All counselors aim to help people work through challenges and make better decisions, but how they do this (and who they counsel) can vary tremendously. A school or career counselor's role is much different from that of a marriage and family therapist or mental health counselor, which is part of why counseling schools and degree programs often allow students to specialize their educations, and why professional organizations offer counseling certification programs and online knowledgebases for those already in the field.
If you're wondering how to become a counselor, you've come to the right place. We've got information on campus-based and online schools for counseling, average counselor salary figures and more. Read on below to get the real story about counseling careers and the college programs that can get you there.
What do counselors do?
Even though the variety of counseling environments is vast and diverse, there are still some general responsibilities of the profession that many counselors share. Here's a quick explanation of the day-to-day duties that professional counselors perform on the job:
- Providing counseling services to individuals and small groups
- Encouraging clients to discuss issues that need be addressed
- Suggesting strategies to help clients manage issues that emerge
- Guiding clients through the appropriate processes for their needs
Counselors tend to work alone, although some counseling settings or research endeavors may require multiple counselors to work as a team. School and career counselors typically work in grade schools, high schools and colleges, while family therapists, mental health counselors and others tend to find employment in health care settings.
Counseling is a field with quite a few specialized applications, which means that choosing a practice specialty while you're still in school for counseling can help you get on the road to career success more quickly. Here's a list of common counseling specializations, to give you an idea of what options might be out there for you:
- Mental health counseling
- Marriage and family therapy
- School counseling
- Career counseling
- Substance abuse counseling
The education and licensing requirements for these professions can vary considerably. We'll cover this in more detail further down the page.
How to Become a Counselor
Becoming a counselor entails continuing your college education to its appropriate professional level, although the precise length of your time in school can depend on the specialty you choose. Here's a list of the big-picture steps that most counselors take on their way to the career world:
- Finish high school or earn an equivalency degree
- Enroll in an bachelor's degree program in counseling or the social sciences
- Continue your education into a relevant master's program
- Become licensed (if necessary) and consider earning professional certification
- Optional: Complete a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) program
You can expect to focus closely on your specialty once you approach the end your educational path, but most future counselors earn their undergraduate degree in psychology or another social science. Here's a short list of subjects you're likely to study during your undergraduate work:
- Theories of personality
- Human development
- Psychological inquiry
- Abnormal psychology
- Counseling theory and practice
- Ethics and professional responsibility
- Probability and statistics
- Research methods
Counseling degree and certificate programs
Whether you're looking at family therapy programs, mental health counseling programs or other study plans in the field, it pays to know what type of education is preferred or required by employers in your chosen specialty. Here is a breakdown of some of common degree levels and the professions that make use of them.
- Postsecondary certificates. Postsecondary certificates are the most basic counseling credential available. They vary in length and breadth, but usually require less than two years of study. In many states, substance abuse counselors complete postsecondary certificates before entering the field.
- Associate degrees. Associate degrees are more thorough than postsecondary certificates, usually requiring at least two years of study and including several general education credits. As with postsecondary certificates, associate degrees are a popular option for substance abuse counselors who do not intend to work in private practice.
- Bachelor's degrees. Students in school for counseling typically use bachelor's degrees as stepping stones to more advanced programs. Mental health counselors, school counselors and marriage and family counselors must earn master's degrees before they can enter the field, and many master's level programs require applicants to have a bachelor's degree in a relevant field before they can qualify for admission.
- Master's degrees. As noted above, master's degrees are an entry-level requirement for many counselors, including mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists and school and career counselors, as well as substance abuse counselors who wish to work in private practice.
Some counselors even go on to earn a Ph.D. or other doctoral degree, but doctoral study is not typically required for counseling work. If you hope to teach at the university level, or if you're hoping to make a career shift into counseling psychology, a doctorate may be necessary.
Hands-on training at counseling schools
An internship period may be a part of your master's program in counseling, particularly if your career goal is to provide direct-contact therapy to clients. Internships can give you invaluable experience applying your counseling skills in a supervised environment, and they may last as long as two full semesters of your upper-division schedule.
