How to Become a College Counselor
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.
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 work week 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.
Most educational institutions require that candidates possess a bachelor's degree and teaching licensure, although some prefer candidates who have obtained a master’s degree or higher. Many college counselors hold undergraduate degrees in fields such as education and psychology, though this varies. Counselors who have a degree in another field may find it advantageous to counsel students who are pursuing education or a career that resembles the counselor's own discipline, such as the hard sciences or history. For example, a college counselor who has earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology may counsel pre-med students.
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.
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.
Licensing and/or Certification
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.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. Finally, the bureaucratic nature of the job requires a high level of organizational skill.
Opportunities for Advancement
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.
Graduate training may enhance advancement opportunities, although often additional training simply confers a greater scope of practice. Nevertheless, college counselors who earn a master’s degree are likely to find advantages over those counselors who have only a bachelor’s degree. Those with a PhD and clinical training are much more versatile, as they can provide both college counseling and school psychologist services.
If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a college counselor, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.
Salary and Job Outlook
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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for college counselors is $56,040. 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 12% 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.