Writing Guide for Counselors

Writing plays an integral role in both counselor education and professional practice. From the very beginning, you need to write a clear and persuasive essay to apply to college or graduate school. Once admitted to a counselor preparation program, you need to write papers, and possibly even a thesis, to demonstrate your understanding of key ideas and concepts. Many licensure exams incorporate writing sections as well.

After you enter the counseling field, strong writing skills remain critically important. They allow you to convey the findings of your assessments and evaluations to clients, their families, and your colleagues. Clearly articulating your recommendations and plans of action can reduce confusion and stress among the populations you serve. Writing can also help you market your services, access funding to build new programs, or publish research that can help move the field of counseling forward.

As a counselor, you must know how to write clearly and concisely. In addition to offering a preview of the kinds of writing you need to produce as a counseling student and professional, this page provides tips and resources to help you further hone your writing and editing skills.

Types of Writing Counselors Will Do in School

Personal Statements

Your personal essay allows you to give context to your college or graduate school application package. Unlike your GPA or test scores, your essay gives admissions officers a sense of your background, personality, and why you want to attend their program.

You should use this opportunity to explain why you want to become a counselor. Counselor preparation programs admit students who show a passion for learning and serving others. Discuss the experiences that led you to pursue this career and explain how those experiences prepared you for your studies.

Your personal essay offers a chance to highlight your accomplishments and qualifications. However, make sure that you do not lie and refrain from unnecessary bragging or embellishing of your experiences.

Try to tell a unique story about yourself. Admissions officers read hundreds, if not thousands, of personal essays, and many of them tell bland and general stories. Pick an idea or experience that stands out and about which you can speak passionately. You can discuss painful or traumatic experiences, but try to discuss lessons learned rather than asking for sympathy.

Finally, though some programs do not require the personal statement, you should still write one. In almost all cases, it improves your odds of admission.


At the undergraduate and graduate level, many exams require students to write short and long-form essays. Generally speaking, professors do not provide prompts for these essays in advance. Rather, students must prepare to brainstorm, outline, and write a response all within the time allotted for the exam.

To prepare, first study the material. Mastering as many of a course's key concepts and ideas allows you to write on a wide variety of topics. You can also ask your instructor to share example prompts from previous years. This can give you a sense of what a prompt might look like and what graders want to see in a response.

Once you sit for the exam, think through your response. Organize your thoughts into an outline. Try to think of three solid examples or reasons directly related to the prompt around which you can build your essay. When writing, convey your ideas as clearly and succinctly as possible. Use transition words to help guide the grader through your thought process. Close by addressing possible rebuttals to your argument and summarizing your main points.

Finally, remember to save time at the end to proofread your work. Even when graders do not take off points for spelling or grammatical errors, it may lead them to discount your ideas or view your essay less favorably.

Research Papers

Research papers require involved and sustained work. Typically, you need to conduct original research or undertake a review of existing research on a given topic. Students spend much more time reading and outlining a research paper than actually writing it.

Counseling students can write research papers on many different subjects. For example, you may conduct a literature review of studies that measure the effectiveness of 12-step programs in treating alcohol and substance abuse. You may conduct your own research on the use of music therapy to help children struggling with autism. Or you may write a paper explaining the benefits of counseling in K-12 schools and calling for expanded funding.

Speak with your professor about how to write a counseling paper. They can tell you about successful approaches students take and can respond to your initial ideas about a topic. Especially at the graduate level, professors often review their student's work at critical stages, providing feedback on the research, organization of ideas, and quality of writing.

In addition to working closely with faculty, seek out your school's writing center. While they may not offer as much content-specific feedback, they can help make sure that your writing supports your ideas.


Throughout your postsecondary education, you will likely write several essays. These assignments may require you to tell a story, argue for a particular side of an issue, compare two possible solutions to a problem, or diagnose the cause of a certain outcome. Each kind of essays requires its own unique approach.

