An accredited master's degree is necessary to work as a licensed school counselor. Master’s programs in school counseling typically require 30 credits, which full-time students traditionally complete in two years. Candidates may hasten degree completion by enrolling in accelerated online tracks, earning their credentials in as little as one year.
The curriculum for this degree often involves required classes like counseling theories and techniques, applied career counseling practices, and child and adolescent development. Degree candidates generally also complete practicums and internships, which prepare them for the post-master's training needed to earn state licensure. This guide helps you find the master's in school counseling program that fits your schedule and career goals and offers insight into accreditation, the admissions process, and professional development resources.
What Is School Counseling?
School counseling focuses on meeting the needs of students through direct support and secondary services. In the former, school counselors remove obstacles to academic achievement by conducting data analysis to identify student issues and challenges. They collaborate with families, community members, and educational staff to implement necessary programming. Secondary services include general support for other counselors as well as providing broad guidance through presentations and large-group settings. Counselors also occupy an advocacy role, campaigning for student interests at school board meetings and government events.
School counselors help students create a plan for their future, which includes preparing for postsecondary goals, whether that be college, job entry, or the military. They also help learners strengthen interpersonal skills and manage their emotions through short-term counseling. If a situation warrants additional intervention, counselors provide referrals to external resources.
K-12 student populations are increasingly diverse. The U.S. Census Bureau reports increases for Hispanic, black, and Asian learners, while the non-Hispanic, white student population decreased from 57% to less than 50% from 2007 to 2017. To meet the needs of this evolving educational landscape, schools are looking to recruit skilled school counselors.
You can discover more about the school counseling field by accessing this degree page. The guide displays rankings for the 25 best online school counseling programs. You’ll also learn about the daily challenges of the profession through an interview with an active K-12 school counselor.
What You Can Do With a Master's in School Counseling
By earning a master's degree in school counseling, you can work as a school or career counselor. School counselors can find employment with elementary, middle, and high schools, where their main duties include helping students develop academic and social skills. School counselors conduct interviews and aptitude tests to develop individualized success plans for their students. They also tackle emotional and behavioral problems by offering counseling sessions and classroom guidance lessons.
- School and Career Counselor
Career counselors typically work within community centers, government programs, and higher education institutions. They help individuals explore careers based on their skills, background, and interests. These counselors also facilitate skill development and guide clients through the job search and application process.
Median Annual Salary: $56,310
Projected Job Growth (2018-28): 8%
You should consult this in-depth career guide to explore additional opportunities available to school counseling majors. On top of job options by degree level, the page provides information on location-based employment prospects and professional resources.
What to Expect in a Master's in School Counseling Program
Master's programs in school counseling span 1-2 years, depending on their degree structure and your prior academic and career experiences. Core classes often include lifespan development, counseling models and theories, and research and statistical analysis. Students also cultivate advanced skills in group counseling, family counseling, and crisis management. The best online master's in school counseling programs also provide training in program development and consultation.
Common Program Concentrations
- School Counseling
- Students learn about the theory and practice of counseling and teaching and take classes in crisis intervention, team leadership, and coping strategies.
- Bilingual Counseling
- A bilingual concentration focuses on multicultural and bilingual counseling theories. Students need to be fluent in another language and grow familiar with common problems that English language learners face.
- Career Counseling
- Students with a concentration in career counseling can work in high schools or colleges to help students find jobs and careers. This concentration requires classes in networking, career services, and resource management.
Sample Program Curriculum
Specific courses vary from school to school, though most programs offer a similar core curriculum. Below serves as a common list of courses in a master's in school counseling program.
- Counseling Techniques: From foundational theory to modern techniques, all master’s in school counseling online programs offer courses that teach the current best practices in the field. Students usually take more than one technique course during their online master’s in school counseling program.
- Assessment in Counseling: Assessment courses help counselors see the nonverbal warning signs of clients and ask the appropriate corresponding questions that help them. Assessment includes teaming with educators and administrators.
- Internship/Fieldwork: On-campus and online master’s in school counseling programs typically include internships and fieldwork. These exercises give students work experience before starting their careers.
