A guide to school counseling programs and careers
What is school counseling?
School years can be a turbulent and complicated time. There are difficult choices to make, things to adapt to, and plenty of new responsibilities. School counselors help students navigate these stormy waters, by assisting with academic, personal, social, and career planning issues.
School counseling involves getting to know how students, live, think, and operate. The position is an interesting mix of educational support, combined with social and emotional guidance. It usually involves individual or group sessions, as well as assessments. The work typically takes place in elementary, middle, high schools, or postsecondary institutions.
With student enrollment, bullying, and teen depression all on the rise, school counselors are in high demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of school counselors is predicted to grow by 8% between 2020 and 2030. Potential job growth isn’t the only benefit. School counseling is a real opportunity to influence the lives and futures of the next generation.
School counselors are frequently represented in film and TV. Examples include, Emma Pilsbury, who helped her students overcome problems in the musical “Glee.” Or Mr. Abbott in the sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris” who preaches the importance of academia and inspires Chris to go after his dreams.
The traits of a successful school counselor
School counselors come from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Typically they have some, or all, of these qualities:
Counselors need to be empathetic, showing they genuinely care about a student’s physical and mental well-being.
Counselors work with people of all backgrounds and personalities, so it is essential they are able to communicate effectively.
Counselors often need to interpret student assessments to identify potential career paths. Therefore, an aptitude for accurately understanding and communicating data is generally required.
A large part of the job involves listening to students or groups. Active listening skills allow a school counselor to assess the conversation, guide the speaker to express emotions, and determine the best path of action.
Becoming a school counselor
The 4 main requirements to become a certified school counselor are:
- bachelor’s degree
- master’s degree
- licensing exam
Below we look at each step of this journey in more detail.
Bachelor’s degree in school counseling
Becoming a school counselor begins with the completion of a 4-year undergraduate degree. Most applications require high school transcripts or general equivalency diploma (GED). You may also need to supply a letter of recommendation and SAT scores.
It’s not necessary to specifically pursue a bachelor’s degree in counseling. Some schools offer psychology degrees with a concentration in school counseling. This format is more common than finding undergraduate programs solely dedicated to school counseling.
Students often choose a bachelor’s program in education. Others major in subjects such as sociology, or social work, although they may have to complete some prerequisite courses to be eligible for a school counseling graduate program.
Typical courses for a bachelor’s degree aimed at school counseling include:
- clinical counseling methods
- psychology and counseling
- general psychology
- probability and statistics
- research methodology
- developmental psychology
- biological foundations of psychology
- theories of personality
- abnormal psychology
School counseling electives might include:
- educational psychology
- child development
- assessment and testing
- counseling process and techniques
- individual differences and special needs
Programs and institutions across different states have various requirements. Some require fieldwork, so be sure to look into this when researching potential programs.
Although a master’s is necessary to become a school counselor, there are still jobs related to this field that you can do with a bachelor’s. For example, entry-level positions in areas like addiction, human relations, and some in youth and family services.
In 1908, Frank Parsons set up the Bureau of Vocational Guidance to help school-leavers transition into work. This unprecedented step has led many to refer to Parsons as the “father of career counseling.”
Master’s degree in school counseling
To specialize in school counseling requires a master’s degree. This 2-year program brings together elements of education, psychology, and counseling to equip graduates to work in a school.
Master’s applicants need a bachelor’s degree in a related field. They usually need to supply transcripts showing a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 2.5 or 3.0, and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores. Other requirements include 2 or 3 letters of recommendation and a professional statement summarizing the candidate’s aims.
A master’s in this field can take various forms, some of the options are:
- Master of Education (M.Ed.)/Master of Science in Education (M.S.Ed.) in school counseling
- Master of Education (M.Ed.)/Master of Science in Education (M.S.Ed.) in counseling and counseling education
- Master of Arts (M.A.)/Master of Science (M.S.) in counseling — with a concentration in school counseling
- Master of Arts (M.A)/Master of Science (M.S.) in counselling and student personnel psychology
In addition to the above master’s programs in counseling, there are many other similar options available to become a school counselor. The choice is typically based on the preferred school and the course that most closely aligns with your interests.
At master’s level, many subjects are broader with a general focus on psychology and counseling. Most programs contain courses in professional practice, group counseling, and program management. These can help graduates assist students in developing their academic and social skills. They can also provide the necessary tools to help children resolve conflicts, deal with bullying, and handle parental or even sexual abuse.
Other courses might include:
- career counseling and college preparation
- assessment, measurement, and appraisal
- multicultural aspects of counseling
- research methods
- special education
Some master’s programs stipulate the completion of a written thesis. Others offer a non-thesis track, allowing students to make up the credits through additional practice or the completion of other courses.
The master’s program requires a supervised counseling internship in an education setting. This allows students to use the theories and concepts learned in the classroom in an authentic environment. If a school is advertising a master’s in school counseling without a practicum, this is a red flag. Completion of a practical component is a requirement to become a licensed school counselor.
Getting your school counselor license
Licensure, or certification, as it is called in some jurisdictions, is necessary to practice in most states. The requirements can differ, so it’s best to check the state licensing board. Typically, you need to demonstrate that you have earned a master’s degree and completed a relevant internship with a minimum number of supervised practice hours.
Most states require candidates to pass licensure examinations.
A background check is usually a requisite. Most states require candidates to pass licensure examinations. An example of this is Praxis, which is the National Counselor Exam administered by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). In some states, schools provide the option to apply for the license through the NBCC.
