Education Administration

How long does it take to become a principal?

How long does it take to become a principal?
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Noodle Staff September 7, 2018

Want to be a principal? How long will it take to achieve your goals? Allow Noodle to help you with your planning.

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How Long Does it Take to Become a Principal?

The school principal: it’s a character often portrayed in movies and TV shows as a mean administrator out to ruin the children’s fun. But in reality, school principals are students’ biggest fans. They are there to support teachers and to keep schools running smoothly, so that kids can receive the best possible educations — and even have fun in the process! If you are considering taking the leap from being a school teacher to becoming a principal, or have always dreamed of having a leadership role in schools, you probably have one pressing question: How long does it take to become a principal?

Knowing how much time it will take to become a principal is an important step in creating a plan to turn your dreams into reality. No matter your education level or job experience, being a principal could be in your future. To learn what to expect, keep on reading.


“I'm Interested in Education Leadership!”

The salary medians for professionals with a master's or doctorate in Education Administration range from $75,000 to $320,000 depending on the location, degree, and qualified job position. (source)

A Doctor of Education (EdD) or PhD can advance a career even further than a master’s—meaning more responsibility and better pay.

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What it takes to become a principal

To understand how long becoming a principal will take, you should first understand the process you will need to go through to achieve your goal. Here is an outline of the steps to becoming a principal:

Earn your Bachelor’s of Arts

The first step to getting in the classroom and eventually the principal’s office is to get your bachelor’s degree. If you don’t have your BA yet, your best bet is to earn a Bachelor’s of Arts in Education. However, if you already have your bachelor’s in a different area of study, don’t worry. You can still study and earn your teaching certificate.

Become a certified teacher

Your next step is to get certified. This typically requires a four-hour certification exam, which tests your teaching abilities as well at your reading, writing, and math skills. Then, you will take another test to get certified in the subject area or areas in which you hope to teach. This is another four hour test than involves 100 multiple choice questions, along with two written essays.

Gain experience as a teacher

No school wants to hire a principal who does not know firsthand what it is like to teach. As principal, it is your primary job to work as a support system for teachers. For this reason, schools want principals who can relate to teachers, so gaining teaching experience is invaluable. Additionally, becoming a teacher will give you the chance to see if working in an educational setting is truly a fit for you. Perhaps you will realize that teaching and education is not the career you want, and you will save yourself the time and trouble of pursuing a Master’s in Education Leadership.

Earn a Master’s in Education or Education Leadership

The next step is to get that master’s degree! If you don’t already have a master’s, earning one in either education or education leadership will put you on the most straightforward path to becoming a school principal. However, if you already have a master’s in another field, you probably won’t need to go back to school. More on that later.

Get licensed again

That’s right, principals get their own set of certifications. These certifications will ensure that you are qualified and ready to be the leader of a school.

Become a principal

The final step in becoming a principal is, you guessed it, getting a job as a principal. Whether you decide to take a job as a vice principal and work your way up, or apply outright for a principal position at a new school, the final phase is finding your new home as a a full-blown principal.

The above steps outline the most straightforward route to becoming a principal. However, this is not the only way. As we mentioned, some prospective principals have no master’s degrees, and some hold master’s degrees in subjects other than education. Here is what you will need to do in either case.

What if I have a bachelor’s degree but no master’s?

If you have a bachelor’s degree but no master’s, you will want to pursue a Master’s in Education or a Master’s in Education Leadership. Typically, to qualify for one of these programs, you will need to have some teaching experience under your belt. Again, schools want principals who have teaching experience because they will understand all aspects of how the school works, from top to bottom. But note that you don’t have to put your teaching career on hold in order to get your master’s. There are plenty of night and online master’s programs and principal training programs that are designed to work around teachers’ busy schedules.

Going through the process of gaining your Master’s in Education or Education Administration will take about two years. After graduation, you will need to acquire your certification, which requires you to pass a four hour test. Then, the last step of the process is to apply and get a job as a school principal.