- Crisis and Trauma Counseling: Many master’s in school counseling online programs feature courses on crisis management and trauma, and students can specialize in certain student groups.
- Ethics and Legal Issues: Ethical and legal restrictions in counseling protect students and counselors alike. Every student needs to take at least one class in this area to understand their rights and their clients' rights.
Interview With Nikki Specht
Nikki Specht is a certified K-12 school counselor at a high school outside of Philadelphia. She has a degree in English and communications from Penn State University and a master of education in school counseling from West Chester University. Nikki volunteers at a grief center for children, is a certified grief group facilitator, and volunteers for Red Cross Disaster Mental Health.
- Why did you choose to earn a master's degree in school counseling? Was this something that always interested you?
I never knew I wanted to be a school counselor until just before applying to grad school. I graduated from undergrad at Penn State with a degree in English and communications and worked in marketing for a year before realizing that it was not for me. I had actually applied to grad school to become a study abroad advisor but, shortly before I was slated to begin, my sister died after a long battle with mental illness.
After she died, I realized I really wanted to work with students who were struggling with mental health, and wanted to work in a field where I could really help others, and hopefully help students heal and find success in a way my sister could not. As soon as I started grad school, I knew it was the perfect job and program for me. I am able to use my past experiences to connect with kids and families, and it is extremely rewarding every day.
- What are some of the most crucial skills you gained in your master's degree program that apply to your job on a day-to-day basis?
Many people don't know this, but the primary topic we study in grad school is mental health. We do study things like child development, legal and ethical issues, and working with students who are English language learners and special needs. The main focus, however, is around different types of mental illness and how to spot warning signs that a student might need help, followed by learning how to work with these specific students and families.
I would say the biggest skills that I learned in grad school are how to listen to students and empathize with them -- I thought this was something I was naturally good at, but there are real skills involved in this that may not be as obvious as they seem. Teenagers and kids have different cognitive functioning and different ways of seeing the world -- so, it really helps to be aware of where the student's mindset is and making sure you're able to meet them where they are.
The other skill I utilize every day is de-escalation techniques. You quickly learn that, as the school counselor, you're the person they call when no one else knows what to do. So if a student is crying, screaming, hiding, or otherwise on the verge of a breakdown, you are expected to step in and help that student. Grad school taught me the skills to not only be able to handle those situations, but to feel confident when entering those situations that I would actually be able to help and de-escalate the student back into a more stable condition.
- What was the job search like after completing your degree? Did you feel fully prepared when making the transition from school into the workplace?
I believe that I felt as prepared as possible when leaving grad school. If your school is CACREP certified (something you want to look for!), they will require you to do 700 hours of fieldwork. As much as my classes were helpful, it's amazing what you learn during your fieldwork. You can talk all day about how to de-escalate a situation, but until you are brought into an active crisis at school you don't know exactly how it'll feel or how you will handle it.
Other situations, such as dealing with a conflict between a student and a teacher, talking to angry parents, and running a 504 accommodation meeting, can only be taught with experience, and if you have a good internship placement you should be exposed to all of that before you have to do it on your own.
The only area that I feel was lacking in grad school was learning about college counseling. As a high school counselor, this is a huge part of my job, and we didn't get a ton of education in this area so I did a lot of research and taught a lot of it [to] myself, and [learned it] in talking to admission reps. Overall, though, I felt that the combination of my classes and field work in grad school very much prepared me for life on the job.
As for the job search, it can be brutal, which is why it is so important to take your internships VERY seriously. These could be the people hiring you one day, or passing your name on to other schools to hire. I interned at my old high school for my final internship, then ended up in a long-term sub position to finish out the year after I graduated. At the end of the year, the counselor I was subbing for was returning and I had no job in sight.
Luckily, a former teacher at my school was now an assistant principal at another area high school and emailed around asking if anyone had a good school counseling candidate. Because I took my internship and LTS placements so seriously and worked really hard, they recommended me to the assistant principal, and -- after three rounds of interviews -- I was hired with a contract at that high school. In Pennsylvania, it's very difficult to find a contract in education right now, but in other states it might be much easier if they need good educators. But as long as you work hard and make good connections, you'll find a job that fits.
