What Are the Requirements to Become a School Counselor?

If you’re considering a career in school counseling, you may be wondering what steps are involved to become qualified. While the specific requirements may vary based on state, school counselors often have a relevant master’s degree, which includes field work experience, pass a state licensing exam and meet other criteria to enter the profession. Keep reading to find out all there is to know about how to become a school counselor.

What Is School Counseling?

What does a school counselor do? Put simply, they provide a variety of resources to help improve student outcomes. A school counselor’s duties and responsibilities focus on helping all students succeed both academically and emotionally. A school counselor’s job has many facets, from helping individual students set academic goals to referring students and families to agencies that can provide long-term support for specific needs. 

Depending upon the student’s needs, a counselor’s role may range from dealing with attendance issues or bullying to providing guidance about careers a student might be interested in after high school graduation.

Counselors may provide students with individual counseling on emotional, mental health or interpersonal issues, or they may conduct small-group sessions. They also help identify and advocate for students who need additional academic support. While social work vs. counseling duties differ, school counselors may sometimes refer a student and the student’s family to community agencies for additional services, just as a social worker might do.

Types of School Counselors

Formerly referred to as guidance counselors, school counselors may work with various grade levels and provide a number of services. Typically, all school counselors are trained and educated in providing mental health counseling services that address emotional, behavioral, academic and mental health concerns across the lifespan. However, school counselors at different school levels will have additional and different responsibilities.

  • Elementary School Counselors: Elementary school counselors help students develop the social and academic skills they need to succeed. They also assess students for academic abilities and suggest interventions when needed. Counselors work together with teachers, administrators and parents to find community resources when students need out-of-school assistance for mental health concerns or other issues. 
  • Middle School Counselors: Middle school counselors work with adolescents as they transition from child to teenager. In addition to helping students with academic issues and developing self-management skills, counselors may help middle school students navigate the emotions and pressures they may experience during their adolescence.
  • High School Counselors: High school counselors take on many roles, including college counselor and career counselor, as they help students explore life beyond high school. In these roles, a licensed school counselor will help students determine the best career pathway for them, whether that is pursuing further education after graduation, entering the workforce or joining the military. They may also lead group sessions on life skills, mental health concerns, career planning and more. 

Schools may also have faculty who work alongside counselors and have related jobs, such as school psychologists and social workers, but these staff members have different educational backgrounds than school counselors and provide assistance in different capacities. 

  • School Psychologists: School psychologists provide support in mental health, behavior and learning while working directly with students, their families and school staff. Their role includes promoting mental health among students, intervening during a crisis and connecting students and their families with community services. School psychologists typically have at least a specialist’s or doctoral degree. 
  • School Social Workers: School social workers work directly with parents and students to provide additional services so a child can succeed in school. For example, a social worker may connect a family with a community organization or other programs if the family needs assistance with issues such as housing, health care or finances. 

Common Steps to Becoming a School Counselor

If you want to become a school counselor, you’ll likely need to earn a master’s degree in school counseling or similar field and earn a state-issued credential, such as a certificate or license, though this may vary depending on the state where you work. The specific requirements may also vary from state to state, so it’s important to research practice regulations for the location where you plan to work as a school counselor. 

These are general steps for becoming a school counselor as everyone’s path looks a little different.

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Before you can get a master of school counseling, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree. You generally don’t need to pursue a specific undergraduate major to qualify for a master’s program, but a degree in a related field such as a bachelor’s in social work, education or psychology may provide a solid foundation for advanced studies. 

If you pursue an undergraduate degree in education, you may complete field experiences working with children, which might help you determine if counseling children is the right career for you.

2. Earn a Master’s Degree in School Counseling

Most states require school counselors to have a master’s in counseling or another related field. The master’s in school counseling curriculum may cover topics such as counseling theories, counseling techniques, human development and addictions counseling. You also may learn how to provide prevention and intervention counseling, implement a school counseling program and provide multicultural counseling. Some states may require you to complete an accredited program. The widely preferred accreditor in counseling education is the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) as it ensures the coursework meets the appropriate requirements and standards to practice as a school counselor. Be sure to check if the state you wish to practice requires you to complete a CACREP-accredited program.

3. Complete Supervised Experience in Counseling

As part of your master’s degree in counseling program, you’ll complete hands-on experience in student counseling. Through a practicum and internships, you’ll work in a community and various school settings providing counseling services under the guidance of an experienced and licensed mental health professional or professional school counselor. 

The amount of clinical hours required for certification or licensure in school counseling varies by state. CACREP requires students to complete a 100-hour practicum and a 600-hour internship.

4. Pass a Test and Receive Your License

In order to work as a public school counselor, most states require you to pass a test before you can obtain a school counseling certificate or  license. Examples of tests a state may require you to pass to become a licensed school counselor include the Praxis II: School Guidance Counseling and/or a state-specific exam. 

