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Whether you’re trying to choose an undergraduate career path or researching potential graduate program tracks, you might be considering a career in the mental health field. 

For California residents, one potential career path is in clinical counseling. Clinical counselors—Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors, or LPCCs—in the state must complete educational requirements, a state exam, a national exam, supervised clinical hours, and continuing education. 

In this guide, we’re breaking down how to become a counselor in California step-by-step to help prospective California counselors map out their college and career timelines.1

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#1 Complete Educational Requirements

Prospective clinical counselors in California must complete the state’s educational requirements—including earning a graduate degree. Let’s dive into what your training might look like before you pursue your LPCC in California.

Undergraduate Degree

California doesn’t require prospective LPCCs to complete an undergraduate program in a specific field. So, in theory, you could get an undergraduate diploma in any discipline. 

But, before you commit to an undergraduate degree track, there are a few things to keep in mind if you plan to pursue clinical counseling:

  • Graduate program requirements – Some graduate clinical counseling programs may only admit students with specific undergraduate degrees or with sufficient course hours in related disciplines (social work, sociology, or educational psychology, for instance).
  • Counseling experience – Pursuing an internship or support role in the mental health field could enrich your undergraduate experience and improve your chances of admission to a clinical counseling graduate program. But these opportunities might only be available to students pursuing mental health-related undergraduate degrees. 

Graduate Degree

To be a licensed professional clinical counselor, California requires LPCC candidates to complete a graduate degree, but an applicant’s graduate training must meet specific requirements. A qualifying LPCC training program must:2

  • Contain at least sixty graduate semester units or at least ninety graduate quarters
  • Cover at least three semester units (or four quarter units) each in:
    • Psychotherapeutic theories and techniques
    • Lifelong human growth and development
    • Career development techniques and theories
    • Group counseling techniques and theories
    • Testing, assessment, and appraisal of individuals
    • Multicultural counseling techniques and theories
    • Diagnostic process principles
    • Evaluation and research
    • Professional counseling, e.g. ethics, law, and orientation
    • Psychopharmacology
    • Addiction counseling
    • Trauma or crisis counseling
    • Advanced psychotherapeutic and counseling techniques and theories
  • Include at least fifteen semester (or 22.5 quarter) units of advanced coursework
  • Offer at least six semester (or nine quarter) units of clinical hours or field experience

California doesn’t require LPCC candidates to get degrees from accredited programs, but students should strongly consider doing so anyway. What are the benefits of graduating from a program accredited by an organization like the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)?3

  • Accredited programs have been evaluated and meet rigorous industry standards
  • Accredited programs are verified to be professionally and financially stable

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#2 Register as an APCC

Once you complete your graduate degree program, it’s time to start working with the State of California to begin the LPCC licensure process to become an officially licensed professional clinical counselor.

The first step in this process is registering as an Associate Professional Clinical Counselor—an unlicensed counseling professional qualified to treat patients under the supervision of a licensed counselor.

Once you receive an APCC number and get fingerprinted by the agency where you’ll be completing supervised hours, you can start accruing experience that counts toward your licensure requirements. 

The 90-Day Rule

In most cases, you won’t be able to register any experience hours completed before you’re issued an APCC number by the State of California. But some applicants may meet the requirements of the 90-Day Rule—an exception that allows applicants to start logging experience as soon as they graduate. 

  • To meet the requirements of the 90-Day Rule, APCC applicants must:
  • Apply for an APCC number within 90 days of graduation
  • Be fingerprinted by the agency where they’ll be completing supervised hours
  • Perform supervised hours at a facility that is neither:
    • A private practice, nor
    • A professional corporation
  • Keep a copy of their Live Scan fingerprint form and submit it to the licensing board

Renewing Your APCC Registration

It can take longer than one year to accrue the hours you’ll need to apply for your LPCC (but we’ll discuss experience hours in more detail below). Since an APCC registration only lasts for one year, you’ll need to renew it at least once while you log clinical experience hours. 

