How to Become a College Counselor

What Does a College Counselor Do?

college counselor with student

College counselors have the incredible responsibility of counseling students through some of the most consequential decisions of their lives. The term “college counselor” can refer to professionals who work in admissions, career services, academic counseling, or placement counseling, or to those who provide specialized psychological services in academic settings (typically a college or high school). In each of these roles, a counselor provides individualized attention to a student who is in the midst of making important decisions about course selection, job applications, financial aid, school admission, or graduation.

While the official duties of a college counselor are often fairly academic and organizational, they also can provide even more fundamental guidance to students experiencing academic difficulties or challenging life circumstances. As an in-house, licensed psychologist, a college counselor will often serve as the “first line of defense” when a student encounters personal difficulties, and can help direct them to many therapeutic and social services.

College counselors assist impoverished students and those with learning disabilities; they can detect and report abuse, or help a student suffering from mental illness. They can help underprivileged students seek out desperately needed financial aid, or assist prospective college students in writing resumes and admissions essays. Because of the wide variety of services they may offer and students with whom they interact, college counselors have the opportunity to make a significant difference in students’ academic and personal lives.

Workplace Details

College counselors generally work in two- and four-year colleges and universities, though many work in high schools or private preparatory schools to facilitate a student’s transition from high school to college. A counselor typically works a standard forty-hour workweek in an office setting, with a mix of scheduled advising sessions, open office hours, and meetings with other staff and faculty. Increasingly, though, part-time positions are available for college counselors as well, and counselors in high school settings often cycle through multiple locations rather than working full-time at one campus.

Counselors split their work time between direct interaction with students and administrative duties. While a great deal of time is directed towards speaking to students, faculty, and staff, there is a great deal of paperwork and many bureaucratic duties required as well. Counselors may spend hours per day organizing college applications, reviewing transcripts, editing personal statements, and helping students file other application materials.

Salary and Job Outlook

State
Average Wage
California
$64600
Texas
$57980
New York
$66350
Florida
$53300
Illinois
$57300

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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ALABAMA
Median Salary: 
$53,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $71,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Birmingham$31,790$52,000$74,290
Huntsville$38,210$57,640$75,380

ALASKA
Median Salary: 
$70,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $44,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $100,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 5%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Anchorage$43,960$68,760$105,060
Fairbanks$51,200$70,920$109,390

ARIZONA
Median Salary: 
$44,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 310

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Phoenix$29,340$$46,020$63,420
Tuscon$22,860$37,640$54,230

ARKANSAS
Median Salary: 
$51,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Little Rock$33,450$49,130$74,940
Fort Smith$27,520$43,700$71,160

CALIFORNIA
Median Salary: 
$59,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $98,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,120

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Los Angeles$34,350$61,920$100,750
San Francisco Bay$40,290$57,340$97,030
San Diego$35,440$56,970$99,800
Sacramento$25,550$62,650$94,370

COLORADO
Median Salary: 
$46,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $72,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 210

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Denver$28,700$46,810$75,480
Colorado Springs$33,870$45,800$62,370

CONNECTICUT
Median Salary: 
$57,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $26,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $95,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 150

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Hartford$34,020$57,120$95,250
Bridgeford$19,900$51,710$102,880
New Haven$25,610$52,140$89,290

DELAWARE
Median Salary: 
$64,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $84,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wilmington$36,710$61,940$86,280
Dover$42,720$65,700$82,340

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Median Salary: 
$59,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $94,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Washington DC$41,690$65,880$105,950

FLORIDA
Median Salary: 
$52,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $84,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 410

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Miami$18,820$49,420$94,540
Orlando$34,980$50,750$77,450
Tampa$32,660$53,820$86,540
Jacksonville$34,050$63,660$77,220

GEORGIA
Median Salary: 
$55,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $81,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 230

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Atlanta$34,870$57,030$86,610
Augusta$32,350$50,320$78,690

HAWAII
Median Salary: 
$53,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $75,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 40

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Honolulu$33,120$53,980$75,680

IDAHO
Median Salary: 
$37,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $30,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $62,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 640

