Depending on the school, sometimes you can save on tuition if you take more credits at one time.

How Much Is a Master's in Counseling?

Both online counseling degrees and traditional on-campus degrees vary widely in cost. When searching for a degree program, you must consider more than the cost per credit hour. Traditional students can encounter a number of expenses beyond tuition, including housing costs, transportation, books and supplies, and technology fees. Those seeking a master's in counseling online can likely save money on transportation, moving costs, and housing, but online tuition is not necessarily cheaper than on-campus tuition.

An online counseling degree typically costs between $300 and $400 per credit hour. There are schools, however, for which online degree programs cost up to $1,000 per credit hour. Master's degrees often require between 36 and 60 credit hours to graduate. Therefore, depending on your school, tuition costs alone can range from $18,000 to 64,000. Traditional on-campus programs have comparable tuitions rates, but may incur additional expenses for housing, transportation, and relocation.

Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Counseling Prepares For

All states require professional counselors go through the state board licensing process. There is no universal list of requirements for all states, as each state has unique requirements for licensure or certification. Earning certification, such as with the National Board of Certified Counselors Certification or the Commission of Rehabilitation Counselor Certification, is not the same as a license. Licensure requires counselors to have a master's degree and pass all the required examinations. States often also require 2,000 to 4,000 hours of post-master's degree supervised clinical experience. Each state has its own license renewal requirements, which can usually be completed online. Renewal often involves an exam and a renewal fee, plus continued education hours.

  • Marriage and Family Counseling License: In most states, professionals who wish to practice marriage and family counseling must pass the Examination in Marital and Family Therapy exam. The Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards administers the exam, but you must get permission from your state to take it.
  • School Counselor License: In addition to earning your master's in school counseling, you must also pass an exam after graduation. Many states require the National Counsellor Examination for a school counselor license. Unlike state licensure for professional counseling, licensure for school counselors doesn't usually require supervised clinical hours.
  • Rehabilitation Counselor Certification: Rehabilitation counselors often pursue voluntary certification through the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification. Whether you decide to earn their certification usually depends on your career goals, since some counseling positions don't necessarily require licensure or certification.
  • Grief Counseling Licensing: To become a Grief Recovery Practitioner, you must have a master's degree. For those who wish to work as general grief counselors, the American Academy of Grief Counseling offers numerous certifications. The certification process includes additional formal training and exams. Depending on your desired career, you may pursue state licensure in broad categories such as professional counseling or clinical social work.
  • Crisis Intervention Counseling Certification: If you are a licensed social worker, healthcare professional, psychologist, or counselor, you can apply certification offered by the American Institute of Health Care Professionals (AIHCP). Applicants must complete 275 hours of classroom work at an AIHCP-approved program. These could include college courses, continuing education seminars, or counseling retreats that focus on crisis intervention. You must complete these classroom hours within five years to be considered by the AIHCP for certification. Candidates can apply online.

Resources for Graduate Counseling Students

  • American Institute of Healthcare Professionals: AIHCP's website includes a resources tab, plus links to dozens of useful sites. Each popular counseling specialization has its own set of links to pertinent information.
  • National Association for College Admission Counseling: NACAC is an organization specializing in serving students as they pursue postsecondary education. The homepage includes links to professional development resources, news and publications, and information regarding membership for further involvement and additional education.
  • National Career Development Association: NCDA offers a website dedicated to career information resources, news, publications, and professional development opportunities for those pursuing careers in higher education counseling. Graduate students can take advantage of NCDA's professional development tools to create a closer connection with other students and counselors in the field.
  • Association for Career and Technical Education: CTE prepares secondary, postsecondary, and adult students for success in the workplace. The website includes professional development resources, online learning tools, and access to the job board.
  • Higher Education Resource Hub: This site provides an extensive resource for college students in all fields. Follow the links for more information on professional associations, funding and financial aid resources, and research materials.

Professional Organizations in Counseling

Professional organizations are valuable resources for both graduate students and working professionals, providing them with access to job boards and industry information. Students and working professionals alike can find great networking opportunities through these organizations, especially at annual and regional conferences. Memberships often include special access to career services, continuing education programs, and mailing lists.

  • American Counseling Association: This nonprofit promotes professional and educational growth among counseling professionals. ACA offers an annual conference, educational webinars, and an active blog to help its members stay current on counseling research.
  • American College Counseling Association: This organization for counseling professionals and students focuses on strengthening counseling programs at higher education institutions. Members have access to ACCA's interest groups, plus a job board, a news feed, and other online resources. There is also an annual conference.
  • National Employment Counseling Association: Members gain access to numerous online resources through NECA, such as continuing education information, newsletters, career management training, and a peer-to-peer network. NECA specializes in connecting its members with employment information and career development opportunities.
  • Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling: ALGBTIC promotes greater awareness and understanding of LGBT issues among counselors and professionals in related fields. The site includes access to continuing education information, publications by members, and LGBT-related counseling resources.
  • Association for Humanistic Counseling: AHC is made up of working professionals who follow humanistic theories of counseling. This group promotes the belief that combining personal growth with public service leads to wellness for both individuals and communities. AHC is part of the American Counseling Association, and also hosts networking events, webinars, online publications, and a listserv.
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