Graduate Application Guide for Counselors

Applying to graduate school is a daunting prospect for even the most successful students. The process involves several steps of varying complexity, including narrowing down school selections, taking the GRE, answering application questions, and soliciting letters of recommendation. The entire process can become overwhelming, even if you begin your applications months in advance. However, with the right resources and information, it is possible to mitigate much of the stress from the graduate application process.

This guide offers a comprehensive overview of the major factors involved in applying to school guidance counselor graduate programs. You will find information on prerequisites, the GRE, other application components, the submission process, and what to do after you submit your applications. While this guide offers a general perspective on the process, it is not a substitute for individual research. Each program holds different admission requirements and standards, and doing your research is key to understanding what different schools are looking for. Thorough preparation lays the foundation for a successful application process.

Graduate-Level Counseling Program Prerequisites

Do I Need a Bachelor's Degree in Counseling to Earn a Master's Degree in Counseling?

In general, a bachelor's in counseling is not required for admission to a master's program, though requirements vary between schools. However, most institutions require you to hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited four-year college. A degree from an accredited school is important when applying to grad school because accreditation indicates that your undergraduate institution meets certain academic standards and adequately prepared you for graduate study. As a rule, any reputable master's in counseling program requires you to hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited four-year college.

Depending on the program and its focus area, you may be required to have certain undergraduate credits in the liberal arts, behavioral sciences, research, or statistics. Credit requirements differ between programs, so it's important to consult the school's counseling and admissions departments to determine if you hold all the required credits. If you lack certain prerequisites, many schools let you complete supplementary credits before beginning your master's degree. Some schools may even enable you to complete required foundational credits as part of your master's curriculum. However, admissions and credit requirements differ between schools, so it is always worthwhile to check with individual institutions about their prerequisites. If you are unable to fulfill required credits through the school you are applying to, you may be able to earn credits through a community college or another four-year institution, either in-person or online.

Is Work Experience a Prerequisite for a Master's in Counseling Program?

While a bachelor's degree in counseling isn't typically required for admission to a master's program, some schools may require a certain level of work experience, particularly for more specialized programs. Requirements vary widely between programs, but some colleges may require hundreds of hours of social work experience as part of their admissions standards. Often, paid or volunteer work counts toward these requirements. Some highly specialized programs may require applicants to hold certain types of counseling licensure before enrolling, though this is uncommon.

Professional work experience benefits counseling students in several ways. Many programs are more likely to admit applicants with professional experience in the field. Moreover, certain degrees may allow those with relevant work experience to enter the program in advanced standing, cutting down on some course requirements. In general, strong professional experience makes students more well-rounded and capable of drawing connections between counseling theory and practice.

Do I Have to Take the GRE to Apply to a Graduate Program in Counseling?

Most graduate programs in the U.S. use the Graduation Records Examinations (GRE) as part of their admissions requirements. Administered by Education Testing Service (ETS), the world's largest testing association, the GRE measures skills that indicate general success in higher education, including critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning, and analytical writing. Subject areas on the test include algebra, arithmetic, geometry, and vocabulary. ETS offers the exam at Prometric testing centers around the country in a computer-based format. Currently, the fee for the GRE is $205.

Not all schools require the GRE for graduate admissions, but even if it's optional, a strong score can help distinguish you from other applicants, particularly if other parts of your application, such as your GPA, are comparatively weak. Some schools do not require the GRE at all, while others may waive the exam requirement for certain students.

GRE Waiver

While the GRE is typically a major factor in graduate admissions, many schools place emphasize other elements of your application, such as your professional experience and GPA. In some instances, graduate programs do not require GRE scores, or if they do, the scores serve as a formality rather than a major part of the application process. Other schools may waive the GRE requirement based on several factors. If you have significant professional experience in counseling (typically five to seven years), some schools may consider this an adequate indication of your abilities and waive the GRE requirement. Other schools use a GPA cutoff system in which applicants who meet undergraduate GPA requirements (such as 3.0 or higher) waive the GRE. Finally, if you hold another graduate degree in any field, many schools waive your GRE requirements.

