How to Become a School Counselor

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School counselors play a critical role in student development, aiding in academic achievement, career planning, and social/emotional progress.

School counselors provide support for students and their families, and the need for them continues to rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the projected job growth rate for school counselors between 2019-2029 is more than double the national average.

This guide explores school counseling careers, highlighting job responsibilities, how aspiring counselors can find employment, and future career opportunities.

What Do School Counselors Do?

Counseling in schools can take many shapes, with many professionals acting as career counselors, guidance counselors, and health and wellness counselors all at once. These professionals help students manage and overcome issues by developing academic improvement plans and providing support for social or behavioral problems.

School Counselors help students manage and overcome issues by developing academic improvement plans and providing support for social or behavioral problems.

School counselors work with students, families, teachers, and school staff to ensure that each child receives the individualized support and education they need to succeed. They use their assessment skills to identify student needs, their development skills to help learners progress, and their counseling abilities to evaluate and resolve interpersonal and behavioral issues.

Where Do School Counselors Work?

Most of these professionals work in schools as career or guidance counselors. According to BLS employment data, 44% of trained school counselors work in elementary schools and 35% work in higher education institutions, with 7% working in healthcare, 4% in educational services, and 3% self-employed.

School counselors work in all types of institutions, including private, public, and professional schools. They usually provide office hours for students to drop in whenever they need. These professionals also schedule meetings with students, host group sessions, and meet with families and school visitors. Counselors typically work traditional full-time hours with time off during the summer.

Skills

School counselors need many skills to effectively connect with and help students. They need to understand the behavioral and academic development of various age groups and have the psychological skills to properly assess them. School counselors may also implement and run student development or outreach programs.

Most importantly, counseling in schools requires strong interpersonal skills, including both individual and group counseling abilities. School counseling degrees help learners build and strengthen these skills, often including internships to help aspiring counselors develop their craft.

How to Become a School Counselor

While students can take different pathways to the school counseling profession, the most direct route requires a master's degree in guidance and counseling. Some states and schools may accept candidates with related degrees or only bachelor's degrees, but it's less common. Depending on the state, aspiring counselors may also need teaching or counseling licensure to practice.

The following sections outline typical career requirements for school counselors, including degrees and certifications.

Education

Most school counselors earn master's degrees in school counseling, but degrees in psychology or behavioral sciences may also qualify. Typically, counselors earn a bachelor's degree in psychology or another social science, then complete a graduate degree in counseling, often specializing in a particular area, like early childhood development.

To enroll in a bachelor's program, applicants generally need to submit transcripts demonstrating a high school diploma and SAT or ACT scores. Master's programs in school counseling typically require a behavioral or social science bachelor's degree for admission. Competitive programs may set minimum GPAs.

Typically, counselors earn a bachelor's degree in psychology or another social science, then complete a graduate degree in counseling, often specializing in a particular area, like early childhood development.

Within these programs, enrollees can often choose courses or specializations that match their desired professional focus. The school counseling field relies heavily on practical experience, so programs often feature internships.

After graduating, most states require school counselors to complete post-master's supervised clinical work for licensure. Once licensed, school counselors need to meet continuing education requirements to renew their licenses. Some may even pursue doctorates in the field, particularly if they're interested in policy, research, or influencing statewide or national programming.

Certification and Licensure

While requirement details vary by state and school, counselors need licensure to work in the public school system. According to the American School Counselor Association, every state has distinct requirements, with differences in required education level, grade minimums, and certification exams.

In addition to state licensure, school counselors can pursue voluntary certification through the National Board for School Counselors. This credential demonstrates that candidates meet high industry standards.

Depending on the state, school counselors must renew their licenses every 2-10 years. Renewal requirements vary considerably by state, with some even using point-based systems. Typically, however, a school counselor needs to complete approximately six continuing education credits every five years, and the license must remain in good standing to qualify for renewal.

What to Look for in a Program

When choosing a school counselor degree, there are a few considerations students should factor in for both on-campus and online programs. For example, prospective enrollees should ensure their school received regional accreditation, which can affect financial aid access, licensure, and employment opportunities.

Programmatic accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs can also affect licensure access after graduation. Students should check that their program's curriculum meets state licensure standards in their area, including practicum requirements.

Career Information

Nationwide, school counselors enjoy strong salary and workforce numbers. According to BLS employment data, median annual school counselor salary rates and projected job growth far exceed national averages. The data below highlights school counselor salaries in the highest-paying cities, which are primarily high population city centers.

Salary and Job Growth for School Counselors

Median Salary

$57,040

Job Growth (2019-2029)

8%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Highest Paying Cities for School Counselors
City Salary
United States Average $50,770
Houston, Texas $62,880
Los Angeles, California $60,240
New York, New York $59,600
Dallas, Texas $54,870
Chicago, Illinois $51,500
Source: PayScale

Similar Careers

School Psychologist

School psychologists perform many of the same tasks as school counselors but with more of a focus on mental and behavioral health, often extending beyond the confines of the school. To practice, these professionals need a graduate degree in school psychology, the nationally certified school psychologist credential, and state licensure. Some states may require a doctoral degree.

