How to Become a Counselor [2021 Guide]

If you’re the type of person who values helping people overcome their struggles, then you may be interested in how to become a counselor.

How to Become a Counselor

Counseling is a worthwhile profession that offers opportunities to make a lasting difference in people’s lives. A certified counselor is equipped to help clients navigate challenging situations and overwhelming emotions.

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The first step to getting started on this rewarding career path is to learn more about the counseling degree and licensure that you’ll need for working in this field.

How to Become a Counselor

state-licensed counselor

In almost all cases, becoming a state-licensed counselor requires earning a masters degree.

Your chosen career path may require even more training beyond a masters. Before you get to that point, though, it’s strategic to map out your goals and a plan of how you intend to accomplish them.

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While every state and specialty may present a slightly different series of steps toward becoming a licensed counselor, here’s a general overview of the process:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree. If your goal is to get into a master’s program, then it’s critical that you earn your bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college. Any major might do, but psychology or human services could be strategic choices.
  2. Enroll in a counseling master’s degree program. As with your bachelor’s program, the college for your master’s degree should be regionally accredited. Your state licensing board may also prefer for you to complete a program that is certified by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).
  3. Choose a master’s specialty. While this step is not required, many students choose to specialize in a particular area of counseling, such as addictions or family therapy.
  4. Take a counseling examination. Your state board will require you to pass one or more counseling examinations before you can advance toward licensure. The National Counselor Exam (NCE) is a commonly used test. You might take this exam before graduating with your master’s degree or shortly after graduation.
  5. Earn supervised work experience. Before you can become licensed, you’ll earn work experience in a supervised clinical setting. State rules vary, but you’ll typically accumulate 2,000 to 3,000 hours.
  6. Submit documentation to your state’s licensing board. Once you’ve met all the requirements for licensure, you can turn the paperwork over to the state, pay the licensing fee, and wait for final approval.
  7. Continue your education. Even after you’re licensed, it’s necessary to keep learning. Maintaining your license may require earning continuing education hours. You can also pursue specialized credentials or a doctorate.

You can consult your licensing board for the specific requirements in your state.

3 Things You Can Do with a Master’s in Counseling

Marriage and Family Counselor

Becoming a counselor can be a rewarding career path, and you may have the opportunity to study many different specialty areas. Your area of interest and your college training may direct you toward one of the following counseling roles.

1. Marriage and Family Therapist

Relationship disagreements, mental health struggles, and life transitions can be hard on people. Marriage and family therapists help people learn to cope, communicate, and make positive changes.

While keeping the focus on the family context and relationships, therapists may work with couples, individuals, or whole families.

2. Mental Health Counselor

Mental Health Counselor

Stress, depression, anxiety, and other conditions can take a toll on mental health and affect all areas of a person’s life. Mental health counselors provide support and strategies for people going through such struggles.

In this role, you could offer strategies for reframing thoughts and making positive choices.

3. Career Counselor

Career counselors help people identify their strengths and interests. With that information, they can recommend careers that could be a good fit and provide guidance on how to achieve those goals.

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Career counselors often work in school settings, including colleges, to help students figure out what they want to do with their lives.

Masters in Counseling Specialty Areas

Masters in Counseling Specialty

Counseling is a diverse field, so you may want to choose a specialty area for your studies and for your eventual counseling services.

  • Addictions Counseling. In this specialty, you’d help people who are addicted to substances or habits. You could also work with family members who are affected by addiction.
  • Forensic Counseling. This focus area could help prepare you for a career in the criminal justice system, whether in the areas of corrections, juvenile justice, crime prevention, or addiction treatment.
  • Marriage and Family Counseling. Specializing in marriage and family therapy could help equip you with the skills to guide relationship improvement through group and individual counseling sessions.
  • Rehabilitation Counseling. Rehabilitation counselors help people with disabilities manage their unique challenges and develop the skills for living independently or maintaining a job.
  • School and Career Counseling. Choosing to specialize in school or career counseling could prepare you to help students succeed in school environments or to guide people toward jobs in which they’d thrive.

There’s also the option to become a general counselor who sees clients with a wide range of needs.

Counseling Careers & Salaries

Counseling Careers & Salaries

Counseling is a diverse field with the opportunity to specialize in social work, addiction recovery, psychology, marriage and family, or other areas of expertise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers in community and social service pay a median annual salary of $47,520.

Careers Annual Median Salaries
Clinical, Counseling and School Psychologists $79,820
Postsecondary Psychology Teachers $78,180
Social and Community Service Managers $69,600
School and Career Counselors $58,120
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists $55,690
Social Workers $51,760
Marriage and Family Therapists $51,340
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $47,660
Rehabilitation Counselors $37,530
Social and Human Service Assistants $35,960

The required training for these careers ranges from a high school diploma to a doctorate, so your career goal can direct your educational path.