Online counseling courses and programs
The subject matter covered in most counseling programs can be translated fairly well into the virtual classroom environment, so busy students looking for some additional flexibility in scheduling can look into programs at online schools for counseling. Online counseling programs typically follow the same curriculum as those taught in traditional classrooms and provide several channels of communication between you, your professors and your fellow students.
Online education is sometimes misunderstood as an easy way to earn your degree, but that couldn't be further from the truth. It takes an extra measure of internal motivation and self-supervision to complete an online program — make sure to meet with an advisor and discuss what's expected of online students before signing up.
Counseling certifications and licensure
Mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists and public school counselors are required to be licensed to practice, as are substance abuse counselors who intend to work in private practice. Certification and licensure requirements can vary quite a bit from state to state, but they usually entail meeting a minimum educational standard, completing a certain number of clinical hours in the field and passing a state-recognized exam.
The BLS notes that employers also increasingly prefer to hire licensed career counselors, though it's not usually a requirement for employment in that specialty. Those who would have trouble getting to a college campus or other learning site may be able to find counseling certification programs online. For information about the certification or licensing requirements in your state, browse to the site of your state regulatory board.
Career advancement options for counselors
Privately practicing counselors don't typically have a corporate ladder to climb, but there are still a few ways for you to increase your annual earnings once you've been on the job for some time. Taking on more clients, for example, can bring in more income, as well as working under contract for an organization or teaching counseling basics at a community college in your time away from the office.
Professional counselors can also write books, blogs or media columns to earn extra money or increase their profile. On top of all that, those interested in becoming professional scholars or researchers can go back to school for a Ph.D. and become full-fledged psychologists.
The Top Counseling Programs in the U.S.
You'll need the right training to be an effective counselor. The following schools have top-notch counseling programs, affordable tuition rates and strong support services. We found them by analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics. Take a look and see which one might be near you.
This California community college has been offering academic and career programs since 1975. Anyone can enroll, thanks to its open admissions policy, and high school students may be able to take classes for free through a dual enrollment program. Oxnard College offers associate degrees and certificates in more than 60 fields of study, and partially and fully online courses are available.
Counseling programs at Oxnard College: There is an additive disorders studies program at Oxnard College that prepares students to become Certified Addictions Treatment Specialists (CATS). The program has been approved by the California Association for Alcohol/Drug Educators (CAADE) and can result in either a certificate of achievement or an associate degree. Graduates may decide to enter the workforce immediately or continue their education at another college or university.
Mt. San Antonio College is notable for its low tuition rate and comprehensive student services. It provides career guidance, counseling, tutoring and health services. The school also has both traditional and online classes to meet the needs of students from all walks of life. First-time students may even be able to attend Mt. San Antonio College for free thanks to the Promise + Plus Program.
Counseling programs at Mt. SAC: The alcohol and drug counseling program within the Mental Health Department at Mt. SAC teaches both theory and practical skills. The curriculum is intended to meet the requirements of the California Association for Alcohol/Drug Educators (CAADE) and prepare students for professional certification. Students can choose to earn either a certificate or an associate degree in alcohol and drug counseling.
With a main campus in Sugar Grove, Illinois, Waubonsee Community College offers an affordable education and a supportive environment. Students can take classes on-campus, online or in a hybrid format combining the two learning methods. Accelerated courses are also available and can be completed in 8 or 12 weeks instead of on the usual 16 week schedule. What's more, credit may be granted for industry experience, prior learning or military service.
Counseling programs at Waubonsee: Waubonsee offers a certificate of achievement in addictions counseling. The program is accredited by the Illinois Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Professional Certification Association (IAODAPCA) and includes both classroom instruction and field experience. Credits from the certificate can be applied toward an associate degree in human service.
Dayton-based Sinclair Community College is a popular option with local residents. Half the adults living in Montgomery County have reportedly studied at the college. Students are overwhelmingly happy with their experience too. The school says 96 percent of graduates rate the quality of their time at Sinclair College as good or excellent. Classes are available at six locations as well as online.