Breakdown of GRE Scores

Your GRE test results have three components: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. Taken together, these three scores form the whole of the exam, but many programs are primarily interested in the portions that relate to your field of study. Both the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections use a 130-170-point scale system, while the writing section uses a 1.0-6.0 scale. Most test takers fall in the middle of the scale. According to the ETS, the mean verbal reasoning score is 149.97, the mean quantitative reasoning score is 152.57, and the mean analytical writing score is 3.48.

GRE requirements differ significantly between programs, and schools emphasize scores differently. In general, more prestigious programs look for applicants at the higher end of the pool. A verbal score of 163 or above, a quantitative score of 165 or above, and a writing score of 5.0 or above puts you in the top 10% of all test takers, which is typically adequate for the most selective programs. A verbal score between 158-162, a quantitative score between 153-158, and a writing score above 4.0 puts you in the top 25% of all test takers, and even scores below this level are acceptable for many programs. Overall, a good GRE score is one that meets the requirements of your desired program, so be sure to do your research before stressing too much over test scores.

GRE Score Percentiles for 2017–2018

Scaled Score Verbal Reasoning Percentile Rank Quantitative Reasoning Percentile Rank
170 99 97
160 85 76
150 47 39
140 11 8

Application Requirements for Graduate-Level Counseling Programs


Graduate schools use transcripts to determine that you meet all course prerequisites and that your GPA matches admissions standards. When applying to graduate school for counseling, most programs require you to submit your undergraduate transcript, which indicates all credits earned and your grades in each course. If you transferred between schools when completing your bachelor's, graduate programs may ask you to submit transcripts from all the institutions you attended, so be sure to talk to admissions counselors to determine specific requirements. Most counseling programs maintain a GPA requirement, though this varies depending on school selectiveness. Different programs may also include certain undergraduate credit requirements, such as social sciences or statistics. Contact your undergraduate institution as early as possible to begin inquiring about transcripts. Some schools may offer unofficial transcripts for free, though most charge a nominal fee for official copies.

Test Scores

GRE examinees can send up to four score reports to schools of their choice at no charge. Computer test-takers can designate the recipients of their scores on the test day after completing the test. Paper examinees choose their recipients when they register for the test. Examinees can send additional score reports for an added fee of $27 per report. U.S. reports can be ordered by mail, fax, or online and orders cannot be canceled, changed, or refunded once finalized.


Many graduate programs require you to submit a resume detailing your professional experience. If you lack significant counseling experience, you may be concerned about the resume portion of the application. However, there are several ways to strengthen your submission. Consider the overall scope of your experience, including both paid and volunteer opportunities. Even if a job or volunteer opportunity appears unrelated on the surface, many professional experiences share similar general characteristics applicable to a variety of career paths, including counseling. You likely have past experiences that required leadership, communication, sensitivity, teamwork, and other relevant skills, so try to emphasize these jobs so they best relate to the qualities of a counselor. When describing your past job duties, use action words such as "facilitated," "led," "organized," and "managed," which strengthen your resume by depicting a more vivid image of your work.

Essays and Personal Statements

Among the most important components of your application, the personal statement serves as a written expression of your background and your professional aspirations. Statement requirements and prompts vary between schools, but most adhere to the same general format: a short essay (typically 1-2 pages) that indicates why you want to enroll in this program and what you hope to do with the knowledge you gain. Some schools make the personal statement optional, but it's always a good idea to complete one as it gives you the opportunity to sell yourself to the school and demonstrate what makes you unique.

Writing a good personal statement means taking stock of yourself and your motivations. Consider what's unique or notable about your experiences and how this equips you to be a counselor. In general, try to avoid clichés about what interests or motivates you. Simply talking about your love of helping others likely won't make the strongest impression on admissions offices, as they read hundreds of similar applications each year. Some schools require you to answer additional essay questions beyond the personal statement. You should make sure to tailor your answers to the school's values, rather than trying to squeeze in similar answers that other applications will readily supply.

Letters of Recommendation

The letter of recommendation provides insight into your academic and professional self while demonstrating that you know how to maintain strong relationships with colleagues. Graduate schools typically call for two to three letters of recommendation, and while most students seek out recommendations from former professors, you do have other options.