- What are some of the challenges you face in your day-to-day work?
School counseling is an amazing job with a lot of great things. However, it is not without its challenges. One challenge that we face daily is advocating for students. While everyone in the school wants what is best for the student, my ideas might not always align with that of the teachers, parents, administrators, or even of the student. It can also be difficult trying to reach students who don't want help. There are always kids who show up to school but continue to make poor choices, and they don't want anything to do with the counseling office. It can be difficult to try many different paths to help a student who simply does not want to be helped.
It can also be very difficult to see students in distress and in difficult or sad situations. Students will tell us almost anything, including sad stories from home, friendships, relationships, and so on. It's difficult to watch kids who are going through an impossible time in their lives, and though you can be an ear to listen, you can't always change difficult circumstances, especially when they are coming from a difficult home life.
The last challenge that we face is any kind of crisis. We often get students who are feeling suicidal or just very depressed. It can be difficult and painful to navigate these situations, working with the parents and students during a very tough time in their lives.
- Why did you choose to work with high school students?
As much as I loved my elementary school internship, I found much more joy and purpose working with high school students. I am able to connect with them and forge really positive and strong working relationships, and the students are able to advocate for themselves and tell us what they need.
Students at this age are often at a crossroads between childhood and adulthood, and it can be a very confusing time. They really benefit from having someone in the school who they know they can trust to come and talk to if they need an ear to listen, or just need to take a break for a few minutes. I am hopeful that, by making these connections and helping students through the often muddy waters of high school, we are able to set them on the right path for a successful and happy future.
- What advice would you give to bachelor's counseling students who are on the fence about earning a graduate degree in the field?
Well, my first piece of advice is that if you want to become a school counselor, you need to go to grad school! As far as I know, in every state you are required to have a master's in the field before being hired (definitely in Pennsylvania and most other states). If you have decided to pursue another profession, grad school still might be a good option, as most counseling and psychology jobs require a graduate degree or will require a degree if you want to go past entry-level positions.
- What does continuing education look like for you?
We have a lot of flexibility with [what] classes we can take because our role covers so many areas. I have taken continuing education on classes such as gifted learners, anxiety, working with difficult students, working with difficult parents, suicide ideation, motivating students, and many others. There is almost no end to the classes that we can take because school counseling touches on almost every aspect of the school and the student's life.
How to Choose a Master's in School Counseling Program
Many colleges and universities offer accessible master's programs in school counseling for traditional students and working professionals. When researching potential schools, you should consider factors like tuition price, course offerings, and academic and career services. This section examines these characteristics in greater detail.
- Higher education institutions must maintain national or regional accreditation to confer valid academic degrees. National accreditation comes from organizations authorized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education. Colleges and universities become regionally accredited through one of six organizations, depending on location. Master's programs in school counseling also gain specialized accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.
- Cost and Financial Aid
- You can minimize college debt by attending institutions that provide low tuition rates. Distance education represents a great option, since many online programs come with affordable tuition that disregards residency status. Financial aid availability should be another deciding factor. The best master's programs in school counseling offer institutional scholarships and grants.
- Program Structure
- Higher education institutions usually allow students to individually pace their schedules, taking as few or as many classes as they want while meeting minimum requirements. However, some schools operate a cohort learning structure that requires candidates to advance through the degree plan at the same pace as their program peers. While this format does foster collaboration, it tends to slow down degree completion. If you want to pursue distance education, you should consider how synchronous and asynchronous coursework might affect your weekly schedule.
- Practicum and Internship Requirements
- Practicums and internships provide the opportunity to individualize academic training according to your interests and goals. As you compare master's programs, be sure to research whether each school's curricular content helps build your professional identity and specific counseling skills. When looking at distance education options, inquire if the institution allows you to fulfill practicum and internship requirements with organizations in your area.
- Student Resources
- By attending universities that provide effective academic resources and career services, you can gain a significant hiring advantage for entering the job market after graduation. Look out for dedicated tutoring services, libraries with accessible research databases, and networking opportunities through campus groups. Important career services include internship-placement programs, job search assistance, and resume-building workshops.