Counseling programs at Sinclair: The Mental Health and Addiction Services Department at Sinclair offers two associate degrees and four short-term technical certificates. It is accredited by the Council for Standards in Human Service Evaluation. The associate degree curriculum includes a 420-hour internship that provides practical experience prior to graduation. Students have the option of transferring to a four-year institution upon completion of the degree program.
Affordability is one reason to consider Columbus State Community College. The school says students can save up to 60% off the price of a bachelor's degree by starting their education here. More than 27,000 people are enrolled at Columbus State Community College, but the average class has only 20 students. Both traditional and online courses are available.
Counseling programs at Columbus State: There are two addiction studies options at Columbus State. The addiction studies certificate is an entry-level program and meets the requirements for the Chemical Dependency Counselor Assistant Certification from the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professionals Board. The advanced addiction studies certificate is designed for those who already have a degree and provides the education hours needed for state licensure.
Fresno City College features an impressive staff, flexible learning options and hundreds of academic and technical programs. Its instructors include a poet laureate and a winner of the Stanback-Stroud Diversity Award from the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. Fresno City College was the first community college established in California and is a Hispanic-Serving Institution.
Counseling programs at FCC: Counseling programs are found within the Social Services Division at FCC. Students can earn an associate degree in health services with an alcohol and drug abuse counseling option or a certificate in alcohol and drug abuse counseling. These programs may be suitable for some entry-level jobs, or the credits may be transferred to a four-year school for those who want to pursue additional education.
With two campus locations, Long Beach City College is focused on making higher education accessible and affordable. In addition to its traditional classes, many courses can be completed entirely or partially online. There are also several programs available that allow first-time college students to study at Long Beach City College for free for one or two years.
Counseling programs at LBCC: Students can earn an associate degree, certificate of achievement or certificate of accomplishment from the alcohol and drug studies program at LBCC. The certificate of achievement meets the requirements of the California Association of Alcohol & Drug Studies (CAADE) and the California Association of Alcohol & Drug Studies Abuse Counselors (CAADAC). With additional work experience, graduates can go on to become Certified Addiction Treatment Counselors.
Eastfield College was founded in 1970 and is part of the Dallas County Community College District. It enrolls nearly 17,000 students, and many of these people study in nontraditional programs. More than three-quarters of students take classes on a part-time basis and nearly a third are enrolled in online programs which feature accelerated 8-week courses.
Counseling programs at Eastfield: Eastfield is the only school within the Dallas County Community College District to offer integrated social work and substance abuse counseling programs. The associate degree in substance abuse counseling includes classroom instruction and field experience and can be completed in two years. It prepares students to become Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselors (LCDC). There are also certificates offered in mental health/substance abuse prevention and substance abuse counseling.
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College is one of the top 100 associate degree producers in the United States and has one of the lowest tuition rates in Mississippi. MGCCC has more than 350 online courses, but its students can enroll in more than 3,000 distance learning classes through the Mississippi Virtual Community College Consortium.
Counseling programs at Gulf Coast: There are two degrees at Gulf Coast that are appropriate for those pursuing a career in counseling. The Associate of Applied Science in human services is designed to take students directly from the classroom to entry-levels jobs. Graduates may pursue a number of careers including that of guidance counselors and substance abuse counselors. Those who want to eventually earn a bachelor's degree can earn a transfer degree in clinical counseling.
Affordable education and extensive support services are two reasons Glendale Community College is a top choice for students from diverse backgrounds. The college offers free online tutoring, a Black Scholars program, study abroad options, a career center and more. More than 25,000 students are enrolled at Glendale Community College, which offers both traditional and online classes.
Counseling programs at GCC: The Alcohol & Drug Studies Department at GCC offers a specialist in alcohol and drug studies program. Accredited by the California Association for Alcohol and Drug Educators (CAADE), this program prepares students to be certified by CAADE and the California Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors. The curriculum includes opportunities to learn in both classroom and facility settings.