First and foremost, your recommendation writers need to be familiar with your academic or professional strengths, and capable of describing these qualities articulately. Ideally, your letter writers supervised you in some capacity related to counseling, such as former teachers, bosses, internship supervisors, or volunteer coordinators. The more explicitly your writers relate your experience to counseling practice, the better. However, a letter of recommendation also functions to verify your professionalism and your ability to work with others, and former supervisors outside of the counseling field can speak to these qualities. Try to give your recommendation writers a few months' notice to ensure they have time to get to your letter before application deadlines.

English Proficiency Tests

If you're an international student and a non-native English speaker, you may be required to take one of the major English proficiency exams as part of your graduate application. Common tests include TOEFL, IELTS, and TOEIC, all of which test English language ability in the context of academic and professional study. The tests examine your reading, listening, speaking, and writing abilities, with multiple sections that assess both conversational and formal language skills. Most graduate programs require applicants to meet a minimum score, though requirements vary between schools and programs.

Background Check

Some graduate programs require applicants to submit a background check, particularly if the curriculum includes field placements in environments such as schools. If you have a criminal record, it is always best to disclose this to the admissions office to determine how it might affect your application status. Many schools offer support and resources for applicants attempting to navigate the application process with a criminal record.

Submitting Your Application

After compiling all your application materials, you have one final task ahead of you: submitting your application. Varying program schedules, start dates, and admissions timelines mean that there is no "best" time to apply to graduate school. It is important to determine the precise application deadlines for all your possible schools because the dates vary. Unlike undergraduate applications, there is no CommonApp that enables you to apply to several schools at once, making the graduate application process a bit more complex. However, the vast majority of colleges maintain online application systems that make it easy to submit your application materials. Most graduate programs charge an application fee, which typically runs from $50-$85, though fees vary between schools, with some of the most selective institutions charging more. Many colleges also offer application fee waivers for applicants who meet certain criteria, such as financial need.

Rolling Admissions

Many colleges offer rolling admissions deadlines, which means that the institution evaluates applications as they receive them, rather than after a set application deadline. Rolling admissions policies make it easier and less stressful for students to prepare their applications, as dates and deadlines are less rigid. This practice also makes it easier for schools to evaluate applications, as they receive a trickle of submissions rather than a concentrated stream around the application deadline. However, while the rolling admissions format offers more flexibility, it can also create disadvantages for some applicants. Many schools advise students to apply as early as possible to increase acceptance chances and opportunities for funding and teaching. Additionally, the rolling format may make it more difficult for students who submit their applications later to receive the same consideration as those who submit early.

Rounds Admissions

Rounds admissions function similarly to rolling admissions but with multiple rounds and multiple application deadlines. Many schools offer three rounds of admissions, typically in the fall, winter, and spring. Unlike rolling admissions, in which schools consider each application as it arrives, rounds admissions schools consider all applications only after each round's deadline. Similarly to rolling admissions, most schools recommend applying as early as possible, which can increase your chances of acceptance. Most programs typically have fewer spaces available for applicants in the later rounds. However, applying during a later round is advantageous for certain types of applicants. If you are waiting for a letter of recommendation or want to retake the GRE, applying during a later round gives you time to ensure that you submit the strongest application possible.

Next Steps

Even after you submit your applications, you still have to navigate the stress of waiting for acceptance notices. Most schools inform you of their decision within four to six weeks, though this timeframe can vary depending on the school, program, and when you apply. Regardless of whether you are accepted or rejected, you have several decisions to make.

If you are rejected by the programs to which you applied, you should not give up hope. Consider meeting with a mentor to go over your applications and determine what can be improved. Maybe your selected schools were too competitive, your GRE scores weren't high enough, or your personal statement wasn't strong enough. Regardless of what happened, you can learn from your mistakes and improve your applications for next year.

If you were accepted to multiple schools, you have the enviable task of determining which one best suits your needs. Consider factors such as funding, teaching opportunities, the program focus, and the interests of faculty members. If you have personal or professional obligations that prevent you from enrolling immediately, check with your school about the possibility of deferred enrollment, which may enable you to begin your studies at a later date.