How to Become a Counselor


Counselor taking notes while listening to a client

Counselors help people make the most of their lives in the face of unique challenges and adversity. They develop relationships with their clients, often in a very personal way, and recommend problem-solving approaches and relationship-building techniques. Counseling is a dynamic profession that offers the rare opportunity to do work of profound significance on a daily basis.

Counselors specialize in a variety of subjects: marriage and family, addictions, school guidance, mental health, community health and nutrition, or career. They may also specialize in rehabilitation, physical and mental disabilities, or crisis counseling with people in times of serious need or injury. The counseling field is growing, yielding many opportunities to fine-tune a specialty and establish a career that is truly rewarding.

Work Environment

Counselors are employed at all levels of government and private industry, or have their own practice. They often provide counseling services to government and private business or directly interact with clients. Some counselors work through community clinics or hospitals while others choose to work at religious institutions and schools.



Most counselors have a bachelor’s or master’s degree, but an associate’s degree is a great place to begin a counseling career, particularly if a person wants to maintain flexibility in his specific counseling path. In general, an associate’s degree is required for addiction counseling, career counseling and life coaching. An associate’s degree also introduces a person to the wide variety of counseling career choices.

After an associate’s degree, an individual interested in, for example, marriage and family counseling, personal growth counseling, psychotherapy, some types of addiction counseling or crisis counseling needs to obtain a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree. Other counseling careers, such as psychoanalysis and some social work, require a PhD or other doctorate degree.

A more direct path to counseling is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in counseling, psychology or social work, and then narrow down to a specialization through a master’s degree program. If an individual knows which specialty he or she is most interested in, this is the fastest path. Most colleges and universities have counseling departments, and one of the best ways to understand the field is to speak to a college counselor about the options available.


Beyond the classroom training, most counseling programs have a mentoring aspect as well. This constitutes a period of time when an experienced counselor oversees students in all aspects of counseling, ensuring that the students gain the necessary skills. Depending on the state, certification and licensure may require varying degrees of time in a mentorship program. Most state licensing boards have websites where more information on the specifics may be found.

Licensing and/or Certification

Positions where an associate’s degree is sufficient generally do not require licensing. Some kind of certification may be required, depending on the state in which the counselor is employed. Without a doubt, however, obtaining certification greatly increases the chances of employment. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) awards general certifications to counselors and are given after passing a national examination. The examination is typically a part of state licensing procedures. You can find more information about the exam here. The NBCC also awards specialty certifications in Mental Health (CCNHC), School Counseling (NCSC) and a certification as a Master Addictions Counselor (MAC).

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Counselors are expected to maintain high ethical standards, keeping their clients’ personal information confidential. A successful counselor needs highly developed communication skills, both written and oral. Counselors also need to maintain professional boundaries, train in critical thinking skills, be detail oriented, and maintain accurate records. They need to show sympathy and empathy while at the same time maintaining professional balance and the ability to make critical, sometimes life-changing suggestions to their clients.

Opportunities for Advancement

A counselor can advance from an associate’s degree all the way to a PhD or other doctorate in the counseling field. They have the option to become educators who teach future counselors. Others choose to conduct research in effective counseling techniques. A counselor might also enter management or supervisory positions, overseeing the training and work of other counselors.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a counselor, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.


Salaries often depend on the educational level achieved, the counseling focus and the setting in which they are employed, which may be in an organization or a private practice. In May 2013, salaries for counselors ranged from $21,170 to $86,870, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median salaries of various types of counselor are as follows.

  • Couples counselors: $48,160
  • Mental health counselors: $40,580
  • Rehabilitation counselors: $34,230
  • School and career counselors: $53,600
  • Substance abuse counselors: $38,620

An addictions counselor with an associate’s degree generally earns less than school and career counselors with a master’s degree. Rehabilitation counselors, however, tend to earn lower salaries despite earning a master’s degree.

Job Outlook

Overall, the counseling field is growing. In addictions counseling, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a 31% increase from 2012 to 2022. Mental health counselors will see a 29% increase. Marriage and family counselors' jobs will grow by 31%. The field of school and career counseling expects a slower increase, but will still grow by 12%, which is a pace similar to average job growth. Rehabilitation counselors can expect robust growth of 20%.

Further Reading

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