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boise$30,140$41,680$70,880
Idaho Falls$26,830$36,110$58,470

ILLINOIS
Median Salary: 
$53,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $97,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 4%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 230

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Chicago$31,540$55,880$100,320
Rockford$29,720$44,880$105,380

INDIANA
Median Salary: 
$49,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $74,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Indianapolis$34,150$52,150$76,310
South Bend$32,160$45,580$69,450
Fort Wayne$32,300$43,550$70,980

IOWA
Median Salary: 
$49,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $30,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $72,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Des Moines$34,950$50,320$79,030
Cedar Rapids$32,410$48,240$66,760

KANSAS
Median Salary: 
$49,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $70,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wichita$33,040$50,810$64,990
Kansas City$29,200$47,630$74,000

KENTUCKY
Median Salary: 
$55,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $79,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 230

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Louisville$27,680$50,680$94,880
Lexington$28,470$56,150$88,570

LOUISIANA
Median Salary: 
$53,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $72,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 120

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baton Rouge$22,900$50,510$73,820
Lafayette$40,580$55,320$72,740

MAINE
Median Salary: 
$46,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $70,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: -2%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$34,760$47,950$74,300
Lewiston$32,290$42,550$67,860

MARYLAND
Median Salary: 
$59,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $35,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $95,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 27%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 500

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baltimore$33,580$54,550$89,390
Frederick$49,860$73,500$108,080

MASSACHUSETTS
Median Salary: 
$60,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $94,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 200

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boston$34,480$58,270$94,970
Worcester$30,730$62,650$85,290
Springfield$32,200$61,150$94,140

MICHIGAN
Median Salary: 
$51,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $82,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 180

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Detroit$33,540$51,830$87,360
Grand Rapids$31,730$46,780$87,180

MINNESOTA
Median Salary: 
$50,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 3%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 90

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Minneapolis - St. Paul$36,220$53,970$80,890
Rochester$34,800$50,380$70,940

MISSISSIPPI
Median Salary: 
$48,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $68,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 60

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Jackson$18,830$43,730$60,530
Gulfport$40,170$52,050$72,090

MISSOURI
Median Salary: 
$43,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 200

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
St. Louis$25,620$44,500$81,320
Kansas City$29,200$47,630$74,000

MONTANA
Median Salary: 
$46,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 5%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Billings$28,930$38,740$74,630
Missoula$17,500$23,780$69,800

NEBRASKA
Median Salary: 
$52,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $74,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Omaha$31,720$48,160$66,340
Lincoln$27,370$50,870$77,320

NEVADA
Median Salary: 
$55,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $39,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 31%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Las Vegas$40,330$55,490$76,770
Reno$35,590$52,510$74,500

NEW HAMPSHIRE
Median Salary: 
$56,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $38,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 5%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 30

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Manchester$35,710$56,420$75,150
Nashua$41,910$56,570$77,530

NEW JERSEY
Median Salary: 
$70,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $48,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $101,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 4%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 170

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Newark$44,600$66,380$97,760
Trenton$45,920$71,760$97,500

NEW MEXICO
Median Salary: 
$50,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $22,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $88,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 50

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Albuquerque$19,690$50,730$84,590
Las Cruces$33,870$48,420$93,490

NEW YORK
Median Salary: 
$59,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $34,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $103,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 790

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New York City$35,630$64,650$106,110
Buffalo$30,080$50,320$84,220
Rochester$34,340$51,980$79,920
Albany$33,110$51,900$84,680

NORTH CAROLINA
Median Salary: 
$47,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $63,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 180

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Charlotte$33,150$47,280$64,750
Raleigh$38,010$49,690$74,210
Greensboro$34,290$47,500$67,340
Winston - Salem$32,470$45,540$59,580

NORTH DAKOTA
Median Salary: 
$53,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $37,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Fargo$34,170$46,830$64,460
Bismarck$37,310$55,400$76,590

OHIO
Median Salary: 
$52,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $33,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $86,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 240

