Counseling Licensure and Certification

Welcome to the Counseling License State Guide

The Counseling License State Guide is your complete resource to learn about counseling career paths, counseling education options and state licensing requirements. It’s a comprehensive guide for current and aspiring counseling professionals on how to accomplish their professional goals within each state.

Counseling Licensure and Certification Requirements

State licensure/certification is required for most counseling practitioners. Exceptions include some entry level positions and supportive administrative counseling positions, such as a case worker. However most counseling fields require a license or certification to practice and accept insurance payments. Counseling licensure/certification requirements vary depending on the type of counseling you are practicing and the state in which you practice.

Many states have two counseling license tiers – one for Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC) or the equivalent, and one for counselors who have completed their master’s degrees, but have not yet completed the required hours of counseling supervision and, in some cases, additional course work or required examinations.

Typical state counseling licensing/certification requirements include:

1. Master's Degree in Counseling

A master’s degree in counseling from a regionally accredited university, to include a minimum number of credit hours in a counseling career, marriage and family therapy, or a related mental health field. Some states also require that the program of study be recognized by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

2. Clinical Supervision Hours

A minimum number of supervised work hours in a clinical setting under the guidance of a licensed/certified counselor.

3. Background Check

A background check including fingerprinting and proof of identification. Some states will also require references.

4. Counselor Examination

A passing score on a state-administered or state-recognized counselor exam. Most states require either one or both of the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE), both available from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Some concentrations do not require completion of a NBCC exam but rather defer to a certification upon application to the state in which the counselor wishes to practice, i.e. school and college counseling

Additionally, some states accept or require the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRC) for counselors seeking to work with individuals who have physical, mental, development, and/or emotional disabilities. Several states require examination supplements for ethics or jurisprudence. For more details on counseling licensure necessities, see your state counseling licensure requirements.

5. Additional Certifications for Specialities

Certification in your specialized area may be required. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) offers specialty certifications – Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC), Master Addictions Counselor (MAC) or National Certified School Counselor (NCSC). In order to hold a specialty certification, you must also hold the general National Certified Counselor (NCC) designation. Even if you do not require specialized certification, the NCC and NCSC is a helpful credential as it demonstrates that you have voluntarily met national counseling standards.

6. Continuing Education

Continuing education courses are often necessary to maintain certification or licensure. A minimum number of continuing education units (CEUs) is set according to each state’s standards. Convenient online courses are offered through the American Counseling Association and other professional counseling organizations.

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Counselor Exams for Licensure or Certification

A major component of obtaining state licensure as a professional counselor is the counseling exam. While you will register for the exam through your state licensing board and it may be administered by the state, it is actually a national counselor exam. Most states require either the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE). Some states, however, require both for licensure. The NCE and the NCMHCE are both available from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). In some states, you have the option to choose which exam you wish to take.

Additionally, some states accept or require the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRC) for counselors interested in working with individuals with physical, mental, development, and/or emotional disabilities. Several states require examination supplements for ethics or jurisprudence. For detailed requirements in your state, see state requirements above.

NCE Exam

The National Counselor Exam for Licensure and Certification (NCE) features 200 multiple-choice questions to assess your counseling knowledge. The NCE is required for counselor licensure in many states as well as for the National Certified Counselor (NCC) certification. The NCE is also utilized to determine practice eligibility within military health systems to include the Army Substance Abuse Program and TRICARE. Since 1983, the NCE has been administered to many practicing professionals while being reviewed and revised periodically.

The NCE focuses on core academic and professional content areas as determined by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and the National Board for Certified Counselors' (NBCC) job analysis. The NCE covers the following content areas:

  • Human growth and development
  • Social and cultural diversity
  • Helping relationships
  • Group work
  • Career development
  • Assessment
  • Research and program evaluation
  • Professional orientation and ethical practice
  • Fundamental counseling issues
  • Counseling process
  • Diagnostic and assessment services
  • Professional practice
  • Professional development, supervision and consultation

The NBCC considers 160 of the multiple-choice questions towards your final score. The other 40 items are used for field testing for future exams and you will not know which items will be field tested. While the maximum score is 160, the passing score varies between versions of the NCE and is predetermined by the NBCC. Once your exam is scored, you will have the opportunity to compare your results with others across the country within the NCE statistical summary. Your scores will not be released to any third party without your written consent.

NCMHCE Exam

The National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Exam (NCMHCE) features 10 simulated cases related to clinical mental health counseling. These simulations assess your clinical problem-solving skills, which include identification, analysis, diagnosis, and treatment of clinical concerns.

