How to Become a School Counselor: Part Mentor, Part Shrink

How to Become a School Counselor: Part Mentor, Part Shrink
If helping students plan their futures and manage their current challenges sounds appealing to you, you probably want to learn more about becoming a school counselor. Image from Unsplash
Suzanne Wentley profile
Suzanne Wentley November 6, 2019

As a school counselor, you'll do everything from break up fights to help students plan their careers. You'll see shining stars, troubled spirits, and everything in between. You'll do your best to help them all.

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The need for school counselors is greater than ever. Not only do counselors help students figure out what they want to do with their lives, but they also provide mental health services. High school, middle school, and elementary school counselors help prepare children for life outside of the classroom both emotionally and professionally.

School counseling dates back to the 1920s, when New York first created certification requirements for professionals interested in helping children and teens find appropriate vocational paths. By the 1970s, school counselors expanded their reach beyond career readiness into a mental health capacity. Today, these trained and caring professionals serve as positive role models for students who need support.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for school counselors is $56,310 per year. Payscale reports the average salary is slightly less at $49,856 per year. BLS data indicate robust growth in the field, with job opportunities increasing by 8 percent between 2018 and 2028. That’s faster than the average for the entire job market.

If helping students plan their futures and manage their current challenges sounds appealing to you, you probably want to learn more about becoming a school counselor. This guide will help. In it, we’ll discuss:

  • What does a school counselor do?
  • What education do you need to become a school counselor?
  • How to find the right school counseling program for you
  • Licensing and certification for becoming a school counselor

What does a school counselor do?

Good school counselors need to juggle famously large caseloads to address the needs of the students they serve. In order to provide each student with the necessary attention, counselors need exceptional organizational skills. Since most of their day is spent providing counsel, they also need excellent analytical and communication skills.

Their portfolios are pretty broad.

A school counselor’s typical duties include:

  • Mental health assistance: Children and teens in private and public schools need guidance when it comes to sex education, bullying prevention, and ways to cope during troubling times at home. School counselors provide this support.
  • Career development: It’s more than simply asking students, “Sooo, what do you want to be when you grow up?” School counselors help students form and implement strategies for the next step in their lives, whether that’s additional schooling, a career, or another option. These strategies include applying for scholarships and mapping out strategies to achieve long-term goals.
  • Conflict mediation: School counselors help resolve fights among students, teachers, and even parents—especially in middle and elementary schools. Students require assistance in developing social skills and coping mechanisms in times of stress. Certified counselors help.
  • Intervention for at-risk students: Students who may be on a path to dropping out, falling prey to substance abuse, or having a run-in with authorities need someone to talk to. School counselors are there for those students to discuss the situation with them and, as appropriate, their parents, and to provide referrals when necessary. They must look for signs of struggle, such as frequent tardiness or absenteeism before it’s too late to intervene.
  • Help with special needs: Whether it’s the result of a learning disability or a traumatic experience, some students need extra help. School counselors are on hand in times of crisis, such as a school shooting or a suicide that shocks the young members of a community.
  • Support school staff: School counselors also work directly with teachers, administrators, and support staff throughout the school day and beyond. Their training allows them to provide expert guidance on how to assist students in crisis.

In addition, counselors may sometimes be asked to cover a classroom if a teacher is running late. Some counselors may even float from school to school within a district, meaning not only are their responsibilities varied but so too are their workplaces. It’s a given that no two days are the same when you’re a school counselor.


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What education do you need to become a school counselor?

Becoming a school counselor nearly always requires a master’s degree. First, of course, you need to must earn your bachelor’s degree, which typically takes a full-time student four years to complete. You’re not required to major in a particular field; even so, many counselors are naturally interested in education, counseling, or psychology, majors that align well with their ultimate profession.

Next, you’ll need a master’s degree in counseling or a related field. A Master of Education in Counseling fits the bill, as does a Master of Social Work (MSW) with a concentration in counseling. Most full-time master’s programs take two years (typically 60 semester hours) to complete; part-time options are available and can typically be completed in three to four years.

You do not need a Ph.D. to become a school counselor. If you wish to advance to an administrative or policy position in counseling—or if you want to teach counseling at the university level—you may find it advantageous to pursue a doctoral degree. A Ph.D. typically requires two years of coursework, followed by the writing and defense of a doctoral dissertation, a process that typically takes from two to four years. The Ph.D. not only qualifies you for upper-level positions but also earns you the honorific “doctor” (although sadly, it does not entitle you to park anywhere you like; that’s only for medical doctors).

How to find the right school counseling program for you

When considering master’s programs in school counseling, look for a university that is accredited through the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. If you choose to pursue a Master of Social Work, make sure the degree program is accredited by the Council of Social Work Education.

Master’s in school counseling programs typically include coursework in:

  • Counseling practice
  • Counseling theory
  • Counseling ethics
  • Educational measurement
  • Family counseling
  • Mental health counseling
  • Multiculturalism
  • Psychopathology
  • Research and statistics
  • Substance abuse
  • Special education

These programs teach both hands-on, practical techniques as well as theory that help deepen your understanding of the developing mental health of children.

Schools ranking near the top of U.S. News & World Report’s best programs for student counseling include:

Some universities offer online school counseling master’s degrees. They include:

School counselors do not earn high salaries, so you should at least consider program cost as you calculate return-on-investment for your master’s degree. Most state schools offer reduced tuition for residents students or and all have student financial aid options. Some offer opportunities to earn a dual degree to expedites your master’s.

Licensing and certification for becoming a school counselor

Upon completion of an accredited course of study in school counseling, you will be eligible to become a licensed school counselor. Licensure requirements vary from state to state. The American School Counselor Association maintains a list of all state requirements on its website.

State licensure requirements can include any and all of the following: specific coursework requirements; minimum experience requirements; the passage of one or more examinations; and a background check. Colorado requires a master’s degree, at least 100 hours of practicum and 600 hours of internship experience, the passage of the Praxis 5421, and a background check that includes a fingerprint screening conducted by law enforcement. Alaska, in contrast, requires no experience and no examination. You must, however, complete three hours of Alaska studies and three hours of multicultural education. Alaska requires a master’s for some counseling roles (psychology and speech-language and hearing science) but not for all.

School and career counselors also frequently apply for certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. This involves passing another exam as well as the submission of a portfolio demonstrating at least three years in the classroom. The process takes between one and five years, but will help your career in the long run.

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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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Categorized as: CounselingSchool CounselingSocial Work & Counseling & Psychology