How to Become a School Counselor

School counselors, also known as guidance counselors, play a vital role that supports student success, classroom effectiveness and overall school harmony. The term school counselor can be used broadly to define some counseling roles in a school setting.

Although there are many roles to choose from, the steps to becoming a school counselor and working with a specific age group, such as elementary school students is the same process as working with middle or high school students.

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 support.

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Steps to Become a School and Guidance Counselor

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

Earning your bachelor's degree in counseling, education, or psychology 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 in school counseling 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 licensure and/or certification.

After you have passed the required exams, you are ready to apply for licensure and/or certification. Make sure to review your state’s application requirements before applying.

Step 6: 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.

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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 and licensing 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 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.

It is important to check your state’s requirements. 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.

School and Guidance Counselor Requirements by State

The requirements to become a school and guidance counselor may depend on where you live, but are typically similar state to state. Below you’ll find in-state requirements on how to become a school counselor in the state of New York, Texas, and California.

How to Become a School & Guidance Counselor in New York

Here are some of the requirements to become a school counselor in New York effective through February 2023.

  • Education: If you have not completed a NY registered school counseling program, you can still become a school counselor with an undergraduate education from an accredited institution recognized by NY Department of Education, 30 hours of graduate education in counseling, or school counselor certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards as well as completing required coursework to become a counselor.
  • Experience: If you have an undergraduate education from an accredited institution recognized by NY Department of Education and 30 hours of graduate education in counseling, you must have also completed a supervised internship with an accredited university with a program preparing you for certification.
  • Institution Recommendation: Counselors who have earned a master’s in counseling from a NY registered school must be recommended by that institution.
  • There may be additional requirements for licensure in New York

If you’re interested in becoming a school and guidance counselor in New York, you may be eligible for a scholarship for counseling programs in New York and if you are currently practicing, loan repayment programs are also available to you.

How to Become a School & Guidance Counselor in Texas

Here are some of the requirements to become a school counselor in Texas.

  • Complete EPP for school counselors
  • Education: Hold a master’s from an accredited school recognized by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board
  • Classroom teaching: two years of experience in an accredited public or private school
  • Complete required test

If you’re interested in becoming a school counselor in Texas, you may be eligible for one of the Texas School Counselor Association (TSCA) Scholarships.

How to become a School & Guidance Counselor in California

There are a few unique requirements to become a school counselor in California listed here:

  • Education: At least 48 semester units in a school counseling program, including a school-aged children practicum
  • Institution Recommendation: university must submit recommendation online
  • Basic Skills: Must complete CBEST, which consists of reading, mathematics, and writing
  • Clear credential option: individuals must satisfy all requirements for clear credential, including 48 semester units in a Commission on Teacher Credentialing approved school counseling program, obtaining a formal university recommendation, and completing the basic skills requirement.

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 is the difference between a guidance and school counselor?

Technically, there is no difference between guidance and school counselor! However, the term guidance counselor is generally considered out-of-date since the role has evolved and school counselor is a broader term.

How long does it take to become a school counselor?

The amount of time it takes to become a school counselor may vary by state. All school counselors must hold a bachelor’s degree in a related field, which take four years to complete. School counselors must also earn a master’s degree, which may take up to two years to complete. Your state may or may not require examination for certification and you should use your own discretion to take the necessary time to pass the exam.

How can you become a school counselor with a psychology degree?

A bachelor’s degree in psychology is a typical path for school counselors that will help prepare you for school counseling. School counselors should earn their master’s in either counseling or school psychology, but this requirement may vary by state.

Do school counselors get paid in the summer?

It depends! School counselors, like teachers, and most other employees in school districts can allocate some of their pay to a 'savings' that is then distributed throughout the summer so that they always receive a paycheck. Some school counselors will work throughout the summer in summer school or summer programs or find other employment that is close to their role.

What degree do you need to become a school counselor?

All school counselors must hold a bachelor’s degree and a master's degree. Bachelor’s degree learning paths may include psychology, counseling, social work, education psychology, and sociology.

How can you become a school counselor for elementary schools?

Elementary school counselors typically work with young children from kindergarten through 5th grade. All elementary school counselors must hold a bachelor’s degree in a related field, a master’s degree in counseling, and be licensed in order to practice.

How can you become a school counselor for middle schools?

Middle school counselors typically work with students from 6th to 8th grade. Similar to elementary school counselors, middle school counselors must also have a four year undergraduate degree in a related subject as well as a master’s in counseling. They must also be licensed in the state they choose to practice in.

How can you become a school counselor for high schools?

High school counselors work with students from 9th to 12th grade. High school counselors typically hold a bachelor’s degree in counseling, psychology or other related field, a master’s degree in counseling, and a state-issued license to practice.

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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.