Social Worker

School social workers often perform many of the same tasks as school counselors, with the added skills and authority to reach out to clients' families and work with other social service agencies on behalf of their clients or students. While requirements vary by state, a social worker candidate typically needs a master's degree in social work and two years of supervised clinical practice. They then need to pass the licensure exam with their state board.

Therapist

Like school counselors, therapists can work with children in school settings, but they more commonly work in private practice. These professionals focus on helping clients overcome emotional, behavioral, and mental health issues. Most child therapists have master's or doctoral degrees and pursue licensure as psychologists or clinical counselors.

Ask An Expert

Image of Barron Whited, MS.Ed.

Barron Whited, MS.Ed.

Barron Whited has an MS in education in school counseling from Duquesne University and a BS in biology and communication from the University of Pittsburgh. He is a certified K-12 school counselor with 10 years of cybereducation and 23 years of experience in elementary, secondary, and higher education.

Why Become a School Counselor?

The reason to become a school counselor is because it can be a rewarding profession by helping students succeed and making a difference in young people's lives.

What are some challenges and high points in this role?

Some of the challenges of being a school counselor are helping students cope with bullying, mental health issues, gender identity, trauma, and crises, along with the number of students in a caseload and clerical duties. Some of the high points of being a school counselor include helping students to succeed, participating in awards and graduation ceremonies, and knowing an impact has been made on others' lives.

What type of person does well in this role?

An individual who is an active listener, who can be empathetic and sympathetic, optimistic, a wonderful communicator, appreciates diversity, a great problem-solver, always willing to learn, and an open-minded collaborator with staff and administration.

Who does this role help?

A school counselor helps students, parents, and the school community.

How does this role impact others?

School counselors can help students meet academic standards, helping them overcome personal barriers and assist in exploring career interests.

Why do we need more school counselors?

We need more school counselors because students need support through these uncertain times. They need proactive programming to assist with coping skills and advocates in their corner. We also need more school counselors because student-to-counselor ratios are too high to manage and meet the students' needs.

How to Get Hired

How long does it usually take graduates with a degree to get hired?

It depends on the location of the country where an individual is looking for employment, the time of year they graduate from a school counseling program, what educational institutions are hiring, and how soon they begin looking for jobs before they graduate.

Typically, a large percentage of jobs are filled during the summer months when school districts finalize their budgets for the upcoming school year. However, during the school year, individuals can find long-term substitute positions.

Do counselors determine the school level (elementary vs. secondary) they work in, or is that driven primarily by the job market?

A school counselor who is K-12 Certified may have many more opportunities for employment at a school district to work in the elementary, middle, or high school. They may have more of an interest in working with a certain population to qualify for a particular job.

What skills do employers look for?

A school counselor should have the skills to be a leader, have patience and empathy. It is important to have excellent technology skills to design PowerPoint, charts, graphs, and create surveys to better understand the student population. They also need to be able to collect and understand data, be a great public speaker, and be able to collaborate with students, parents, faculty, and administration.

What can students do to make themselves look better to employees?

One tip for future school counselors is to join professional organizations on the national, state, and local levels to stay up to date on current issues. Another tip is they may want to research the educational institution to know the needs of the student population.

Professional Organizations

  • American School Counselor Association ASCA supports current and aspiring counselors as they progress through their education and careers. The association provides members with access to helpful resources, industry news and information, and professional development opportunities.
  • American College Counseling Association ACCA works with counseling, psychology, and social work professionals, most of whom work in higher education settings. The association offers its members access to networking events, industry resources, and continuing education opportunities.
  • American Counseling Association Founded in 1952, ACA represents professional counselors from many fields, offering leadership, professional guidance, and access to industry news and resources. Members also have access to networking and continuing education opportunities.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are the Benefits of Counseling in Schools?

School counselors help students of all ages reach their full personal and academic potential. Moreover, according to BLS data, the guidance counselor profession is poised to grow faster and pay more than the average U.S. profession.

Are School Counselors Therapists?

School counselors support a student's academic experience and journey, while therapists provide mental health support. School counselors may provide emotional support for students, but typically, they focus mostly on academic and professional readiness.

What's the Difference Between a School Counselor and a Guidance Counselor?

School counselor is the more contemporary professional name for a guidance counselor, as it better describes the role they take on in schools. Traditionally, guidance counselors focused on post-high-school career trajectories, but these professionals now offer many other support services for all ages of students.

Is Becoming a School Counselor Worth It?

The school counseling profession can be very fulfilling for people who like working with others to improve their mental health and academic success. In addition to the strong growth and salary rates for traditional school counselors, these professionals can also find jobs in community counseling or at colleges and universities.

Are School Counselors in Demand?

Yes. The BLS projects that the school counseling profession will grow 8% between 2019-2029, while the general counseling profession will grow 14% in the same period.

How Long Does It Take to Be a School Counselor?

Typically, school counselors need to complete a four-year bachelor's degree and a two-year master's degree. Some states also require up to two years of supervised clinical experience, bringing the total timeline to 6-8 years.

Header Image Credit: | Getty Images

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