How to Become a School Counselor

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree in a behavioral, social science or education field
  2. Earn a master’s degree in school counseling
  3. Complete graduate internship experience for certification/licensure requirements
  4. Pass any required exams for certification/licensure
  5. Apply for certification/licensure
  6. Continue your education and stay up to date on school counseling trends and changes

School 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. Your path to become a school counselor may vary from the steps listed in this article.  Individual state requirements will vary and are subject to change, including licensure standards, exam eligibility, and appropriate pathways, and may differ based on individual student backgrounds. Students should do their own due diligence and determine the appropriate pathway and license type for themselves.

Through advocacy, 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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Sponsored Online School Counseling Programs

University of Southern California (USC)

USC Rossier School of Education


Master of Education in School Counseling

The University of Southern California Rossier School of Education offers a Master of Education in School Counseling online for aspiring K-12 school counselors. The program can be completed in less than two years and there is no GRE requirement.

  • No GRE required 
  • Prepares you for school counseling credential 
  • Bachelor’s degree required

University of Denver

Morgridge College of Education Online


Master of Arts in School Counseling

Advocate for P-12 students and become an agent of change in your community. With no GRE required, earn your Master in School Counseling online in as few as 24 months from the University of Denver. Gain valuable skills through a CACREP accredited curriculum centered on social justice.

  • No GRE required  
  • Live, online classes   
  • Complete in as few as 24 months 

New York University

NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development


Master of Arts in Counseling and Guidance

Learn more about NYU Steinhardt’s online MA degree that prepares you to become a school counselor in as few as 18 months. Graduates can pursue certification and employment in pre-K–12 schools. Bachelor’s req.

  • Complete in as few as 18 months.
  • Pursue school counselor certification.
  • Study bilingual school counseling (optional). 
  • GRE scores are not required. 


Steps to Become a School and Guidance Counselor

Here are some common steps people can take to become a school or guidance counselor.

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

Earning your bachelor’s degree in counseling, education, psychology, social work, or similarly 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. However, this is not required and it is recommended to check the admission requirements for the master’s in counseling programs that interest you.

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.

You should also be aware that some states may require you to complete an accredited program. The widely preferred accreditor in the field is the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP) as it ensures the coursework meets the appropriate requirements and standards to practice as a school counselor. It is best to check if the state you wish to practice in requires you to complete a CACREP-accredited program, as it is not required in every state.

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. CACREP requires students to complete a 100-hour practicum and a 600-hour internship, though it is best to check with your state board to determine the appropriate amount of hours that must be completed.

4. Pass any required exams for certification/licensure.

In order to be licensed, you will be required to pass examinations, as required by the state you wish to practice in. Review your state’s requirements for more information.

5. Apply for certification/licensure.

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

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

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.

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 and 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 of Dana’s interview.

For some states, it is required that a school counselor be an educator within a school before they can become 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.

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

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

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 or entering the workforce

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 11% from 2020 to 2030, 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 May 2021, the BLS reports that California employs the most school counselors, followed by Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois.

The median annual salary for a professional school counselor in the U.S. is about $60,510. However, salaries vary depending on experience, tenure, geographic location and setting. Of all states, California offers the highest earnings for a school counseling career at a median of $81,590. The New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago metropolitan areas have the highest employment levels.

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, supervised field experience, a passing score on a state administered certificate exam and a background check. However, the requirements may depend on a student’s background.

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. You’ll find general requirements on how to become a school counselor in the state of New York, Texas, and California through our guides. There are also multiple online counseling programs in New York, Texas, and California for those interested in becoming a counselor in one of these states. 

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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 takes four years to complete. School counselors must also earn a master’s degree, which may take up to two years to complete. States typically require passage of examinations 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 an option for school counselors that may help prepare you for your master’s degree . School counselors typically earn their master’s in school counseling, but this requirement may vary by state.

Do school counselors get paid in the summer?

It depends. School counselors, like teachers and 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, though this is not required to earn a master’s degree.

How can you become a school counselor for elementary schools?

Elementary school counselors typically work with young children from kindergarten through fifth 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. Be sure to check with your state licensing board for more information.

How can you become a school counselor for middle schools?

Middle school counselors typically work with students from sixth to eighth 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. Be sure to check with your state licensing board for more information.

How can you become a school counselor for high schools?

High school counselors work with students from ninth 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. Be sure to check with your state licensing board for more information.

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Last updated: April 2022