Do you find yourself aimlessly stapling sheets of paper together? Do you drink coffee out of a mug emblazoned with the phrase "Shoot for the stars"? Do you lie awake at night and dream of helping kids figure out what to do with their lives? If you answered yes to any of these questions—especially the last one—you might make a great ~drum roll~ guidance counselor. (FWIW, the position is officially called "school counselor" now, but that just feels wrong since you will not be counseling the school.)
In this article, we'll cover:
Depending on how you view college and higher education as a whole, earning the slew of degrees necessary to become a counselor could be either a pro or a con. Fortunately, accredited online programs lead to the same school counselor jobs. That means your coursework can, at the very least, be convenient.
School counselors earn a comparable amount to teachers. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for a school counselor is over $58,000. However, those in elementary and secondary public schools and private schools earn more—nearly $65,000.
School counselors do not work full time. Their days are six and a half hours, not including lunch. According to a Reddit thread, school counselors do not need to work at home the way teachers prep lesson plans and grade papers.
Though it's cliched, this is the primary reason to become a counselor. You get to have a direct impact on student success and change. This can include addressing behavioral issues and helping kids succeed in school.
Your schedule lines up with the school schedule; that means summer vacation. You may decide to establish a private practice during this time or just take off.
You will almost certainly need to figure out how to deal with crises and accept that you cannot reach every child, even though you want to. Emotional stress is a significant issue for counselors.
Depending on the school you work for, you might have to advise more students than you can reasonably handle. It can be overwhelming to take on this much responsibility. Keeping everything straight will be a challenge. With poor organizational skills, this job could become a nightmare.
Even if you love every second of working with kids, it isn't the entire job. You’ll still need to perform administrative tasks and stay organized, which can take time.
This probably goes without saying, but in the interest of thoroughness, it should be noted that being a guidance (school) counselor is different from other counseling careers, such as a drug rehabilitation counselor or career counselor.
That said, wherever there are students, there is a need for guidance counselors. We're talking elementary school, middle school, high school, and even college! Can't make up your mind whom you want to counsel? No need! The journey leading to all these careers travels the same path. There’s no need to do all of your career planning right now.
The role is very different depending on the academic level it serves, of course. If you try to prepare a bunch of elementary school students to find the right college by asking them their intended major, you'll probably get answers like "astronaut" or "T-Rex." An elementary school guidance counselor looks to enhance emotional development, ensure students are being challenged in the classroom, or identify students with learning disabilities.
Middle school guidance counselors often mediate disputes, and assist students in coping with a period of "rapid physical growth, curiosity about their world, and an emerging self-identity."
When somebody mentions guidance counselors, chances are you will think of high school. There is still a little bit of peer-to-peer conflict resolution involved in being a high school counselor, but this job is usually filled by the proverbial guy in a tweed jacket, horned rimmed glasses and tie that asks "So, what are you planning to do with yourself?" High school counselors help students figure out their best college or career fit.
There are numerous challenges to counseling, especially at the college level, where counselors are so important, but not always available. At college, a guidance counselor helps make sure students fulfill the educational requirements for graduation and maybe help brainstorm ideas to answer the ever-lurking question, "So, what are you going to do with your life?"
Becoming a school counselor requires a significant educational commitment. You'll likely need a master's degree; most states require a graduate degree along with completion of an approved counselor education program.
As for the bachelor's degree—you need that before getting a master's, remember?—you should probably consider getting it in psychology or education. You could even study social work as an undergrad, but you probably would only want to pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree if you plan to transition to a career as a social worker at some point down the line.
Each state has its own licensure and accreditation requirements. Fortunately, the American School Counselor Association can help you sort it out. Take a moment to read through this large document online and you will learn fun tidbits about individual state requirements.
For instance, Alaska requires "completion of three semester hours in Alaska studies." It's safe to say no other state has that exact requirement. Wyoming, a state everybody forgets about, requires applicants to "demonstrate knowledge of the US Constitution and the Wyoming Constitution either through coursework or an exam." Also of note: Mississippi, Illinois, Oklahoma, Virginia, and West Virginia do not require background checks.
Most states also require an internship—usually at least 600 hours—to get work experience as a counselor. You will most likely complete this requirement during your master's program.
Additionally, each state outlines what you must do to obtain a license—other than the required school counseling degrees, of course. Many states require the Praxis exam and the National Certified School Counselor (NCSC) exam. The good news is that you still won't need to make a decision about what age range you want to counsel, as these tests are generally accepted at all grade levels.
This organization is a repository of information on ethics, licensure requirements, and other valuable resources.
Reading blogs is a great way to find out what your counseling peers are thinking and doing. Interacting with posts allows you to network with other professionals.
CACRE accredits doctoral and master's degree programs (including online master's). The CACRE website notes: "Graduation from a CACREP program does not guarantee you will be eligible for licensure," but "most states recognize what a CACREP degree contains." The website offers many good resources and articles, even if you don't attend an accredited program.
If you're working at an international school, the ISCA can help with professional development. Continuing education courses cover topics like mental health, safety planning, and transgender student support.
There's no typical advancement path for guidance counselors. Becoming a school counselor requires quite a bit of training, and many who reach this position are content to remain in it.
But, if you're feeling a little restless, consider a move to the private sector. In this area, counselors work for individuals or in group counseling instead of a school setting. For those who succeed, it can be quite a bit more lucrative. To learn more about this profession, read our article on the difference between counselors and consultants.
Alternately, you could consider a career as a school principal. Becoming a training and development manager is another option.
Should you want to transition to a mental health profession, a master's in counseling could help you make the move.
You also could consider the field of educational psychology. School psychologists work with children and adolescents and schools to assess and aid development.
You also might want to earn a doctoral degree, which will put you in an excellent position to "teach, research, and supervise counselors," according to the Loyola University School of Education.
Most states require license renewal every five years. Check with your state for specific regulations. Many schools offer advanced certificate school counseling programs, which recertification processes may require.
(This article was updated on October 6, 2021.)
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