Elementary, middle, and high school counselors play a vital role in ensuring that students succeed academically. They often administer high-stakes standardized tests and help students overcome personal and academic problems, among other essential tasks. To enter this fulfilling profession, you need a master's degree. An online master's degree in school counseling imparts the latest knowledge and skills that counselors require to perform their jobs successfully. You can earn this in-demand degree in two years if you study full time, while most part-time students graduate in three years.

Continue reading to learn more about the school counseling profession, typical coursework, and how to choose the right program for you.

What Is School Counseling?

School counseling is the bridge between students' educations and their lives outside the classroom. School counselors help students identify factors in and outside of school that affect their academic performance. They also instill within children valuable life skills applicable to academic and personal situations. Another important role involves helping students locate and secure additional services (e.g., tutors, social workers) in circumstances exceeding a counselor's expertise or abilities.

School counselors spend as much time collaborating with teachers and administrators as they do counseling students. In this role, they provide teachers with important information about students' changing life situations. Other responsibilities include leading workshops with teachers and helping administrators develop and implement schoolwide initiatives. Counselors also provide teachers and administrators with resources to help them become better educators and child advocates and take on additional responsibilities to ensure that the school runs smoothly.

Now that you know more about school counselors and their many job duties, start researching the best master's in school counseling online programs.

What You Can Do With a Master's in School Counseling

Most individuals who earn a master's in school counseling work in public or private educational settings as school or career counselors. Within the school counseling field, graduates can pursue many opportunities, specializing in areas such as mental health, bilingual counseling, or family counseling. They can also practice as a general school counselor. Professionals can work with young children to support emotional and behavioral development or provide college and career support to high school and college students. School counselors need empathy and compassion as well as analytical, listening, speaking, and interpersonal skills.

School counselors encourage students to succeed in school by helping them develop their academic and social skills. They also provide assistance to students dealing with emotional, social, mental health, and behavioral issues that threaten their success as healthy individuals. School counselors evaluate students' interests and abilities, provide guidance and counseling, and work with parents and teachers to create plans to help students succeed.

Aside from evaluating student performance, school counselors may also help students develop effective study habits, overcome behavioral problems, report possible cases of abuse, and maintain records. They sometimes tackle complex issues such as bullying, suicide, addiction, and abuse. Most school counselors work in elementary, middle, and high schools. Some school counselors work at the college level. When they specialize in career counseling, they also sometimes work at career or workforce development and training centers. Some work in healthcare or social service agencies.

Salary of School and Career Counselors by Industry
Industry Median Pay
Elementary and Secondary Schools; State, Local, and Private $63,280
Other Educational Services: State, Local, and Private $52,440
Junior Colleges, Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools; State, Local, and Private $50,050
Healthcare and Social Assistance $38,790

With an online master's degree in school counseling, you can apply your knowledge and skills to many related careers. Visit our career page to learn more about which opportunities school counselors can pursue.

What to Expect in a Master's in School Counseling Program

The best online master's in school counseling programs share many traits. Learning outcomes among these programs include instilling the latest school counseling best practices and helping students explore careers. Additionally, counselors-in-training hone their skills through practica and internship experiences wherein they work under an experienced school counselor.

Many programs use internships as the basis for students' capstone projects. During an internship, students perform an action research project. Degree-seekers use their research findings to create a presentation or write a traditional master's thesis. Other graduation requirements vary among schools (e.g., the number of credits), but most full-time students can earn their master's degree in two years.

The five courses below represent a sampling of what you can expect in your online master's in school counseling. As you review these courses, keep in mind that course names and requirements can vary among programs.

  • Abnormal Psychology: Many children and adolescents struggle with mental health issues. In this course, students learn how to identify mental illness and mitigate the effects in a school setting.
  • Multicultural Counseling: This course prepares counselors-in-training to work with children from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Course topics include cultural awareness.
  • Management of School Counseling Programs: As counselors juggle many responsibilities, they must know how to manage time and resources effectively. In this class, students examine topics including needs assessment and program development.
  • Professional Practice: This course allows learners to explore different topics in school counseling that align with their career goals. At many universities, a professional practice course requires at least one practicum.
  • Group Counseling: In group counseling courses, students often learn how to help small groups of children who share one or more similar problems. In class, students analyze psychoeducational and psychotherapy topics.

