How to Become a Counselor

If you think counseling might be your career of choice, continue reading to learn more about how to become a counselor.

portrait of Amber D. Browne
by Amber D. Browne

Published August 18, 2022

Edited by Desiree Cunningham
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How to Become a Counselor
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If you're the type of person who enjoys listening to others, providing solutions to problems, and promoting a positive mindset, counseling might be a great career choice for you.

A bachelor's degree in counseling, psychology, education, social work, or a related field is required to work as a counselor. You can intern or work in an entry-level counseling position, earn a master's degree, and attain a license if necessary. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), educational, guidance, and career counselors and advisors earned an average salary of $63,090 in May 2021.

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Ready to start your journey?

Most counselors possess qualities such as listening and speaking skills, compassion, and patience. These qualities are essential to understanding a patient's problems and provide appropriate support.

If counseling sounds like an interesting career to pursue, you can learn more about the field and continue reading to identify the steps on how to become a counselor.

What Does a Counselor Do?

A counselor typically listens to people managing mental, emotional, social, or behavioral conditions and provides guidance. Counselors can also offer advice on academic and career paths.

Your responsibilities might change depending on your education and specialization. An advanced degree can increase your earning potential and opportunities for career growth. Specialization in the field allows you to focus on a specific area of counseling.

During bachelor's degree programs, some students intern or work in entry-level positions to gain experience. Some go on to earn master's degrees and licensure after graduating undergrad. With an advanced degree, professionals can access more career opportunities.

Counselor Responsibilities

Your duties as a counselor may vary depending on your role.

  • Rehabilitation counselors help patients manage physical, mental, developmental, or emotional conditions to live independently.
  • School counselors prepare students for academic and career success.
  • Mental health counselors treat patients with mental and emotional health conditions, including depression.
  • Social workers help people with housing, food, and employment instability.
  • Marriage and family therapists help people overcome and process relationship issues.

Counseling Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps to Become a Counselor?

Most counseling careers require applicants to possess a bachelor's degree at a minimum. However, additional education and work experience may be required depending on your position and the state your work in. For example, those interested in working as mental health counselors must possess master's degrees and licenses. The steps to becoming a licensed counselor vary by state, as do continuing education requirements.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree in Counseling

Students pursuing a career in counseling typically work toward a bachelor's degree in counseling, psychology, or social work either at an online school or at a brick-and-mortar school.

The average cost of tuition and fees at a four-year college or university was $19,020 in 2020-2021. While you work toward a bachelor's degree, you can also work part time to receive on-the-job training and build skills.

Step 2: Get an Entry-Level Counseling Job

After earning a bachelor's degree in counseling or a related field, it's time to find a job. Ideally, you should look for roles that will help you build the experience necessary to achieve your ultimate career goals.

Some tips for finding a job include building a resume and practicing your interview skills. It is also important to network and build relationships in your field.

Entry-level counseling jobs include substance misuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors, who earned a median salary of $48,520 in May of 2021, according to the BLS. You can also work as a social or community service manager. These professionals earned a median salary of $37,610 a year during the same period.

Typically, bachelor's degree-holders work less than five years in an entry-level position before advancing to a higher position or until they earn an advanced degree. You can also seek internships as you continue your education.

Step 3: Earn Your Master's of Counseling

Is a master's degree necessary to work in counseling? No, not every counseling position requires a graduate degree. However, earning a master's degree can improve your career options and earning potential.

To determine if grad school is right for you, it is helpful to review grad school alternatives and set specific career and salary goals, as some counseling positions require a master's degree in counseling.

A master's degree is required for the following positions.

Counseling Career Median Salary (2021)
Rehabilitation Counselor $38,560
Marriage and Family Therapist $49,880
School or Career Counselor $60,510

Source: BLS

Master's degree programs can help students gain specialized knowledge. Listed below are a few specializations to consider.