The timing here can vary, particularly if you decide to take a job as a vice principal and work your way up. But generally, you can expect it to take less than three years to gain the necessary degrees and certifications to be ready for the job.

What if I have a master’s degree in something other than education?

If you have a master’s degree in something other than education or education administration, don’t worry. You do not have to go back to school and start your degree all over again. Many schools are happy to hire individuals with master’s degrees in different subjects, as long as they have the proper education certifications. Gaining your teaching certification, and then your further administrative licensing, is your best bet for becoming qualified to lead a school. Additionally, schools want to hire principals who have hands-on teaching experience. So if you have yet to gain experience as a teacher, now is the time to start your teaching career.

Another great option for people who have master’s degrees subjects other than education is to participate in a principal training school.

Principal training programs

Principal training programs are a smart choice if you are interested in accelerating the process of becoming a school principal. These programs provide invaluable training, and ensure that you will get off on the right foot to be the best principal you can be.

Here are a few of the top principal training programs in the U.S.:


New Leaders, which has locations across the U.S., prides itself in not only training great future principals, but also being a support system once students have started their careers. They believe that traditional principal preparation is too often e the school existing outside of real schools and classrooms, and their mission is to change that. At New Leaders, students can expect to be trained in a classroom setting, go through a mentoring residency, and then continue to be supported through their first two years on the job. If you are looking to become not only a principal, but an amazing principlal, New Leaders may be an excellent option for you.


Despite what its name alludes to, the Principal Training Center prepares more than just principals. It has programs for teachers, counselors, and people looking to get into business. Programs offer a short alternative to those looking to gain principal training. For example, their “essential skills training” is a four-week course which ends in students earning their Certificate of International School Leadership. This program also offers one or two-day pre-conference seminars and in-person consulting and training. By the end, you will have received excellent training and will have had the chance to ask any questions you have about being a principal. Since this is a short-term program, it is a great option for those aiming to sharpen their skills over the summer while school is out.


The NYC Leadership Academy offers programs in a variety of professional and educational leadership fields. While it has a similar structure to the New Leaders program, this program is far more selective with admissions. Their program begins with a rigorous vetting process, to ensure that students are there for the right reasons and have the right attitude to work hard and become principals. Once admitted, students go through a multi-week summer program that teaches techniques in a classroom setting, as well as a hands-on principal simulation. Then, students will have the chance to participate in a mentorship program and work under a real principal. Finally, the course ends by making sure that each student transitions out of the classroom and into their new leadership role smoothly. This program would be an excellent summer experience for anyone striving to become a principal, or even for a new principal preparing for the next school year.

Certifications and license requirements

The final step in becoming qualified as a school principal is earning that certification. Your Master’s in Education Administration and/or your further training at a principal training school has prepared you to finally take those last tests , and to get through those final assessments. The licensure and certifications necessary to become a principal vary by state. But typically, the certification process consists of an extensive analysis of a future principal’s background, and multiple exams that test their administrative knowledge.

So how long does it take to become a school principal?

So now we are back to the important question: How long does it take to become a principal? You are probably looking for a definitive answer, but in reality, the answer is: it depends. The timeframe will vary based on your experience, what degrees and certifications you need, and, also, how easily you are able to gain your experience and earn a job as a school principal. You can choose to work towards an assistant or vice principal job, or go straight for the principal position. And demand will depend on the need for new principals in your area. The fact is, the process will look different for everyone.

There is no one way to become a school principal, and there is no specific guarantee for putting your name on the door of the principal’s office in X number of years. And while there are some concrete steps you must take, from getting your master’s to becoming certified, you will take your own journey to get there. So while you are working towards your goals, remember to take any chance you can to gain teaching and leadership experience!

Works cited

New Leaders Principal Training Program

Principal Training Center Training Program

NYC Leadership Academy Principal Training Program

How to Become a School Principal

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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