  • Narrative: Narrative essays require you to tell a story. In contrast to research essays, they often rely on anecdotal experience. Students typically write narrative essays from their own perspective and strive to make a point or resolve a conflict. As with all writing, remember to clearly and concisely convey your ideas and outline your essay.
  • Expository: Expository essay prompts ask students to argue and support an idea. For example, a student may expound upon the idea that tariffs and protectionist policies contributed to the Great Depression. They would first indicate whether they agree with that point, and then provide several forms of support for their position. Expository essays conclude by re-evaluating the thesis in light of the evidence shared.
  • Persuasive: Persuasive essays resemble expository essays in that students must select and defend a position with facts, anecdotes, logic, or statistics. Typically, these essays rely less on opinion, though they may not always present clear right and wrong answers. Students can benefit from using the five-paragraph method, in which they write an introductory paragraph with their thesis and then three paragraphs that support their argument. The concluding paragraph rebuts counter-arguments and synthesizes earlier points.
  • Comparative: In writing a comparative essay, students critically analyze two subjects and find both similarities and differences between them. For example, a student may compare urban and rural living. The two environments offer starkly different cultures and access to services, but they both provide opportunities to engage with one's community and find personal fulfillment. Comparative essays do not necessarily need to make a judgement on correctness.
  • Cause and Effect: Cause and effect essays allow students to demonstrate their understanding of logical processes. A student takes a particular outcome, such as an increase in local pollution, and traces its possible causes -- such as higher numbers of commuters or a growing industrial base. Students can further trace the higher number of commuters to the defunding of public transportation. When writing this type of essay, make sure to create a chain of events where one action can plausibly lead to the next.

Citations Guide for Counseling Students

Citation serves an important function for all writers. Using the language or ideas of a source without crediting that source amounts to plagiarism. Most schools enforce strict academic codes of conduct that prohibit plagiarism. Penalties can range from failing a class to expulsion. If a school expels you for plagiarism, it can severally diminish your chances of acceptance at another institution.

Beyond academia, plagiarism can hurt counseling professionals as well. It can ruin your reputation and, in some circumstances, may serve as grounds for the revocation of your license. Make sure to cite your sources!

American Psychological Association (APA) Style

Disciplines within the social sciences (e.g., history, economics, or sociology) commonly use American Psychological Association (APA) style. Some medical journals and scientific publications also use APA style. Originally developed in 1929, writers currently use the 6th Edition of the APA Style Guide.

In APA style, writers use double-spaced text on standard-sized paper with one-inch margins. APA recommends the use of 12 point, Times New Roman font. It also includes a page header and four sections to a paper, including a title page, an abstract, the main body, and references.

Here is an APA citation of a counseling text:

Pepinsky, H., & Pepinsky, Pauline Nichols. (1954). Counseling: Theory and practice. New York: Ronald Press.

Chicago Manual of Style (CMS)

Originally published by the University of Chicago Press in 1906, the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) provides style and citation guidance to those writing in social science disciplines like history or anthropology. Many writers who use CMS refer to it as "Chicago style."

CMS style incorporates "author-date" parenthetical citations in the text and a full citation in a references section at the end of the written work. You can find a complete list of citation formats on the CMS website.

Here is a CMS citation of a counseling text:

Pepinsky, Harold B., and Pepinsky, Pauline Nichols. Counseling: Theory and Practice. New York: Ronald Press, 1954.

Modern Language Association (MLA) Format

The Modern Language Association (MLA) first published a style handbook in 1977 and published the current 8th edition in 2016. Many researchers and scholars in the humanities use MLA, particularly those writing on subjects such as languages, literature, media studies, and cultural studies.

Like APA and CMS, MLA style also uses parenthetical citations, though with an "author-page" notation. A works cited list includes full citations at the end of a piece. In MLA, writers do not need to cite familiar proverbs, well-known quotations, or common knowledge.

Here is an MLA citation of a counseling text:

Pepinsky, Harold B., and Pepinsky, Pauline Nichols. Counseling: Theory and Practice. Ronald Press Co, 1954.

Associated Press (AP) Style

In 1953, journalists affiliated with the Associated Press first released The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, commonly known as the AP stylebook. Most journalism and corporate communication uses AP style.