Master's in School Counseling Program Admissions
The following section covers the general admission requirements and materials you can expect when applying to graduate counseling programs. This section also delves into the application timeline, offering a guiding framework so you can plan accordingly.
- Minimum GPA: Master of school counseling programs generally require first-time students to meet a minimum 3.0 GPA requirement and transfer candidates to have at least a 2.0 GPA. Some institutions accept candidates with lesser GPAs if they have strong standardized test results and/or relevant work experience. Certain online programs do not require a minimum GPA at all.
- Work Experience: To enroll in traditional master's programs in school counseling, students typically do not need to possess career experience. However, some accelerated programs do require at least two years of work experience. Even if your program does not implement this criterion, you can still translate relevant work experience into transfer credits to save money and expedite graduation.
- Prerequisite Coursework: Because graduate programs build on foundational concepts, candidates usually need to complete designated prerequisite classes as part of their undergraduate education. Common prerequisites for school counseling include applied statistics, introductory psychology, and individual counseling methods. If you have not fulfilled the necessary prerequisites, you may need to complete bridge training before formally enrolling in the master's program.
How to Apply
- Standardized Test Scores
- GRE requirements differ among colleges and universities, so you should confirm this detail for each school. You may encounter a flat minimum or a sliding scale contingent on GPA and work experience. Many schools (especially institutions that offer online master's in school counseling programs) eschew standardized testing altogether, opting for more holistic means of student evaluation.
- Letter of Intent
- Also called a personal statement, this one- or two-page document enables you to detail your academic history, work experience, and career goals. Postsecondary schools also use the letter of intent to discern if an applicant's motivations and worldview align with the institutional mission. Instead of a formal letter, some schools ask candidates to answer a series of essay questions.
- Recommendation Letters
- You should expect to furnish 2-3 recommendation letters. These documents usually come from professors, employers, and other authority figures who can attest to your professional skills and personal qualities. Some schools restrict who can write a recommendation letter, and some institutions prefer to contact recommenders directly through email, phone, or video conferencing.
If your school requires GRE scores, plan to spend 2-3 months (about 120 hours) preparing for the exam. After you complete the general test, results will show up on your ETS account and official reports will be sent to your designated institutions in 10-15 days. GRE scores stay valid for five years following the test date, and you can order additional reports online through ETS.
To determine how much time you need to gather and submit application materials, check your university's deadline. Master's programs in school counseling typically set the deadline two months prior to the start of the entry term. Many online programs accept applications year-round through a rolling admission process. In any case, don’t wait until the last minute to send your documents. By allocating 4-6 weeks for this process, you can ensure that you have enough time to create persuasive application materials. When in doubt, seek the guidance of an admissions counselor to help set a schedule that fits your needs.
Resources for Master's in School Counseling Students
Founded in 1952, ACA serves professional counselors in diverse practice settings. The association operates a vast knowledge database that includes tools and resources specifically for school counselors. Members can access webinars, podcasts, and continuing education programs. ACA Career Central offers a platform where counselors can seek guidance and apply for open positions.
With an emphasis on healthcare accessibility and equity, ACAC operates information and support networks for counselors who work with young people. The association facilitates research initiatives that advance counseling prevention and intervention strategies. Members benefit from conferencing opportunities and skill development programs. They can also apply for academic scholarships and research grants.
ASCA was established in 1952 and focuses its mission on improving school counseling practices and programs. The organization provides professional development opportunities to members in the form of individualized coaching, site-based training, and self-paced webinars. ASCA also offers in-depth information on state certification and industry best practices. Members enjoy free liability insurance and educational resources.
NBCC is an independent certification organization dedicated to advancing the counseling profession worldwide. The board sponsors public policy campaigns and grassroots advocacy movements to improve mental health. Counselors can find comprehensive information on program accreditation and state licensure examination processes.
As the international counseling honor society, CSI works through college campus chapters and its global headquarters. Students can engage with peers, licensed counselors, and industry experts through online forums and networking events. The society provides research guidance, grant funding, academic awards, and skill-centered webinars. CSI also helps students find and apply for internships, fellowships, and jobs.