Step 4: Get a Job as a Counselor

After earning a master's degree, you may be required to get a license. You must have a license to work as a school or career counselor, a rehabilitation counselor, or a clinical social worker. Marriage and family therapists must be licensed and pass a state exam to provide counseling services.

When deciding the best career path in counseling, determine your strengths and which type of counseling specializations appeal to you.

Step 5: Consider Continuing Education or Specialization

As a licensed professional counselor, you are required to complete continuing education. The number of hours you must complete depends on your state and specialization.

If you want to increase your earning potential, you can earn a doctor of philosophy or psychology in counseling. With a Ph.D. or a Psy.D., you can work in many counseling-related positions, including as a psychologist at a private practice, school, or healthcare setting. The median annual salary for psychologists was $81,040 in May 2021, according to the BLS.

What to Know Before Becoming a Counselor

Continuing education and licensing might be required depending on the counseling position. Listening to people share their problems and providing guidance will be your primary responsibilities as a counselor, so you might have to deal with stressful and emotional situations.

Accreditation

It is important to pursue a counseling degree at a college or university that has been accredited by an agency that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Accrediting agencies vary by state, and they play an important role in determining if schools meet certain education standards. Some examples of accrediting bodies are the Higher Learning Commission, New England Commission of Higher Education, and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Accreditation is necessary to receive financial aid, transfer credits, and find a job. Both in-person and online schools can receive institutional accreditation, but it is also important to confirm your specific program of interest is also accredited, when applicable. For example, the American Psychological Association accredits psychology programs. The APA Commission on Accreditation (APA-CoA) "accredits doctoral graduate programs in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, school psychology" and other fields.

Licensing and Continuing Education

Most counseling positions, especially those that require a master's degree, also call for a license. The steps necessary to get a counselor license and continuing education requirements differ by state and specialization.

For example, in Texas, you can become a licensed professional counselor (LPC) or a licensed professional counselor intern (LPC-I) practicing under supervision, according to the American Counseling Association. You must also have 3,000 hours of post-master's supervised experience, pass an exam, and perform required continuing education.

Cost

An online four-year bachelor's degree can cost $36,000. Attending school in person can range from $38,748 at public, in-state colleges to $140,348 at private institutions for tuition and fees. A master's degree program can cost just as much. Also, be sure to examine hidden college costs. Licenses, required state tests, certifications, and continuing education are added costs.

Salary

Professionals with master's or doctoral degrees typically earn more than those with bachelor's degrees. Pay fluctuates by state. For example, California was the highest paying state for educational, guidance, and career counselors and advisors in May 2021. Counselors there made an average annual salary of $81,590, according to the BLS. States such as Indiana, Oklahoma, and Utah had some of the lowest average salaries for counseling, ranging from $36,440-$53,710.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Counselor

What qualifications do you need to become a counselor?

To become a counselor, you must earn a bachelor's degree in counseling, psychology, social work, or another field. You can then apply for entry-level jobs or internships to gain experience. Earning a master's degree is the next step, leading to greater career opportunities and earning potential. Once you have a master's degree, you may be required to be licensed, depending on the state. Continuing education may also be required.

What is the fastest way to become a counselor?

The fastest way to become a counselor is to complete a bachelor's degree in counseling, psychology, or social work. While earning your degree, you can intern or work in a counseling-related position to gain experience.

How do I become a counselor without a degree?

There are a limited number of opportunities to become a counselor without a degree. A high school diploma or equivalent is required to work as a social or human services assistant. No degree is required to become a peer counselor. A peer counselor offers support and guidance to others based on personal experience.

Can I become a counselor with an online degree?

You can choose to earn a bachelor's degree in counseling through an online school. Online schools may be less expensive than traditional colleges or universities.

How much money can I make as a counselor?

Depending on education and experience, the amount of money you can make as a counselor varies. If you have a bachelor's degree and are licensed, you may choose to work as a mental health counselor, earning about $48,520 per year, according to the BLS. If you earn a master's degree and a license, you can work as a marriage and family therapist, earning a median of $49,880 per year.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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