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cleveland$35,300$61,290$94,860
Columbus$33,410$51,830$95,300
Cincinnati$38,700$54,210$79,840
Dayton$31,530$49,570$77,470

OKLAHOMA
Median Salary: 
$41,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $25,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $67,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Oklahoma City$27,780$40,280$63,150
Tulsa$30,080$44,940$79,510

OREGON
Median Salary: 
$53,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $34,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $78,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 80

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$34,840$56,540$78,590
Salem$41,910$57,450$95,820

PENNSYLVANIA
Median Salary: 
$54,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $32,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $89,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 5%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 280

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Philadelphia$35,850$60,930$96,150
Pittsburgh$32,590$50,850$82,300
Harrisburg$27,600$51,820$73,050
Allentown$36,890$57,450$88,640

RHODE ISLAND
Median Salary: 
$60,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $89,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 4%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Providence$36,280$62,940$90,880

SOUTH CAROLINA
Median Salary: 
$49,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $29,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $74,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 160

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Greenville$29,950$47,910$74,740
Columbia$31,530$45,920$73,900
Charleston$35,980$55,260$75,600

SOUTH DAKOTA
Median Salary: 
$39,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $28,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $59,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Sioux Falls$32,790$42,870$59,740

TENNESSEE
Median Salary: 
$46,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $31,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $71,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 150

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Nashville$31,890$49,380$78,280
Memphis$32,990$49,540$81,520
Knoxville$31,840$45,990$63,010
Chattanooga$32,680$50,170$67,730

TEXAS
Median Salary: 
$57,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $34,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 23%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,060

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Dallas - Ft. Worth$37,300$61,850$79,360
Houston$38,320$59,070$78,850
San Antonio$33,960$56,410$75,140
Austin$32,800$55,630$77,160

UTAH
Median Salary: 
$51,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $34,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 5%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Salt Lake City$24,620$51,480$84,760
Ogden$26,510$42,260$60,940

VERMONT
Median Salary: 
$51,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $34,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 5%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Burlington$32,680$53,330$88,010

VIRGINIA
Median Salary: 
$56,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $36,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $94,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 240

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Virginia Beach$33,610$51,780$80,220
Richmond$35,890$56,380$77,370

WASHINGTON
Median Salary: 
$58,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 210

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Seattle$40,030$57,920$76,470
Spokane$40,660$60,110$77,170

WEST VIRGINIA
Median Salary: 
$43,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $24,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $61,700

Job Growth Data Not Available

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Huntington$22,390$41,000$64,120
Charleston$39,770$46,780$68,340

WISCONSIN
Median Salary: 
$48,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $27,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 4%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 170

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Milwaukee$33,250$57,630$91,150
Madison$21,390$42,460$65,370

WYOMING
Median Salary: 
$54,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $37,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 9%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 20

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cheyenne$40,910$56,690$77,470

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for college counselors is $57,620. Although estimates show that counselors who work in secondary school settings earn more than those employed by colleges, counselors in secondary schools are often school psychologists who have advanced psychology degrees and perform double duty as college counselors. An advanced degree can increase salary expectations by $10,000 or more annually.

Job prospects for college counselors are on track to increase at or above the average for all occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts job growth of 8% over the next 10 years. Counselors with a master’s degree or doctorate in psychology will have the greatest job opportunities and security, particularly if this expertise comes with licensure. Additionally, college enrollment has increased considerably over the past decades; the continued upward trend will sustain the demand for college counselors.

Compare Salaries by City

New York City NY Median Pay

$64650 Per Year

$31.008 Per Hour

Los Angeles CA Median Pay

$61920 Per Year

$29.76 Per Hour

Steps to Become a College Counselor

1

Earn a bachelor's degree.

Most college counselors will require at least a master’s degree, so the first step is to earn your undergraduate degree. Many college counselors hold undergraduate degrees in fields such as education and psychology, though this varies.

Show Me Schools »

2

Go to graduate school.