You may also have to complete additional state-specific requirements, such as receive a recommendation from your university or complete a background check. Every state has its own certification or licensure requirements to become a school counselor, so it is best to check on the exact requirements with your state board. 

Once these are completed, you can apply for a certificate or license so that you can work in a public school setting.

5. Potential Additional Requirements

few states may require school counselors to have classroom teaching experience or hold an educator’s license in the state they wish to practice, according to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).  Every state has its own certification or licensure requirements to become a school counselor, so it is best to check on the exact requirements with your state board.

How Long Does It Take to Become a School Counselor?

The amount of time it takes to earn a school counseling degree depends on your current level of education. How much additional time you spend in school may depend on whether you already have a bachelor’s degree or if you’re making the transition from teaching to school counseling, for example.

How long do you go to school to be a school counselor? Getting your undergraduate degree takes about four years. Earning a master’s in counseling may take about two years of full-time study or three to four years if you attend part time. You’ll also complete practicum and internship experiences during a master’s program. 

Some states may also require one to two years of experience teaching or in a related profession for licensure. So if you don’t already have your bachelor’s degree, it may take about seven to eight years to become a school counselor. 

What if you’re thinking about a career move from teacher to school counselor? If you already have a master’s in education, some states allow you to take additional graduate coursework in counseling and to complete an internship to qualify for your school counseling license. Check with your state education department to find out what the exact requirements are. 

School Counselor Career and Job Outlook

The number of school and career counselor jobs is expected to grow 8% through 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That job growth is double the 4% rate expected for all occupations in the United States during that period. Schools are expected to employ more counselors due to the increasing numbers of students in all grade levels.  

The 2019 median annual salary for school and career counselors was $58,120 in 2020, but school counselor salaries may depend on where you work. For example, the 2020 median annual salary for counselors in elementary and secondary schools was $64,960. For those at junior colleges, universities and professional schools, it was $51,660.

School counselor pay varies based on location as well. The state with the highest average pay for school counselors is California with a mean annual wage of $81,350 in 2020. New Jersey was second with $75,030. Virginia, Massachusetts and Maryland round out the five top-paying states in 2020.

Do school counselors make more than teachers? They can. School counselors in elementary and secondary schools had a 2020 median annual salary of $64,960, whereas high school teachers had a median salary of $62,870 in 2020 and kindergarten and elementary school teachers had a median salary of $60,660.

The BLS doesn’t break out the starting salary for school counselors or specify a master’s in school counseling salary compared to earnings for counselors with a more or less advanced degree.

School Counseling Career FAQ

Those preparing for school counselor careers should understand that it may require them to return to school to earn a master’s degree. Before making the decision to enter a school counseling master’s program, it’s a good idea to learn as much information as possible about the career.

Below, we’ve provided answers to some common questions about jobs in school counseling.

What Qualifications Do You Need to Be a School Counselor?

Licensure and certification requirements for school counselors vary from state to state. For that reason, it’s important to investigate school counselor license requirements in the state where you hope to work before you enter any master’s program.

In general, however, to gain school counselor certification or licensure, you must earn a master’s degree in school counseling and complete an internship as a counselor in a school setting. You’ll complete the internship as part of your master’s program. You may also have to pass a test and meet additional state-specific licensing rules. 

Do You Need a Master’s to Be a School Counselor?

What degree do you need to be a school counselor? In most states, you need a master’s degree in school counseling to become a licensed school counselor. Some states may accept a master’s in a closely related field, such as social work or psychology. 

Some state’s educational requirements spell out particular courses you must take to qualify as a licensed school counselor. These might include courses in group counseling, theory and ethics of school counseling, child development, educational and psychological measurement, and/or career planning. 

Where Do School Counselors Work?

School counselors generally work in educational settings, such as primary schools or high schools. The BLS reports that 44% of career and school counselors worked in state, local or private secondary and elementary schools in 2019 while 35% worked in junior colleges, universities and professional schools.

School counselors typically work full time during the school year and during the summer may work at summer school or other roles. 

Is a School Counselor a Good Career?

School counseling is a growing career, according to the BLS, with demand for school and career counselors expected to increase 8% through 2029. Average wages are also higher than the average for all occupations in the United States. 

However, only you can determine if this is a good career for you. Do you have the patience and empathy to work with children or teenagers? Do you want to be in a school setting? These are good questions to ask yourself when considering becoming a school counselor. 

If you’re not sure, you may want to investigate what jobs are similar to school counseling. You might decide a career in social work or mental health counseling is a better match for you. In these cases, consider looking into social work programs. Whatever you decide, don’t be afraid to take your time when thinking through this career decision. 

Last updated March 2021