How to Choose an Online Counseling Masters Program

Counseling Masters Program

There are a lot of counseling degree programs out there. If you need help figuring out where to go for your counseling training, you can run through the following checklist of program characteristics. It may help you narrow down the selection.

  • Accreditation. It’s beneficial to choose a college that holds regional accreditation. It’s often strategic to select a master’s program that has programmatic accreditation from CACREP as well.
  • Format. Some colleges offer on-campus counseling programs, but others have online classes, which many students find more flexible and adaptable for busy schedules.
  • Hands-on practice opportunities. Counseling programs generally include plenty of practice hours so you can begin gaining clinical experience in real-world counseling settings.
  • Specializations. If you have a specialty area in mind before you begin, you’ll likely want to zero in on programs that offer that specific type of training.
  • State requirements. Because each state sets its own rules for counseling certification, it’s important to pick a program that aligns with your state’s regulations.

To learn more about whether a program could be the right fit for you, you can talk to current students or recent graduates. You can reach out to the admissions office for information as well.

Counseling Internship Opportunities

Counseling students need to gain experience before they can become licensed. Good internship placements will support what you learn in the classroom and give you the opportunity to practice your skills.

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It’s helpful to select an internship based on its relevance to your intended career goal. That way, you can develop skills that are directly applicable to what you want to do with your life. Plus, future employers may feel more confident about hiring you if they know you’ve worked in a similar setting before.

Settings often chosen for counseling internships include:

  • College career offices
  • Hospitals
  • K-12 schools
  • On-campus counseling centers
  • Outpatient mental health treatment programs
  • Social service agencies

A professional organization in your chosen field may help you locate a relevant internship placement. You can also speak to an academic advisor for recommendations about sites where past students have worked.

Your internship location may need to be approved by your school before you begin. Some internship placements may be competitive, and it can take a while to get all of the pieces in place before you begin. You may want to start looking for internships early so that you’ll have more opportunities for prime assignments.

Accreditation

Counseling Masters Program Accreditation

Regional accreditation is the mark of a reputable college. If you want to ensure that your degree will be respected, choosing a school with regional accreditation can be a fundamental step to take.

Regionally accredited courses are generally respected by other colleges, so you may have an easier time transferring credits or getting into an advanced degree program. Accreditation can also be a stipulation for state licensure, and employers are also more likely to recognize and respect an accredited degree.

Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)

Council for Accreditation of Counseling

In addition to regional accreditation, you may also want to look for programmatic accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

This organization determines whether graduate counseling programs meet industry standards. CACREP accreditation offers several benefits. For one thing, it can assure you that you’re being thoroughly prepared for a career in the counseling field. Also, CACREP accredited masters or doctoral training is required by some states’ licensing boards.

Is Financial Aid Available?

Counseling Masters Program Financial Aid

Yes, if you qualify, you may receive financial aid to assist with your college expenses. You can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to start the process.

Your government aid may come from both state and federal programs. For your bachelor’s studies, both grants and loans may be available. Graduate students typically have more opportunities for loans than grants.

Scholarships and fellowships provide funding from private sources. You may have the opportunity to receive these directly from your school or through outside organizations. Some workplaces chip in to help employees pay for college costs as well.

Is Counseling a Good Career?

Counseling career

Yes, counseling is a good career for many professionals. Counselors are able to make a real difference in people’s lives and get paid to do it. Mental health counselors work in outpatient treatment centers, hospitals, and residential facilities.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earn between $30,590 and $78,700 each year. Employment for these positions is growing at a 25% rate.

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Counselors can specialize in marriage therapy, addiction treatment, or forensic counseling. Some become college psychology teachers while others advance to management roles within social service agencies.

What Does a Counselor Do?

professional Counselors

Counselors are professionals who help people work on their mental health, develop their strengths, and cultivate healthy relationships.

While there are many different specializations within the counseling field, they tend to follow the common theme of helping people be their best selves. Whether they’re working with individuals or groups, counselors do a lot of listening. They also offer tools for reframing thinking, making decisions, or dialoguing with others.

Work settings for counselors include schools, hospitals, social service agencies, and mental health facilities. Private-practice counselors may have offices where they meet with clients.

What Are the Qualifications to Be a Counselor?

Counseling qualifications

Counseling qualifications vary among states and specialties, but there are some general guidelines that apply to all counselors.

  • Graduate degree. With a master’s or a doctorate in counseling, you’ll learn to conduct assessments, lead group sessions, and maintain confidentiality.
  • National examination. States mandate that counseling hopefuls pass one or more standardized tests.
  • Professional experience. You’ll acquire thousands of practice hours in a supervised work setting. You’ll listen to clients, fill out paperwork and partner with other professionals.
  • State licensure. After meeting all the requirements, you can apply for licensure with your state’s counseling board.

You’ll also maintain your license with continuing education.

Where Do Counselors Work?

Counselor Careers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 19% of behavioral disorder, mental health, and substance abuse counselors work in outpatient treatment centers. Others work for residential facilities, hospitals, or government agencies. Many are also in private practice.

Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that government agencies and hospitals are the top-paying employers for this line of work.

The majority of marriage and family therapists work in private practices or have offices that are associated with other healthcare providers. Government agencies and outpatient care facilities tend to offer the highest average salaries for this role.

How Much Does a Counselor Make?

Counselor salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earn a median salary of $47,660. Government agencies generally pay the most. The median salary for government counseling roles is $54,070.

Marriage and family therapists often earn between $33,140 and $92,930 each year. With an annual median salary of $78,450, state government jobs tend to be the most lucrative.

Some counselors eventually move into management roles within their social service organizations. Social and community service managers typically make between $42,230 and $115,800 annually (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Can I Be a Counselor Without a Degree?

Becoming a licensed counselor

Becoming a counselor requires specialized training in preparation for becoming licensed. State licensure requirements vary, but most counseling positions require at least a master’s degree in a counseling-related field.

Some states require graduate degrees from CACREP accredited programs. In addition to earning a master’s degree, you’ll also take a standardized counseling exam. Many states use the National Counselor Examination (NCE).

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Another licensure requirement is completing supervised work hours. States usually require the accumulation of thousands of clinical hours.

What Degree Do I Need to Be a Counselor?

A masters degree is the primary educational requirement for most counseling roles. Before getting a masters, you may need to earn an accredited bachelor’s degree in counseling or another field. After that, you can apply to masters in counseling programs, preferably ones accredited by CACREP.

In some cases, you may want to earn a doctoral degree. For example, becoming a clinical or counseling psychologist requires having a PhD or a professional doctorate in the field.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Counselor?

counseling bachelor's and master's degree

To become a counselor, you’ll typically need at least a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Traditionally, it takes 4 years to get a bachelor’s degree and another 1 to 2 years to finish a master’s program, with full-time study.

Accelerated course schedules through online colleges can help speed up those processes, but you can’t fast track any required practicum or internship components.

After completing your degrees, you’ll start your supervised clinical hours in a counseling setting in order to qualify for licensure. This process varies from state to state, so it’s helpful to check with your local licensing board for details on how many hours you’ll need to accrue.

Should I Become a Counselor?

Become a Counselor

One key sign of a good counselor is their desire to help people, but there are several other characteristics that are critical for a counselor to have as well. For example, it’s helpful for a counselor to be a good listener who has empathy for others.

Patience is also essential. It can take time for people to change, so you may need the ability to stick with your clients even when transformation is a slow process.

It’s also beneficial for a counselor to be committed to continual growth and professional development. There’s always something new to learn about counseling skills, and keeping an open mind can help you integrate new ideas into your practice.

What’s the Difference Between a Counselor vs. Therapist?

Counselor vs. Therapist

If you want to help people with their problems, you might be interested in pursuing a career as a licensed counselor or a licensed therapist.

Here are some ways those two roles compare:

Licensed Counselor Licensed Therapist
  • Requires a master’s degree or a doctorate
  • Often focuses on present issues
  • Might focus on support for issues like addiction, anger, or grief
  • Requires a master’s degree or a doctorate
  • May dig into past experiences to address current problems
  • Often focuses on marriage and family relationships

People often use these two terms interchangeably, so it may be beneficial to focus on your educational background more than your specific job title.

What’s the Difference Between a Psychologist vs. Counselor?

A psychologist can provide counseling, but not all counselors are psychologists. Here are some differences between these two occupations:

Licensed Counselor Psychologist
  • Requires at least a master’s degree
  • Uses more individual or group talk therapy
  • Cannot prescribe medication
  • Often requires a doctorate
  • Conducts more tests and assessments
  • Can prescribe medication in some states

Potential titles for a counselor include Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). A licensed psychology professional is often referred to as a licensed clinical psychologist. Psychology typically requires more time in school, but it allows you to address mental health from a scientific perspective.

Getting Your Counseling Degree Online

Counseling Degree Online

Counselors can play an important role in helping people manage the challenges of life. As a licensed counselor, your work could impact many different clients.

Whether you want to focus on assisting kids, couples, the elderly, or people with illnesses and addictions, the counseling field consists of many different specializations. Becoming a counselor starts with education. A master’s degree or higher is often required to practice as a counselor, depending on your area of specialization.

For example, if you wanted to become a licensed marriage and family therapist, it may be worth exploring either the traditional or online masters in marriage and family therapy programs that a growing number of universities offer.

Online college programs from accredited schools can offer quality education as well as flexible scheduling. You can start exploring online masters degree in counseling programs today to find the one that best fits your schedule and your professional goals.

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Joy Cromwelle
WRITTEN BY
Joy Cromwelle
Joy is pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Policy & Foreign Policy and holds a Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management, as well as a Bachelor's in Business Administration. Joy's focus is helping non-traditional students find accelerated degree options and credit for prior learning opportunities.