How to Become a School Counselor

School counselors play a vital role that supports student success, classroom effectiveness and overall school harmony. Through advocacy, and collaboration, and leadership, professional school counselors sustain a safe learning environment and fair access to educational experiences for all students. A comprehensive school counseling program addresses the needs of all students, regardless of learning level, disability or socioeconomic status through academic, personal, and social/emotional development supports.

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Steps to Become a School Counselor

Step 1: Complete a bachelor’s degree in a behavioral, social science, or education field.

Earning your bachelor's degree in a counseling or education related field creates a primer that allows you to explore the dynamics of helping professions and working with students with a focus on mental health foundations, educational systems, learning theories, and student services.

Step 2: Earn a master’s degree in school counseling

As a requirement for any school counselor career, you must pursue a master's degree from an accredited university. Typical coursework for these programs include counseling theories, learning and behavior disorders, human development, and counseling ethics.

Some school counseling degrees offer unique programs, such as Counseling@NYU's concentration on bilingual school counseling with coursework focused on language development and the adaptation of immigrant origin youth. Take the next step and request information from Counseling@NYU.

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Step 3: Complete graduate internship experience for certification/licensure requirements.

During your master’s degree in school counseling program, you will need to complete graduate supervised internship experience in schools under a certified/licensed school counselor. This experience prepares you best for postgraduate employment as it allows you to dive deep into your work with students.

Step 4: Pass any required exams for certification/licensure.

Some states and/or school counseling programs require the passing of a recognized examination for gradation or certification/licensure. Review your state’s requirements for more information.

Step 5: Apply for and earn additional certifications.

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and other professional organizations offer additional certifications on a wide range of subjects to prepare you with additional education and specialization in your work with students.

Step 6: Continue your education and stay up to date on school counseling trends and changes.

The school counseling profession is tied closely with the education and counseling fields. To stay in the known on changes and updates to both fields, it is required that school counselors pursue continuing education credits in the form of various formats to maintain their certification/licensure.

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University Name Program Name Live Classes Field Placement
Class Size Under 15
University of Southern California Master of Education in School Counseling check-mark check-mark check-mark
University of Denver Master of Arts in School Counseling check-mark check-mark check-mark
Vanderbilt University Master of Education in human development counseling with a specialization in school counseling check-mark check-mark check-mark
New York University Master of Arts in Counseling and Guidance check-mark check-mark check-mark

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What does a School Counselor do?

School counseling professionals provide direct and indirect services to students. They also develop and implement comprehensive counseling programs that focus on student outcomes. Through direct student services, school counseling programs and their counselors provide:

  • Core School Counseling Curriculum: Lessons that are designed to help students achieve competencies, knowledge, attitudes, and skills appropriate to their level of development
  • Individual Student Planning: Activities designed to assist students in establishing goals and developing their future plans.
  • Responsive Services: Meeting the immediate needs and concerns of students in both individual and small-group settings or crisis counseling.

Indirect services for students involve any activity that is completed on behalf of students. These include referrals, consultation, and collaboration with stakeholders such as administrators, teachers, parents, and community organizations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, school counseling professionals are also involved in student evaluation of abilities, the identification of issues that impact school participation, and prepare and present workshops on certain topics such as bullying and drug abuse.

Learn More: Interview with Dana Kurilew – School Counselor & Supervisor of Counseling Services “When it comes to the role of a counselor... all schools, especially high schools function differently and school counselors have different roles depending on their district's mission and student population.” Read more

For some states, it is required that a school counselor be an educator within a school before they can become a certified. School counseling professionals are employed in elementary, middle/junior high and high schools, as well as in school district supervisory and education roles. Specific training or specialized education, such as an undergraduate or master’s program concentration in elementary education, may better prepare school counselors for the age group they support.

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Elementary School Counselors

  • Ensure students are getting appropriate academic, emotional, behavioral, and physical assistance
  • Collaborate with teachers and other staff to make sure students are being adequately challenged academically
  • Engage with students in emotional development, behavior management, and social skills learning
  • Look for signs of learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, and behavioral concerns that impact learning

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Middle School Counselors

  • Assist students experiencing physical, mental, emotional, and social growing pains due to early adolescent growth
  • Collaborate with students to connect academic and behavioral learnings to real world experiences
  • Encourage individual identity development, exploration and peer mediation
  • Address physical and social conflicts through mediation management

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High School Counselors

  • Help students define their independence in their transition into adulthood
  • Engage students and teachers in academic and career planning activities
  • Conduct crisis counseling and management to assist students in pressures of adolescent trials
  • Assist with student post-graduate plans such as college, military, trade school, workforce

What are the certification requirements?

Every state has certification requirements for school counselors. The requirements vary by state, but generally include a completed master's degree in school counseling or related area, a passing score on a state-administered certificate exam and a background check. Not every state requires an examination just as some require previous institution experience as a teacher. Many states require planned program hours in a school setting and some require years of professional education or counseling experience.  Additionally, school counseling professionals will be required to take continuing education to maintain their certification. Each state has its own certification agency so it is important to check for details on state-by-state requirements by visiting  the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).

School Counselor Salary and Career Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of educational, school, and vocational counselors is projected to grow 8 percent from 2014 to 2024, equivalent to the average for all occupations. Increasing school enrollments are expected to lead to employment growth of professional school counseling. However, hiring may be limited due to school funding cuts at the state and local level. As of 2015, the BLS reports that California employs the most school counselors, before Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois.

The average annual salary for a professional school counselor in the U.S. is about $54,000. However, salaries vary depending on experience, tenure, geographic location and setting. Of all states, New Jersey offers the highest earnings for a school counseling careers at an average of about $72,000, slightly above Alaska. The New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago metropolitan areas have the highest employment levels.

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What should you look for in an online master's in school counseling program?
Discover the important factors to your online school counseling degree with our guide.