When it comes to landing a job, the college counselor with a master’s degree has a significant leg up on a counselor with an undergraduate degree. First of all, you may not even have a choice in the matter, because you’ll need at least a master’s degree to practice as a college counselor in most states. Depending on your career goals, you may require a graduate degree even if not required by your state; college counselors who provide psychological services usually must possess advanced degrees, such as an MS, PhD, or PsyD. Usually, college counselors who possess advanced degrees have studied either school psychology, counseling psychology, or, in rare cases, clinical psychology.

3

Participate in training.

College counselors who do not provide formal psychological care usually receive on-the-job training from their employing institution through orientation and continuing education seminars. Job applicants with relevant work experience will be at a distinct advantage, however. Those who have worked in college admissions offices while still in undergraduate or graduate school should possess many of the requisite skills, and will be able to adapt to full-time work as a college counselor quite easily.

Those counselors who provide psychological care must complete graduate training in psychology, which usually entails a minimum of two to three years of study and includes a supervised practicum where the student practices under a licensed professional. Counselors who will be assessing students for disabilities or gifted student status will require advanced psychometric training.

4

Obtain a license, depending on your career goals.

No professional certification or license is required for college counselors who do not provide formal psychological care, although some seek to obtain licensure from the National Board for Certified Counselors or the National Association of School Psychologists. Those counselors who provide therapeutic services must have a state license to do so.

5

Consider gaining greater responsibilities with experience.

College counselors most often make career advancements by obtaining higher levels of responsibility within their employing organization, or by transferring to a larger or more prestigious institution after accumulating a few years of experience. Many counselors begin by providing temporary or part-time services in small or under-funded school districts and colleges. Over time, their role evolves into a supervisory or high administrative position within the school.

Exploring Degree Paths

BACHELOR'S DEGREE

4 years

Commonly an aspiring college counselor will pursue a bachelor’s degree in counseling, psychology or education. This type of major is usually not a requirement for admission in graduate school, though it actually is a requirement in certain cases (some psychology grad schools). Also, choosing such a closely related undergraduate major can open doors to accelerated graduate programs afterward.

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Counselors who have obtained their undergraduate degree in another field may find it advantageous for counseling students who are pursuing education or a career that resembles the counselor’s own undergraduate choices, such as sciences or history. For example, a college counselor who has earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology may find that experience useful for counseling pre-med students.

Regardless of major, if you’re interested in becoming a college counselor, you will benefit from undergraduate courses in social science, natural science, research, and statistics. Also, try to get some work or volunteer experience with college-age students or in mental health settings.

MASTER'S DEGREE

2 years beyond the bachelor's level

Most college counselors train at the master’s level or higher in one of three mental health disciplines:

  • Counselors treat specific issues in individuals, small groups, and families
  • Clinical social workers diagnose and treat behavioral health issues within a larger social services context
  • Psychologists provide in-depth testing, diagnosis, and treatment for more serious conditions. They must hold a doctorate to practice clinically.

Counselors and social workers (but not psychologists) can work clinically with a master’s degree. However, earning a master’s in psychology can be a helpful stepping-stone in gaining admission to a doctoral program.

Most master’s degree programs in counseling, psychology, and social work accept candidates from any major. However, a few psychology master’s programs require previous study in the field. In addition, students who major in social work as undergraduates may be eligible for accelerated master’s programs.

Most master’s degree programs are housed within four-year colleges and universities. When choosing a program, look for one accredited by:

Graduates of accredited programs generally have an easier time getting licensed and certified and also have an advantage when it comes to doctoral program admissions.

Your classes and fieldwork will depend on your major, but all three disciplines can expect to study:

Research methods and statistics

Gain the skills you need to evaluate study design and research results in the social sciences.

Multicultural populations

Study how race, sexual orientation, sex, gender, and social class can impact mental health and helping relationships.

Ethics

Learn to identify and address issues related to client autonomy, informed consent, dual relationships, and conflicts of interest.

Human development

Understand theories of human growth and change across the lifespan, including changing social, emotional, physical, and intellectual needs.

In addition, counseling and social work students (who will practice clinically after their master’s) often complete extensive internships totaling hundreds of hours. Programs in all three disciplines offer research tracks, which can be helpful if you later hope to earn a doctorate and work in academia.