Skills and Abilities for Counselors
Counseling is a rewarding profession, but it can also be demanding. The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) compiles a list of the skills, abilities and personality traits common among successful professional counselors — here are a few entries from that list:
- Social perceptiveness can give you a good idea of how your clients may be feeling about a given subject being discussed
- Active listening — the ability to give your full attention to what other people are saying — is a must for anyone considering a counseling career
- Oral expression skills can help you say the right thing at the right time to move the session forward in a constructive way
- Service orientation, or the natural tendency to seek out ways to help people, can lead to an increased feeling of job satisfaction for counselors
- Inductive reasoning provides a framework for forming helpful conclusions from the individual pieces of information presented by clients
Counselor Salary and Career Outlook
It's a question that comes to the minds of counseling students everywhere, at one point or another: how much do counselors make? It's a tricky question to answer, unfortunately — factors such as geography, experience, supplemental education and more can all have an influence on your earnings and career outlook.
There are some general trends on the national level, however. The following list of counseling careers, along with their BLS-reported national median salaries, can help provide some baseline perspective:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists||110,490||$85,340||14.2%|
Professional Resources for Counselors
Counselors of all types are fortunate that several professional organizations exist to help further the aims of their profession and keep them connected to resources that can enhance their knowledge and practice. Here's a quick rundown of a few such groups on the national scale:
- The American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) offers its members an online community, access to professional liability insurance and special discounts on a range of services.
- The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) works to represent the professional interests of marriage and family therapists in the U.S., Canada and abroad. It features six levels of membership, including one for active students.
- The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) provides an avenue for school counselors to share their experiences with their colleagues in the field and get access to advice on the unique problems and concerns of school counseling.
- NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals is a professional resource for substance abuse counselors and other addiction-focused health care personnel. Members have access to education, clinical training and certification.
Expert Q&A on Counseling Schools
To gain more insight about what it takes to become a counselor, we spoke with Aida Vazin, MA, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, California.
|Aida Vazin, MA, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, California.|
What is the typical educational path needed to enter this career?
The minimum would be a master's degree. The most common route for a career in psychology includes a bachelor's in psychology, however you are not limited to this major. You may have a degree in sociology, human development, and other related social science degrees. After that, one continues with either a master's in social work, marriage and family therapy, licensed professional counselor or a doctorate degree in psychology.
How long does it typically take to complete education/degree/certification for this job?
Most graduate programs require a bachelor's and/or specific courses as prerequisites. Let's say that is 4 years, then a master's degree would be 60 units, typically 2 years to complete. The hours required for licensing include a minimum of 3,000 hours and also a minimum of 2 years. One can start the hours after 12 units have been completed in graduate school, so one can be complete with their hours as early as 1 year after graduation. From there, the board must grant approval to take the board exams which include 2 separate tests. This process takes anywhere from 6 to 12 months to fully complete, depending on how fast the board grants approval and how good your study skills are.
Why would you encourage someone to pursue this career? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
Well, if it feels right, and you are enthused about this profession, then by far please pursue it. It's a stable career, there are so many opportunities and so many jobs available that do not include just talk therapy. I'm a big fan of following a career path that brings you joy; if this brings you joy then this is the path for you. Some advantages include a lot of self discovery and personal growth. It brings more patience and understand in one's lives. The disadvantage is that you will be working with heavy experiences and really need to be emotionally balanced and strong to be able to continue in this profession.
Do you have any advice for young people who are just starting out in this career?
Yes, please please please, do yourself and your future clients a HUGE favor and receive therapy for at least 1 year to see what the experience is like, to work through your own stuff and to really know if this is the right path for you. It will be most beneficial when you are completing your 3,000 hours and will be triggered by a lot of stuff from your clients.
Using the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard, we generated a list of schools that met the following criteria:
- Institution type is less than 2 years, greater than 2 & less than 4 years
- Accredited by at least 1 agency (institutional accreditation)
- The school falls under one of the following classifications: (Carnegie Classification 2015: Undergraduate Instructional Program)
- Associate's Colleges: Mixed Transfer/Vocational & Technical
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with 30-49% of awards (degrees and certificates) in career & technical programs.
- Associate's Colleges: Mixed Transfer/Vocational & Technical
Associate's Colleges: High Vocational & Technical
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with more than 50% of awards (degrees and certificates) in career & technical programs.