Expert Interview

Nikki Specht

Nikki Specht

K-12 School Counselor

Nikki Specht is a certified K-12 school counselor at a public high school just outside of Philadelphia. She earned her undergraduate degree in English and communications at Penn State University and then earned her master of education in school counseling from West Chester University. Nikki also volunteers at a local grief center for children and is a certified grief group facilitator and a volunteer for Red Cross Disaster Mental Health. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her husband, daughter, and niece, and enjoys cooking, reading, writing, and cuddling with her three cats.

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

When researching master's in school counseling online degrees, pay close attention to accreditation. Each school should possess accreditation from a regional accreditation agency. These agencies receive a charter from the Department of Education to evaluate schools' academic quality. Additionally, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) grants programmatic accreditation to only the best online master's degree in school counseling programs.

  • Format

    Programs for an online master's degree in school counseling use either a synchronous or asynchronous format. Prospective students who work full or part time should consider programs with an asynchronous format, which allows them more flexibility because they don't have to be online at scheduled times.

  • Tuition

    Public universities charge out-of-state students up to 400% more in tuition than what in-state residents pay, but often schools charge the same tuition rates to all distance learners regardless of their residency status. Pay close attention to tuition rates before applying.

  • Hands-On Experience

    The best online master's in school counseling programs provide learners with multiple opportunities to apply new knowledge in a school setting. Many practica and internship experiences can help you hone skills that principals and other administrators desire in job applicants.

Master's in School Counseling Program Admissions

Admission requirements typically vary by institution and program. However, many of the best master's in school counseling online programs use the following three prerequisites to select applicants who have the best chance of making a positive impact in the school counseling field.

  • GPA: Even if a program does not use a GPA cutoff, the most competitive applicants possess at least a 3.5 undergraduate GPA.
  • Recommendation Letters: Programs often require 1-2 recommendation letters. Although recent college graduates submit letters from professors, prospective students with work experience can, in some cases, ask a work supervisor for a recommendation.
  • Undergraduate Degree: Although most online master's in school counseling programs allow applicants to possess a bachelor's degree in any field, admissions counselors may prefer applicants with bachelor's degrees in counseling or a related field.

Admission Materials

Application
Graduate school programs do not use the Common App, which you may have used for your undergraduate applications. Instead, you must complete each individual application separately. Application length and questions vary by program.
Transcripts
Applicants must submit transcripts from any previously attended college or university. You can request transcripts through your previous school's registrar's office, typically for a small fee.
Letters of Recommendation
Most master's programs ask students to submit three recommendation letters. Undergraduate professors who know you well, especially those in a counseling-related field, are the best fit for these recommendations. Give each recommender at least two weeks to write your letter.
Test Scores
Some school counseling master's programs require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Schools typically do not require students to achieve a minimum score but instead look at the applicant's GRE score in combination with other parts of their application.
Application Fee
Graduate school application fees vary by program but typically cost more than undergraduate applications. A $50 fee is common, but some schools charge substantially more. Students with financial hardship can request a fee waiver.

Resources for Master's in School Counseling Students

American Counseling Association Clearinghouse

The clearinghouse section of ACA's website holds a treasure trove of helpful resources for counselors, including counseling syllabi, interventions, and activities. Only ACA members can access this resource.

Elementary School Counseling Resources

Prospective elementary school counselors can find many helpful counseling resources here, including counselor blogs and websites, counseling tools, award opportunities, and free publications.

CACREP

Graduate counseling programs receive their accreditation from CACREP. Students can use the CACREP website to find master's in school counseling programs that hold CACREP accreditation.

School Counselor Resources

This site offers several publications and supplemental learning materials for professional school counselors. The American School Counselor Association's National Model guides the resources chosen.

National Board for Certified Counselors

NBCC provides many voluntary certifications to professional counselors in the U.S. At this website, students can learn how to earn a certification or pursue state licensure.