Counseling Home Blog How to Become a School Counselor: Educational and Professional Pathways to School Counseling Careers

How to Become a School Counselor: Educational and Professional Pathways to School Counseling Careers

25 Mar
school counselor with student

Being a student can be tough. There are challenges everywhere—in schoolwork, social interactions, family dynamics, the search for self-identity and self-confidence, the drive to set and reach goals and the developmental changes that come with each new year. School counselors help students understand and resolve their issues and work toward positive transformations they can be proud of.1 This is no small task. Each school counselor needs expertise and professional agility in areas such as psychology, mental health, conflict resolution, academic guidance and career coaching.

A career path as a school counselor will be rich in its challenges and fulfilling in its rewards. Read on to explore how to get ready for it and what to expect from it.

Education Requirements

Typically, a bachelor's degree in counseling requires two years of general coursework followed by another two years of specialized education in areas of your choice. If you earn a bachelor's degree in counseling, you may work as a counselor's assistant or caseworker or in other entry-level positions in the field.2

In most states, eligibility to work as a school counselor requires a master's degree with a minimum of 48 credit hours.2 A master's program in counseling may include specialization opportunities in areas such as clinical mental health counseling, marriage and family therapy, military and veterans counseling and school counseling. Graduate students will gain real-world experience through supervised fieldwork with clients. According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), most public school systems in the United States require their counselors to have graduate-level education in these topics:3

  • Human growth and development
  • Theories
  • Individual counseling
  • Group counseling
  • Social and cultural foundations
  • Testing/appraisal
  • Research and program evaluation
  • Professional orientation
  • Career development

A master’s degree is the highest level of education required by most states for a career in counseling. If you pursue a doctorate, however, you might choose one of these paths:

  • A doctoral program in counseling psychology focuses on counseling practice and prepares you to become a licensed clinical psychologist
  • A doctoral program in counseling education (or counseling education and supervision) prepares you to teach counseling or to lead a counseling department; coursework and practical experience will center on teaching, supervision, leadership, evaluation and performance improvement

Licensure and Certification

Counselors working with school children must be licensed and a master of education in school counseling from an accredited program is usually a prerequisite for licensing. Other requirements typically include completing a practicum and internship in a K-12 school and passing a state or national comprehensive exam.4

The ASCA also offers certification that, once earned, can help you advance professionally. Graduate-level education will help you prepare for certification. The licensure and certification requirements for school counselors vary by state and are published on the ASCA’s website.

Internship and Supervised Practice

Each graduate student seeking counseling licensure will have to complete an internship, which involves providing counseling services under supervision. Many states require students to complete a certain number of supervised hours before obtaining a practice license.5 To find an internship, seek assistance from your university's counseling program advisor and search for positions on job boards.

Personal Qualities and Skills

If you have a genuine interest in earning a master’s degree, you probably also have a resume that attests to your educational motivation and achievement. By the time you complete your M.Ed. in School Counseling, you’ll have graduate-level academic and professional credentials. You’ll look great on paper, but what about what you carry inside?

To flourish as a school counselor, it’ll help if you really like kids. If you’re comfortable in the rapidly changing, physically and emotionally noisy world of young people figuring out their next steps, this could be a career for you. In addition, though, you’ll be called on to collaborate with adults, navigating successfully within the structures and politics of an educational system. You’ll also need:

  • Active listening and observation skills
  • Strong assessment skills
  • The ability to communicate effectively with people of all ages and backgrounds
  • Integrity
  • Empathy
  • Discretion
  • Patience
  • Persistence
  • Resilience
  • A healthy, helpful sense of humor

Professional Organizations and Networking

Joining professional organizations helps you establish your credibility and network with others. There are several professional organizations specifically for school counselors, including:6

  • The American School Counselor Association (ASCA), a worldwide organization for school counselors, which provides current research and guidance on topics relating to emotional and social development
  • The Association of Child and Adolescent Counseling (ACAC), which represents counselors in various settings, including private practice, schools and public agencies; members receive access to counseling strategies, professional development and other tools to use in their work
  • The American Counseling Association (ACA), which represents counselors in diverse settings, including schools; membership provides access to webinars, journals, publications, conferences and education sessions

Career Opportunities

School counselors work with students of all ages, backgrounds and levels of academic achievement, and with their teachers and family members. They work in elementary and secondary schools and at the college/university level, in public and private educational systems.

As you might expect, your responsibilities as a school counselor will vary depending on your students’ ages and needs. Working with very young children, for example, might involve a strong focus on academics and social adjustment, while older students are more likely to need your help with preparation for college and employment.

Continuing Education as a School Counselor

In the long run, all of the education and experience you need to become a school counselor will serve as a launching point, rather than the end point, of your training. As you grow in your career and as new theories and approaches are developed within the discipline of counseling, you’ll need to keep learning. Staying up to date on counseling research is essential. Fortunately, you’ll find opportunities for continuing education and professional development in many places, including through seminars, conferences, workshops and university courses.

The ACA offers a variety of continuing education resources for counselors, including online professional development courses and in-person conferences. It also provides resources specifically for school counselors, with more than 200 courses in topics including children and trauma, as well as general principles for counseling children and adolescents.7

Ethical Practices in School Counseling

School counselors have important jobs with high standards. The ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors is a 12-page document “developed in collaboration with school counselors, state school counselor associations, school counseling district and state leaders and school counselor educators across the nation to clarify the profession’s norms, values and beliefs.”8 Its guidelines “for the ethical practices of all individuals serving in a school counseling capacity” encompass these areas and positions within a school community:

  • Responsibility to Students
    • Supporting Student Development
    • Confidentiality
    • Comprehensive School Counseling Program
    • Academic, Career and Social/Emotional Planning
    • Sustaining Healthy Relationships and Managing Boundaries
    • Appropriate Collaboration, Advocacy and Referrals for Counseling
    • Group Work
    • Student Peer-Support Program
    • Serious and Foreseeable Harm to Self and Others
    • Marginalized Populations
    • Bullying, Harassment, Discrimination, Bias and Hate Incidents
    • Child Abuse
    • Student Records
    • Evaluation, Assessment and Interpretation
    • Technical and Digital Citizenship
    • Virtual/Distance School Counseling
  • Responsibilities to Parents/Guardians, School and Self
  • School Counselor Directors/Administrators/Supervisors
  • School Counseling Practicum/Internship Site Supervisors
  • Maintenance of Standards
  • Ethical Decision-Making

School Counseling Challenges and Rewards

As a school counselor, the challenges you’ll face will range from the institutional, such as being overworked and understaffed, to the individual: supporting students who face academic struggles, bullying, trauma at home, daunting choices about their educational and professional paths, and so on. This can all weigh heavily on your mind, taking an emotional and physical toll.

School counseling can, however, be a deeply rewarding career. You can be an advocate for social justice and social change, helping to create a more inclusive educational environment. You will shape the future of the students with whom you work: In guiding them through the difficulties noted above, you’ll help them to succeed as they become strong, resilient, compassionate, accomplished adult contributors to their families, professions and communities.

Succeed by Helping Others Succeed

Maximize your students’ ability to learn, engage with peers, navigate early-life decisions and become more resilient.

Led by world-class faculty, William & Mary’s Online M.Ed. in Counseling program with a concentration in School Counseling will develop your ability to guide the mental, emotional and physical development of students of all ages. With a focus on social justice, cultural responsiveness, program planning and evaluation practices, the robust curriculum in this CACREP-accredited program provides the knowledge and insight you need to become a transformative influence in students’ lives.

Don’t wait to make a crucial difference. Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor today.