School Counseling 101: How to Become a School Counselor

Friendly school counselor speaks with two students in the hall.Do you have strong interpersonal skills and a passion for helping students navigate the world of education? If so, you could excel as a school counselor. School counselors provide resources for students who want to learn how to pursue their academic and professional futures, and they also work with students who have learning difficulties or mood issues that interfere with their success in school. Whether providing K-12 education support, helping undergraduates navigate the world of higher education, or getting students to the next step in graduate school, thousands of opportunities for school counselors exist.

Like many health-related fields, specific requirements for becoming a school counselor can vary from state to state, so check with the American School Counseling Association for details. Otherwise, read on to find out how you can get started.

1. Lay the Foundation with Undergraduate Studies

As with similar fields of study, people intending to become school counselors will need a substantial academic background. Your first step is to decide where you want to go to college and apply. Depending on your current level of education, this could mean applying for an undergraduate or graduate program. While your undergraduate degree is not typically required to be in education or counseling, it is often helpful to choose a major that reflects knowledge and understanding of the theories and practices required for counseling. Students who major in subjects such as psychology, sociology, or counseling may find they have acquired a feel for the work involved with becoming a school counselor, and as an extension, are well prepared for their graduate studies.

2. Get Your Master’s Degree in School Counseling

Depending on your program, receiving a master’s degree means learning counseling and guidance techniques for multiple age groups and ability levels. During this process, which may take 1-2 years, you can explore areas of specialization, such as K-12 education, behavior issues, or education for children with developmental delays. According to US News & World Report, some of the top-rated counseling programs in the country are at University of Maryland, College Park, and University of North Carolina, Greensboro. However, there are many worthwhile programs across the country depending on your preferred home base.
For anyone wondering what steps are involved in becoming a school counselor, has designed a clear path to follow. Infographic by Hannah Johnson

3. Work Under Supervision After Graduation

During or after your study program, you can intern or complete a practicum as part of your course requirements. Many programs set a certain number of these hours for you to complete, either as a graduation requirement or part of your future doctorate studies, if you decide to pursue that course. For example, one school counselor program might require 100 practicum hours, 40 of which are in direct contact with K-12 students. Additionally, to take the licensing exam to become a school counselor, you must have completed hundreds of hours of practicum or internship work.

Get familiar with the day-to-day workings of your site and don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor for any tips or important things to know while working there—it is better to ask more questions than less, especially when you are still in a learning environment.

During your school counseling internship or practicum, you will get hands-on experience in the field, generally at a school site you have chosen. You will perform most of the duties associated with your field under the direct supervision of both an on-site supervisor and your instructor or supervisor on campus. Get familiar with the day-to-day workings of your site, and don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor for any tips or important things to know while working there—it is better to ask more questions than not enough, especially when you are still in a learning environment.

4. Get Licensed as a School Counselor

After completing your educational and working hour requirements, it is time to become a board certified school counselor. First, you will need to know your state’s requirements, as they vary. The National Counselor Examination (NCE) is a 200-item exam you might sit for, as it is required to become licensed in most states. It may also be required for a national license or any potential military work you are interested in doing. The NCE website lists all the requirements for the exam and provides information on where to take it in your state. It’s a good idea to study and prepare for this exam like you would for other important, long-term tests. Find example questions from past exams and consider borrowing or ordering an NCE test prep book, which will contain helpful strategies and tips for passing your NCE successfully.

5. Optional Credentials for School Counselors

Before hiring you, most schools will prefer that you have one to two years of hands-on classroom experience. You may also need to get a teaching certificate or license. Research your state’s teaching certificate requirements, as these can differ depending on the education system. Additionally, you can pursue specializations such as career counseling or an emphasis in students experiencing addiction.

6. Get Hired as a School Counselor

The field of school counseling has many opportunities and benefits: more than 200,000 school counselors are employed every year as of 2014, and the profession has a median salary of $50,000 a year. Most educational institutions, whether K-12 schools or colleges, need counselors. Openings for these positions are generally posted through school districts or university careers sites for internal positions. You might begin your job search by researching where you would like to work and begin looking for school counseling postings in that location or ask your own college counselor for help finding a placement. Sometimes the connections you make during your internship or practicum hours can lead to future employment opportunities.


  1. Danzinger, P. & Newman, H. (2011). School counseling concentration practicum/internship handbook. William Patterson University College of Education. Retrieved from
  2. National counselor examination for licensure and certification. (n.d.). National Board for Certified Counselors. Retrieved from
  3. School and career counselors: Summary. (2017, October 24). Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from
  4. School counseling degree programs & schools. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  5. State certification requirements. (n.d.). American School Counselor Association. Retrieved from

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  • Katherine S

    January 9th, 2018 at 8:20 AM

    Cool! I want to be an elementary school counselor who practices music therapy, I wonder if that career path is similar to the one you show?

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