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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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.

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 from Dana Kurilew's interview

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.

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.

Elementary school counselors take a collaborative approach to helping students. They work closely with teachers, administrators and parents to make sure every young student is being taught at the right level, students who may be struggling are getting the appropriate support and referrals, and the top students are being adequately challenged. They also watch for warning signs when a student may have a learning disability, an underlying emotional or behavioral concern, or having problems at home that affect their learning.

In middle schools, school counseling professionals provide guidance where it is sorely needed, among a population that is experiencing physical, mental, emotional and social growing pains. From the transition from childhood to adolescence, middle school students typically explore and expand their interests, begin to connect their learning in school to real world experiences, engage in high levels of activity, develop their own identity, and seek opinions from peers for comfort, understanding, and approval. A middle school counseling office is rarely empty as all manner of issues arise daily, from physical and social conflicts, to academic struggles and emotional issues.  

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) describes the work of high school counseling offices as providing support, guidance, and opportunities to adolescents who are seeking to define their independence, transition into adulthood, and evaluate and further develop their skills. High school counselors provide academic and career planning activities, address personal and social development concerns, and prepare and present workshops on a variety of topics. Crisis counseling and management is prevalent to the high school counseling role as adolescents are challenged with the pressures of alcohol, sex, drug abuse, relationships, and multiple stressors.

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.

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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