Counseling

What’s a College Counselor? (And How Do I Become One?)

What’s a College Counselor? (And How Do I Become One?)
If you love to travel, the regular trips taken by university-employed counselors will be a plus and the relative sedentariness of high-school counselors will be a drawback. If you hate to travel, reverse those. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry July 17, 2019

The job market for admissions counselors at colleges, universities, and professional schools is expected to grow by 13 percent through 2024. Here's what else you need to know.

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Every college and university employs a team of admissions counselors responsible for attracting, recruiting, and admitting students. These professionals (sometimes just called college counselors) regularly travel from high school to high school seeking out candidates for admission. They recruit and guide star students through the admissions process; they also review applications to identify potential candidates for their school.

Not all college admissions counselors work for colleges and universities. Some work in high schools, counseling students in their junior and senior years as they select and then apply to schools. Others work as career counselors, in academic counseling, or in placement counseling. Some even work as education consultants, operating privately with high school students and their families to create personalized admissions strategies.

What all of these types of college admissions counselors have in common is that they are passionate about helping students find the best possible post-secondary placement. They also work well with people, are great communicators, and have plenty of energy. College counselors guide young people as they make some of the biggest decisions they’ve ever made, and so they have to be not only knowledgeable but also friendly and trustworthy.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • The different types of college counseling careers
  • The pros and cons of becoming a college counselor
  • The educational requirements for becoming a college counselor
  • Licensing and accreditation for college counselors

Types of College Counseling Careers

The role of a college admissions counselor is to help students:

  • Decide which institution of higher learning is a good fit for them
  • Determine whether they are qualified for and capable of handling the challenges of a particular institution
  • Advise them throughout the application process
  • Point them toward any necessary additional resources

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, admissions counselors take the stress out of applying for college.

The different types of college counselors are distinguished primarily by where they work. Many work at high schools, at colleges and universities, or independently.

High school counselors

Most high schools have at least one on-site college counselor (not to be confused with a guidance counselor) helping students find and apply to colleges and universities. High school counselors are academic advisors who help students stay on top of graduation and application requirements.

High school counselors help students:

  • Research schools
  • Manage their letters of recommendation
  • Send out transcripts
  • Create a well-balanced schedule of extra-curricular activities
  • Find scholarships
  • Complete applications

College counselors

College admissions counselors typically work for four-year colleges and universities, and their job is multifaceted. In addition to helping to determine which applicants will be accepted, college admissions counselors travel to high schools to talk to prospective students or represent the institution at college fairs, help qualified students navigate the college application process, and answer students’ questions about their school.

Independent college counselors/education consultants

Independent college counselors are freelance college admissions professionals who work alongside high school counselors and college admissions counselors to help students:

  • Identify the most promising colleges and universities
  • Decide where to apply
  • Create compelling admissions strategies for each school
  • Help entire families navigate the process of applying to college

These educational consultants may even help students choose which offers of admission and financial aid to accept.


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Pros and Cons of Becoming a College Admissions Counselor

There are definite upsides and downsides to this profession; some factors can fall on either side of the divide, depending on your preferences. If you love to travel, the regular trips taken by university-employed counselors will be a plus and the relative sedentariness of high-school counselors will be a drawback. If you hate to travel, reverse those.

Pros

  • Travel
  • Easy profession to enter
  • Helping young people pursue a dream
  • The work involves lots of human interaction and communication

Cons

  • Travel
  • Lots of paperwork and other bureaucratic responsibilities
  • High risk of burnout
  • Lots of stakeholders with high expectations in a high-stakes situation
  • Pressure to meet quotas and deadlines

As Vern Granger, associate vice president and director of admissions at Ohio State University, put it in an article in Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, “You’re dealing with so many constituents — the president, board, staff, students, parents, alums… And it’s not just hitting [recruitment] numbers — it’s hitting numbers within those numbers.”

But if your goal is to work in higher education and you want to get your foot in the door as early as possible, it’s a great starter job that has the potential for advancement.


Educational Commitment to Become a College Counselor

Most admissions counseling positions don’t require a specific degree or counselor education program, but you can maximize your chances in the job market with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, business, sociology, or education. From there you might want to complete a master’s degree program in a counseling area from a university accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)—especially if you want to work in the public school system.

Every state has different requirements for college counselors and there aren’t any specific post-secondary or graduate counseling programs just for college admissions counselors. What you’ll find more often are certificate programs. The University of California‘s Riverside Extension, for instance, offers a Professional Certificate in College Admissions Counseling that takes twelve to eighteen months to complete.

Many people become college admissions counselors not by having the most degrees, but by having the strongest networks. It’s not uncommon for college admissions counselors to begin their careers as part-time clerical members of an admissions team or even volunteers in the office of admissions. Working in admissions while earning a bachelor’s degree is a great way to see whether admissions counseling is something you really want to do.


Licensure and Accreditation for Becoming a College Counselor

As noted, some employers don’t post specific degree or licensing requirements for admissions counseling positions, but you’ll certainly stand out as a candidate if you have earned certain certifications. Once you’ve earned your master’s degree—if you choose to pursue one—there are both national and state certifications in counseling you can pursue. If you don’t have a master’s degree, it may still be possible to become certified if you have 3,000 hours of supervised counseling experience under your belt.

The requirements you’ll need to meet to get your state counseling certification will differ depending on where you want to work, but you will likely need a minimum of 2,000 hours of supervised counseling experience and to pass the National Counselor Exam (NCE). That exam is used by many state licensing boards in place of a state-specific exam and is administered by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). Passing the NCE and having either done 3,000 hours of post-graduate counseling or graduated from a CACREP-accredited program is also how you become a National Certified Counselor (NCC).

If you want to take your career even further, you can pursue the Licensed Professional Counselor credential (the requirements vary by state) or pursue continuing education via the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). NACAC is the main organization representing admissions counselors in the U.S. and is an NBCC-approved continuing education provider.

Still reading? The US Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted that positions for counselors at colleges, universities, and professional schools will grow by 13 percent through 2024. There’s also a lot of room for growth in the field of post-secondary education administration. Once you’ve got your foot in the door, you can explore other opportunities in admissions or, if you like working with students, look into pursuing a master of counseling in student affairs counseling (Idaho State University and Virginia Commonwealth University both have solid programs) so you can work with your school’s students on issues they face after being accepted into a program.


(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

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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