How to Become a School Counselor


Reviewed By Erika Price, PhD
Counselor talking with a student

The role of a school counselor is vital to the success of students of all ages, from elementary school to college. These specialized counselors have a positive impact on the students they work with. They help their young charges gain a stronger understanding of themselves and their potential.

A school counselor acts as a dependable, informative mentor and guide, typically for a vibrant community of students with diverse individual personalities, interests, aptitudes and future plans. These compassionate professionals work with youth to help set reasonable and realistic academic, social, and career goals; create the strategies needed to fulfill those goals; and develop the necessary skills for success. School counselors are a well of important information on career and educational opportunities, as well as valued advisers and counselors for students who are unsure where their futures lie.

School counselors work one-on-one with students of all ages, performing a range of assessments to pinpoint their strengths and to uncover any areas in need of improvement. They also provide information about educational and career opportunities to students in classroom settings. These counselors also train students in basic skills, such as writing a resume or personal statement or filling out a job application.

With younger students, counselors are charged with additional responsibilities that include safeguarding the health and wellness of the children and reporting suspected cases of abuse or neglect. They also provide academic assistance and advice as well.

At every level, becoming a school counselor is an opportunity to contribute to the positive growth and development of an entire generation. School counselors often take pride in their career accomplishments, and with good reason - they are a driving force behind the success of their communities and society as a whole.

Work Environment

A school counselor may work at any level of education, including elementary, middle and high school as well as college. They are employed for all grade levels at both private and public schools. In general, counselors work a full-time schedule, some visiting multiple schools over the course of a week or month. However, some have summers off, depending on the school's operating calendar.

The specific scope for the day-to-day activities of school counselors varies according to the grade level and the size of the school that employs them.

  • Counselors who work at an elementary school are more involved with behavioral issues and overall student health and safety. They may meet with “problem students” or students struggling to meet educational requirements, in order to work through the source of their problems or assess them for psychological or learning disorders. They may also mediate conflicts between peers or meet with parents to help form behavioral plans.
  • Middle school counselors typically work with students on social skills and study skills, as they make the difficult transition from youth to young adult. Middle school counselors may also assist some students with their educational goals - particularly students in gifted programs and students with special needs or disabilities. Early adolescence is the time when most students first begin to consider their future goals and their place in the world, and a school counselor can provide vital guidance in what opportunities lie ahead.
  • For high school counselors, the most essential tasks are to help students choose the best strategies for formulating future goals, and to help them prepare for further education or entry into the work force. This entails providing training in basic educational and career skills; informing students of educational opportunities; helping students decide what their goals are; and locating financial assistance opportunities for students in need.
  • Finally, college-level counselors assist students with making the most of their time in college by helping them to select classes, build their resumes, and prepare for entering the work force. As graduation approaches, counselors can assist students through advice on topics such as career selection, job skill development, internship experience, resume writing and essential interviewing techniques.



The first step in the education of a school counselor is to obtain a bachelor's degree - usually in counseling, psychology, education or social work, though a degree in a related field can be acceptable. Following this four-year program, candidates must obtain a specialized master's degree in school counseling, which is required by most states for employment as a counselor in a school or university setting. Some school counselors first work more directly in education (as teachers or tutors) before entering graduate school to specialize in counseling. While this may provide useful insights into how educational settings function and how best to interact with students, it is by no means required.

Basic coursework for a master's degree in school counseling includes counseling techniques and various approaches to academic, social and behavioral issues. Aspiring school counselors should select their age or education level of interest, and accordingly select coursework that will best prepare them for working with such students. For those looking to become college counselors, for instance, additional courses that deal with career counseling are required. Training in childhood behavioral disorders or abuse reporting may be required of prospective elementary school counselors. A school counselor should also expect to enroll in continuing education courses throughout his or her career, in order to keep up with the latest developments in the field and maintain certification.


Once classroom training is complete, the majority of counseling programs require an internship or mentoring program, where the candidate is paired with an experienced counselor to learn through observation. Some states require this mentorship stage as a condition for employment or licensure.

Licensing and/or Certification

Most states require school counselors to hold some form of certification or license. These requirements and programs vary from state to state. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) provides links for each state's requirements, as well as information on professional development. Overall, though, licensing involves taking a one-time sit-down exam, logging a required number of internship hours, demonstrating adequate education, and paying registration fees.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Successful school counselors have excellent, highly developed listening skills, and both written and oral communication skills. These professionals are detail-oriented, able to think critically, and efficiently organized, with the ability to maintain detailed records. They should have a strong command of data. they must also know a great deal about a variety of potential career paths, job markets, educational institutions, major programs and vocations.

Any counselor - particularly those who are employed in school settings - must maintain high ethical and professional standards at all times. School counselors often have serious legal responsibilities, such as state laws that mandate the reporting of suspected abuse, and must be able to deal with delicate and potentially damaging situations. Counselors also must maintain healthy boundaries with their students, providing an open, empathic environment without becoming inappropriately involved.

Finally, equipped with compassion and understanding an effective school counselor enjoys working with people of all ages, from youth to parents and school staff members. School counselors must possess the ability to read personalities and potential, in order to guide the decisions that will have a lifelong impact on their students. A school counselor should be able to listen to students’ needs and interests in order to collaborate with them to select an optimal career path. A good school counselor will never dictate to students what their career path should be; rather, a counselor should listen to the student’s interests, assess his or her abilities, and provide information about a variety of appropriate options.

Opportunities for Advancement

Within the academic framework, there are opportunities for school counselors to advance into positions as administrators or educators. They may also become mentors for students seeking to enter the counseling field, or they can choose to enter management or supervisory positions, where responsibilities include overseeing the work and training of other counselors. In small school districts or those in remote areas, however, there may not be many opportunities for direct and local advancement.

College counselors can advance into positions as college professors, where they often work to further the counseling profession through teaching and field research.

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


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual income of school counselors is $56,160 as of May 2013. However, salaries stretch as low as $31,850 for the bottom ten percent and as high as $86,870 for the top ten percent.

The salary for a school counselor is typically dependent on the educational level of the position (elementary or secondary school versus college and university); the location of the position (rural or urban); and the experience level of the individual counselor. The BLS reports that counselors at the elementary or secondary level earned an average $63,100 annually, whereas counselors at university level earned an average annual income of $49,320.

Job Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that school counselor employment will increase by 12% from 2012 to 2022, which is roughly the same as the average for all occupations.

With rising enrollment in schools from elementary levels through college, the prospects for employment in school counseling should continue to improve. Currently as a nation, we employ not nearly enough school counselors to meet the nationally recommended ratio of one counselor for every 200 students; our current ratio is roughly one counselor per 471 students (less than half the number deemed sufficient).

However, an increase in employment of school counselors depends to an extent upon increases in education funding. Unfortunately, many under-funded schools deal with the scarcity of school counselors not by hiring additional employees, but by stretching counselors thin, asking them to visit several schools per week and provide services to an ever-expanding body of students.

Recent stirrings on the national policy front may bode well for greater job prospects in the future. In July 2014, as part of an effort to bolster college attendance among low- and middle-income students, the Obama administration organized a summit of experts to discuss ways to make school counseling more robust, casting greater focus on the vital importance of counselors in the lives of students. As long as young people attend school, there will be opportunities for school counselors to make profound and positive contributions in their lives.

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