Special Focus: Two-Year Institution
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with typically more than 75% of awards in a single career & technical program
- The school must offer at least 1 program for the subject in question
We ranked the resulting colleges on the following variables:
- Cost of attendance, based on the average net price for students receiving scholarship and grant aid, and the total cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- No. of Associate degree and undergraduate Certificate programs offered for the subject (relevant CIP codes), National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- No. of Associate degree and undergraduate Certificates conferred for the subject (relevant CIP codes), National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Percent of undergraduate students enrolled in any distance education classes, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Full-time student retention rate & part-time retention rate (if full-time retention rate is not available, then use part-time retention rate), National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2017
- The graduation rate in 150% time, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Percent of students working and not enrolled 6 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- Flexibility and student services, based on whether the school offers the following services, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Academic and career counseling
- Job placement services for graduates
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed January 29, 2019: School and Career Counselors, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/Community-and-Social-Service/School-and-career-counselors.htm; Marriage and Family Therapists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/marriage-and-family-therapists.htm; Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm; Psychologists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm;
- Occupational Information Network, accessed January 29, 2019: Educational, Guidance, School and Vocational Counselors, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1012.00; Mental Health Counselors, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1014.00; Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1011.00;
- School pages, accessed January 29, 2019: Psychology & Counseling, Mississippi College, https://www.mc.edu/academics/departments/psychology/undergraduate-programs; Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Counseling, https://drexel.edu/cnhp/academics/undergraduate/bs-behavioral-health-counseling/; Behavioral Health Counseling, Drexel University, http://catalog.drexel.edu/undergraduate/collegeofnursingandhealthprofessions/behavorialhealthcounseling/#sampleplansofstudybstext; BS in Psychology, Walden University, https://www.waldenu.edu/online-bachelors-programs/bs-in-psychology/curriculum/general-psychology; Counseling Internship, Wayne State University, https://caps.wayne.edu/resources/counseling-internship; Online Counseling Degrees, Grand Canyon University, https://www.gcu.edu/college-of-humanities-and-social-sciences/online-counseling-degrees.php; Online Masters in Counseling Degree, Northwestern University, https://counseling.northwestern.edu/; Online Master's in Counseling and Human Services, Wake Forest University, https://counseling.online.wfu.edu/;
- Professional association pages, accessed January 29, 2019: Member Benefits, American Mental Health Counselors Association, http://www.amhca.org/membership/benefits; School Counselors & Members, American School Counselor Association, https://www.schoolcounselor.org/school-counselors-members; About, NAADAC, Association for Addiction Professionals, https://www.naadac.org/about; Join AAMFT, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, https://www.aamft.org/join;
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2017-18, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2014-15, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
- About Oxnard College, Oxnard College, Accessed July 2019, https://www.oxnardcollege.edu/college-information/about-oxnard-college
- Addictive Disorders Studies, Oxnard College, Accessed July 2019, https://www.oxnardcollege.edu/sites/default/files/imported/assets/pdf/brochures/asm-disorders.pdf
- About Mt. SAC, Mt. San Antonio College, Accessed July 2019, https://www.mtsac.edu/about/
- Why Waubonsee, Waubonsee Community College, Accessed July 2019, https://www.waubonsee.edu/about-waubonsee/why-waubonsee
- Sinclair College, Accessed July 2019, https://www.sinclair.edu/
- Fast Facts, Columbus State Community College, Accessed July 2019, https://www.cscc.edu/
- About Fresno City College, Fresno City College, Accessed July 2019, https://www.fresnocitycollege.edu/about/index.html
- Enrollment and Demographic Information, Eastfield College, Accessed July 2019, https://www.eastfieldcollege.edu/aboutefc/fastfacts/pages/default.aspx
- Long Beach College Promise, Long Beach City College, Accessed July 2019, https://www.lbcc.edu/promise-20
- About GCC, Glendale Community College, Accessed July 2019, https://www.glendale.edu/about-gcc/gcc-overview
- Why Gulf Coast?, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Accessed July 2019, https://mgccc.edu/about/why-gulf-coast/