AP style values brevity and economy of space. For example, it does not recommend the use of the Oxford comma and instructs writers to use Arabic numerals for all numbers above nine. It also reinforces consistency in reporting, such as always using Arabic numerals for ages and using one period after a sentence.

Not intended for scholarly writing, AP style does not provide a format for citing sources. Instead, the stylebook encourages journalists to include sources of information or quotation directly in their stories. For example, a newspaper reporter may preface a figure from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) with the phrase, "According to the GAO…"

The Best Writing Style for Counseling Majors

Proper counseling writing style follows the guidelines established in the American Psychological Association (APA) style guide. You should adhere to APA style whether you are a student, a licensed counseling professional, or a researcher working in the field of counseling. While some instructors may accept properly cited material in other formats, most college and graduate-level professors strongly prefer APA style.

Common Writing Mistakes Students Make

Active Vs. Passive Voice

In active voice, the subject of a sentence performs an action. For example, "The dog bit the postman" or "Dr. Johnson presented her findings at the counseling convention. " Conversely, in passive voice, the subject receives an action. For example, "The postman was bitten by the dog" or "Dr. Johnson's findings were presented at the counseling convention."

Passive voice requires more words and can lead to confusion. In the second passive sentence above, for example, it is not clear if Dr. Johnson presented her own findings or if another speaker presented them on her behalf. Active voice, on the other hand, lends itself to a concise, direct, and authoritative tone.


Punctuation errors can cost you points on academic assignments or undermine your positions as a counseling professional.

Use semicolons when you want to join two complete phrases that could stand on their own as complete sentences. For example, "I went to the store; they were out of bananas." Use colons to introduce a list, incomplete phrase, quotation, or an explanation. For example, "The store had only two kinds of fruit: apples and oranges." Also, "I only like one kind of fruit: bananas."

Commas serve many functions, though writers should not use them simply to indicate a pause in their thinking. Use a comma to separate two complete phrases separated by a conjunction (i.e., and, but, or), such as "I went to the park, and I saw a dog." You can also use commas to separate items in a list, such as "I saw a dog, a cat, and a baby at the park." Writers call the third comma in that example an Oxford comma, and not all style guides endorse its use.


Like punctuation, grammar mistakes in your writing can make you look careless or unprepared in both academic and professional settings.

Make sure that your subjects and verbs agree. For example, "I have always wanted to be a counselor," is correct, but "I has always wanted to be a counselor" is incorrect.

Avoid the misuse of the word "its," which describes ownership or belonging rather than acting as a contraction of "it is." For example, "Every dog has its day" is correct, but "Every dog has it's day" is incorrect. Similarly, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood" is correct, but "Its a beautiful day in the neighborhood" is incorrect.

Additionally, don't confuse the homonyms there, their, and they're. "There" refers to a particular place or position. "Their" refers to belonging to or associated with. "They're" refers to a contraction of the words "they" and "are." For example, “They're going to ride their bike over there” is correct.

Writing Resources for Counseling Students

  • Purdue Online Writing Lab: Purdue OWL serves as a comprehensive resource for grammar, writing tips, and citation guides. Purdue University offers the resource free of charge.
  • Harvard Writing Center: Similar to the OWL, the Harvard Writing Center hosts many resources to help you improve your academic writing. You can read about how to structure an essay, how to develop a thesis, or how to write an effective conclusion.
  • Grammar Girl: Maintained by Mignon Fogarty, this site provides a wealth of information on proper grammar conveyed in a conversational and fun tone. Fogarty often writes articles based on user questions, such as, "Should I use a colon or semicolon?"
  • Wiktionary: Wiktionary serves as a free, multilingual, user-maintained, and online dictionary, thesaurus, rhyme guide, or phrase book. Writers without access to a paid dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary often use this resource.
  • Hemingway Editor: The Hemingway Editor allows you to check text for passive voice and unnecessary adverbs or adjectives. It also assigns selections with a readability grade and estimated reading time.