DOCTORAL DEGREE

5-7 years beyond the bachelor's level

Psychologists must earn a doctorate in order to practice clinically. Psychologists who work with college students are usually trained in either counseling or clinical psychology.

For counselors and social workers, doctoral studies can pave the way to careers in academia and research.

Programs in all three disciplines offer both research-focused and clinical doctorates. For example, students who want to work in academia usually complete original research and a dissertation in order to earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree, or PhD.

By contrast, those who intend to focus on clinical work don’t have to conduct research. Instead, they graduate with one of the following clinical degrees:

  • Doctor of Social Work (DSW)
  • Doctor of Education (EdD)
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)

When choosing a doctoral program in the helping professions, look for one with discipline-specific accreditation. Graduates of accredited programs often have advantages when it comes to licensure, certification, and employment. Accreditors include:

Psychology students should also verify that your program is eligible to participate in the internship match program.

Your doctoral coursework will depend on your discipline. Some common subjects within the helping professions include:

Marriage and family counseling

Learn to help families deal with a variety of adjustment issues.

Child and adolescent counseling

Study methods used to diagnose and treat mental health issues in young people.

Pharmacology

Understand the indications, dosage and side effects of medications used to treat mental health conditions.

Psychopathology

Apply the latest research and classification systems to accurately diagnose mental health conditions.

Doctoral students in all three disciplines also complete extensive fieldwork and practical training. Accredited psychology programs use a structured matching process to pair students with one-year internships. After earning their doctorates, psychologists also have the option to complete a fellowship in a specialty area of interest.

Keys to Success as a College Counselor

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Communication skills

College counselors must be able to develop a rapport with students so that they feel comfortable speaking freely about their goals and aspirations. To develop this bond, excellent communication skills are required: counselors need to have strong speaking skills, which are necessary to deliver a clear message. College counselors must also be good listeners, in order to understand their students’ problems and concerns. Often students struggle to articulate the sources of their problems, and it may take a particularly patient and empathic counselor to help them understand the reasons for their academic setbacks.

Social awareness

An awareness of systemic and social problems that affect certain students (such as racial minority students, impoverished students, and disabled students) will help counselors to be effective in serving at-risk populations.

Critical thinking

Counselors should be compassionate but high in critical thinking abilities, so they can “diagnose” the personal and social problems that may be holding a student behind. An awareness of psychological phenomena such as stereotype threat is essential to success.

Confidence and effectiveness in working with people

In addition to working with students, college counselors must be able to communicate effectively with staff and faculty at their institution of employment. They must be willing to stand up for their advisees, and advocate for the accommodations and resources that those students need. An ability to keep frustrated parents calm is also beneficial.

Good organization

The bureaucratic nature of the job requires a high level of organizational skill.

Additional Credentials

Psychologists with a few years of practice experience can pursue specialty certification through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). Candidates must hold a doctorate and state license and meet specialty-specific requirements.

The most common specialty certifications among college counselors are:

Many counselors pursue voluntary certification as National Certified Counselors (NCCs) through the National Board for Certified Counselors. Graduates of CACREP-accredited master’s programs can sit for the exam upon graduation. Those from non-accredited programs must meet additional internship and supervision requirements.

Experienced social workers can gain specialty certification through the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Credentialing Center. The following certifications are most applicable to social workers working in college settings. All require a master’s degree and a few years of documented work experience.

Because substance abuse disorders are common in the college student population, many college counselors hold certifications in addictions counseling through NAADAC. These certifications are open to all disciplines. Candidates must meet education and continuing education requirements and document experience and supervision hours in their specialty area.

Some useful NAADAC certification for college counselors include:

Erika Price, PhD

Erika Price has a PhD in Social Psychology from Loyola University Chicago, and serves as an instructor at North Park University and The Chicago School for Professional Psychology. A recent Postdoctoral Research Associate, Erika has studied Open-Mindedness and Political Tolerance with support from the John Templeton Foundation.

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