Certification by the National Board for Certified Counselors is an additional voluntary credential that shows employers and clients that you have met the counseling profession’s national standard. This requires 3,000 hours of practical experience and 100 hours of supervision for over 2 years.
This is not a requirement to become a school counselor. A doctorate is usually pursued by those who wish to enter school leadership, administrative, or lecturing roles. Most doctoral students work as school counselors for a period of time before deciding to upskill.
Prospective candidates need to have completed a master’s degree in counseling, school counseling, or a related field at an accredited institution. Proof of supervised hours and internships is also required. Transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a short statement are often part of the application.
Students can choose between a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) with a concentration in school counseling, or doctor of education (Ed.D.) with a concentration in school counseling. Graduates of the education program tend to work with students and other educators. While Ph.D. holders often go into academia, research, or public policy roles.
Most doctoral programs are completed over 5 or 6 years. The first 3 years typically involve courses in theory, current social issues, and educational practices. Courses may include:
- advanced counseling practice
- leadership and advocacy in counseling
- education counseling supervision
- quantitative and qualitative research methods
The remaining years of the program are usually dedicated to a dissertation. The topic will be decided with your supervisor and depends on where your main interest lies.
When researching potential programs be sure to check they are accredited. School counseling degrees are typically certified by 1 of 3 organizations: the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), the American School Counselor Association Specialized Professional Association (ASCA-SPA), and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).
Online and campus-based programs
There are several formats for school counseling programs available. The bachelor’s degree can be completed online, as a hybrid course, or on campus. As most programs focus on counseling and theory, it’s easy to attend classes and complete assignments remotely.
Online master’s degree programs do exist, but they involve a supervised practicum. You may be able to complete one as a hybrid program and attend some sessions on campus or make independent arrangements.
Ph.D. programs are typically taught on campus. They involve a research aspect, which requires input from faculty members and must be undertaken at specified locations.
Generally speaking, school counselors do not offer long-term therapy. Instead they use counseling theories in ways that are highly applicable to the school environment.
For many students, seeking financial aid is a necessary step in the process of becoming a school counselor. Fortunately, there are various options available.
The main resource is the Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) website. This informs candidates if they are eligible for student aid. There’s an application form to fill out, and unlike the degree itself, it’s free.
Other options include grants and scholarships. Many of these are aimed at graduate students specializing in school counseling as there’s a need to fill these roles. The American School Health Association (ASHA) offers several awards, including one to a school health researcher and one to emerging professionals.
Doctoral students can apply for the Esther Katz Rosen Fund grant. The award is for up to $50,000 and is given to those who are working to support the development of gifted children.
School counseling career options
Depending on the education level achieved, there are various job opportunities available.
With an undergraduate degree, positions related to school counseling include:
School administratorMedian salary: 64K US$
Graduates can use their understanding of developmental psychology and education to facilitate learning at elementary, middle, or secondary schools. The focus here is more on the organization of student intake, classes, and extracurricular activities.
Academic advisorMedian salary: 43K US$
Academic advisors help students explore their academic interests, set educational goals and make plans to achieve them. The most frequent employers of academic advisors are public and private schools, as well as school districts. Some work directly with students, hired by their families.
Market researcherMedian salary: 59K US$
Graduates can use their experience in youth psychology to work with companies developing educational services or products. They may predict and test the market conditions, discovering what people want and what price they will pay for it.
Master’s degree holders can typically work in the following positions:
School counselorMedian salary: 52K US$
Based in elementary, middle, or high schools, this position involves guiding and supporting individual students in academic, social, and emotional aspects.
College counselorMedian salary: 50K US$
Based at a college or university, the role includes supporting students to with their professional and educational goals. This can also involve providing students with guidance in dealing with personal issues, such as being away from family for the first time.
With a doctorate degree you can secure a school leadership or administrative role. Many graduates of doctoral programs enter teaching roles, such as:
School counseling professorMedian salary: 89K US$
Typically these positions are at a university or higher education institution, where you can pass on your knowledge of school counseling to the next generation. The position might also involve a research aspect.
Becoming a school counselor requires dedication and commitment. For many, it is a passion, not just a job. Training in school counseling opens the door to a potentially life-changing, fulfilling, and satisfying career. Choosing to work in this field is not a decision to be taken lightly. It requires a heart of gold and, on occasions, nerves of steel.
Who can become a school counselor?
If you’re empathetic, resilient, a good listener, and want to help students achieve their potential then you could be a school counselor. Be prepared to work for it though. Becoming a school counselor involves completing a bachelor’s and master’s degree.
What does a school counselor do?
A school counselor helps students with the issues they face during their school career. These issues can be academic, social, or personal in nature.
Is school counselor a good career?
School counseling is an excellent career if you want to be involved in the education of children at a practical level. Those who wish to move into school counselor leadership positions typically need to complete a doctorate degree.
What’s the difference between a school counselor and a guidance counselor?
Previously, all counselors working at schools were called guidance counselors. These days school counselor is the more standard term, because the job is about far more than just providing career guidance.
How long does it take to become a school counselor?
School counselors need to complete a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Therefore, becoming a school counselor takes at least 6 years of study.
Do I need a degree in counseling to become a school counselor?
To become a school counselor you need to complete an undergraduate degree in counseling or a related field. You also need to complete a master’s in school counseling (or similar) that involves a practical counseling component in an educational setting.
American Psychological Association (APA)
The APA provides up-to-date information about the psychology field in the U.S. and has dedicated sections for school counselors.
American School Counselor Association (ASCA)
This membership organization has resources for best practices as well as ethical standards in the field.
Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
Accreditation council for master’s and doctoral degrees in school counseling.