Each simulation includes five to eight sections that are classified as either information gathering or decision making. Information gathering sections assess your ability to gather clinical data to evaluate a situation. Decision making sections assess your ability to solve clinical problems by using the data to make judgments and decisions. The simulations in the NCMHCE cover three content areas:

  • Assessment and Diagnosis
    • Integration of client assessment and observational data
    • Identify precipitating problems/symptoms, individual and/or relationship functioning, and relevant familial issues.
  • Counseling and Psychotherapy
    • Informing clients about ethical standards and practice
    • Clarifying counselor/client roles
    • Implementation of individual counseling as a part of treatment
    • Evaluating any referral information
  • Administration, Consultation and Supervision
    • Maintain appropriate and accurate case notes, records and/or files
    • Assessing if services meet a client’s needs
    • Corresponding verbally with others to maintain professional communications
    • Assisting clients with obtaining social services

Each simulation on the NCMHCE is weighted from +3 to -3 based upon the level of appropriateness and accuracy for the most effective client care. To pass the examination, you must achieve a total minimum passing score, as determined by the NBCC, for both information gathering and decision making. Your final scores, as with the NCE, will not be released to any third party without your written consent.

CRC Exam

Administered by the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC), the CRC Exam is accepted in 11 states for certification specific to sworking with individuals who have physical, mental, development, and/or emotional disabilities. Some states accept it on its own, while others require it in addition to the NCE.

The CRC Exam features 175 multiple-choice questions covering 10 recognized knowledge areas:

  • Assessment, Appraisal, and Vocational Evaluation
  • Job Development, Job Placement, and Career and Lifestyle Development
  • Vocational Consultation and Services for Employers
  • Case Management, Professional Roles and Practices, and Utilization of Community Resources
  • Foundations of Counseling, Professional Orientation and Ethical Practice, Theories, Social and Cultural Issues, and Human Growth and Development
  • Group and Family Counseling
  • Mental Health Counseling
  • Medical, Functional, and Psychosocial Aspects of Disability
  • Disability Management
  • Research, Program Evaluation, and Evidence-Based Practice

CRC Exam scoring is divided into two parts – knowledge of counseling and knowledge of rehabilitation and disability issues. A passing score on both parts is required.  Exam results are provided at the test site following completion, in which examinees are alloted 3 1/2 hours. Those who do not pass will receive a diagnostic score report.

How to Register and Prepare for the Tests

First determine which exam(s) you need to take based on your state’s requirements for licensure or certification. If required, contact your state board to gain permission to take the exam. They will want to ensure that you meet educational and professional prerequisites. You will also be required to register directly with the NBCC or CRCC, pay the examination fee (NBCC exams vary state to state, CRC Exam) and schedule a date to take the exam at a location in your state.

Study guides and practice tests are available through the NBCC and CRCC. The NBCC also offers a NCE handbook with practice questions, registration information, and what to do after the scoring of exams. This is also offered for the NCMHCE.

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Counseling Supervision

Practicing counselors and counselors-in-training refer to it simply as “supervision”. What they are referring to are the hours that are set aside for counselors and counselors-in-training to meet with their supervisor and discuss their sessions, seek guidance with clients, or generally make comments or express concerns with their work or professional development. Whether in pursuit of a master’s degree or state license, this requirement involves placement in a clinical setting where you will work with clients under the supervision of a licensed/certified counselor. These hours are documented and signed off by the designated supervisor and then reported to the university or state licensing/certifying board for fulfillment of graduation requirements and/or licensure/certification.

Fieldwork for Counselors-in-Training: Graduate Study

In addition to the required credit hours of course study, accredited universities and their counseling programs require additional hours of practicum and internship experience. Practicum is a field experiences that allows students to observe and learn from established counselors in a clinical setting while interacting with clients on a limited basis. Internship training places master’s students in a clinical or school setting to assist with and experience hands-on counseling.

Accredited academic programs require and help facilitate the number of supervised hours required to complete their master’s program. However, in some cases, these are separate from the supervision hours necessary to meet state licensure requirements. In some cases you can request additional training hours through your university program for additional tuition fees. Check with your department administration.

Your supervised hours as a student may or may not count toward the number of clinical hours required by your state for licensure/certification. For details, refer to your state licensing board. If you plan to attend a university in a different state from where you plan to practice, you may need to coordinate training hours between the university and your state’s licensing board.

Clinical Supervision for Counselors-in-Training: Post-Graduate Study

Counseling supervision not only serves to meet state licensure requirements, but also provides fertile training ground in a mentorship setting. Throughout a counselor-in-training’s experience at a clinical site, they are supervised by a licensed/certified counselor in order to best guide their learning and applied skills practice. Counselors-in-training are able to experience first hand the assessment and appraisal of clients’ presenting concerns, treatment planning, goal development, how sessions transpire with different clients, group process, and how to develop an empathetic working relationship with clients. Throughout the process counselors-in-training absorb valuable knowledge through practice, observation and discussion.

State licensing boards determine the required amount of supervised training hours for an applicant to be eligible for licensure/certification. Every state has specific requirements of hours, settings and how the hours are documented and submitted. For details, refer to your state’s licensing board.

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Note: There may be additional methods of licensure and/or certification that have not been covered here. Contact your state licensing or certification board for more information.