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 each of these roles, a counselor provides individualized attention to a student who is in the midst of making important decisions about courses, jobs, financial aid or graduation.
Sometimes a counselor provides even more fundamental guidance to students experiencing academic difficulties or challenging life circumstances. A college counselor has the unusual opportunity to use his own powers of observation for the benefit of the students he counsels and 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 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; increasingly, though, part-time positions are available for college counselors as well. Counselors split their work time between direct interaction with students and administrative duties.
Most institutions require that candidates possess a bachelor's degree, although some prefer candidates who have obtained a master’s degree. The specific type of bachelor’s degree is not particularly important, but many college counselors do have a degree in psychology. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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 practice clinical psychology must have a state license to do so.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
College counselors 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. They must also be good listeners in order to understand their students’ problems and concerns. In addition, counselors must be patient and compassionate, as students are often facing stressful situations. Finally, counselors should be eager to help and nurture students through this important time in their lives.
Opportunities for Advancement
College counselors most often make career advancements by obtaining higher levels of responsibility within their employing organization. Many counselors begin by providing temporary or part-time services, and their role then 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.
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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, school and career counselors earned a median salary of $53,380 in 2010. 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 slightly above the average for all occupations. Counselors with a master’s degree in psychology will have the greatest job opportunities and security. Additionally, college enrollment has increased considerably over the past decades; the continued upward trend will sustain the demand for college counselors.