There are a few important things to note about APCC registration:

  • The California Law and Ethics Exam – To renew your APCC, you’ll need to take the California Law and Ethics Exam (we’ll discuss this in more detail below).
  • Continuing education – Each time you renew your APCC, you’ll need to show proof of completing at least three hours of continuing education in the last year.
  • Renewal limits – You may only renew your APCC license six times: so, you have a six-year time limit to complete your minimum supervised hours for licensure and pass the California Law and Ethics Exam. If you’ve passed the California Law and Ethics Exam but still aren’t done with your supervised hours, you can apply for a subsequent APCC registration, but you won’t be permitted to work in private practice or a professional cooperation setting to accrue hours. 

#3 Gain Experience Hours

After you receive your APCC number (or immediately after graduation, if you meet the 90-Day Rule requirements), you can start logging supervised work experience hours. To meet LPCC licensing requirements, you’ll need:4

  • 3,000 hours of supervised work experience that meets legal requirements
  • 104 weeks of supervision 

While you accrue experience, you’ll need to use these State-supplied forms to track your hours and log other pertinent details on your way to licensure:

  • Supervision Agreement
  • Weekly Log of Experience Hours
  • Experience Verification
  • Written Oversight Agreement (if your supervisor isn’t employed by your employer)

Supervisor Requirements

Your clinical activities as a licensed professional clinical counselor must be supervised by a licensed mental health professional. But your supervisor must also meet certain requirements to be eligible for the role. Supervisors must:5

  • Have practiced for at least two of the last five years
  • Complete special supervision training
  • Maintain a current license that isn’t under suspension or probation

But your supervisor doesn’t have to be an LPCC. Supervisors can qualify as long as they’re a:

  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Licensed Clinical Psychologist
  • Licensed Educational Psychologist (LEP)
  • Licensed Physician with an American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology Certification

Tracking Your Hours

As you track your hours, carefully detail both the type of work you do and the type of supervision you receive. In addition, pay close attention to the required minimum (and maximum) types of work and supervision you may log on your way to licensure.

LPCC applicants must show proof of:6

  • Direct clinical counseling experience – LPCC applicants must complete a minimum of 1,750 hours of individual, group, couple, or family counseling. For example, family therapy, school counseling or clinical mental health counseling, and more. There is no maximum hour limit in this category.
  • Nonclinical practice – LPCC applicants must dedicate training hours to direct supervisor contact, administering and evaluating psychological assessments, clinical reporting, client advocacy, or training/workshops. There is no minimum requirement for nonclinical hours, but applicants may only log a maximum of 1,250 hours. 
  • Supervision – LPCC applicants must be directly supervised for one hour each week for 52 total weeks. But they can only log a maximum of six hours of supervision per week. 

Hour-tracking can be complex: talk to your supervisor or a representative from the LPCC licensing office to ensure that you’re logging your hours correctly.

#4 Take the California Law and Ethics Exam

While you’re doing supervised work with an APCC registration, you’ll need to register for, prepare for, and take the California Law and Ethics Exam, a State-administered exam that’s required for your LPCC application. 

APCC counselors should note that:

  • You may take the Exam once each year until you pass – If you don’t pass the exam during your first year of APCC experience, you can renew your APCC registration and attempt the exam again the next year. 
  • Exam attempts are required to renew your APCC each year – You must take the Exam before your APCC registration renewal date—but you don’t have to pass to renew.
  • You must pass the Exam to re-register your APCC after the six-year limit – If you don’t complete your experience hours within the six-year APCC renewal limit, you’ll have to pass the Exam to apply for a new APCC registration and continue logging hours.

#5 Apply for Licensure as an LPPC

Once you’ve completed your graduate program, passed the California Law and Ethics Exam, and logged all of your required supervised experience hours, you’re ready to apply for your LPCC license. 

After you submit an application, the California Board of Behavioral Services will notify you of:

  • Your application’s approval and next steps, or
  • Your application’s denial and any deficiencies you’ll have to resolve before applying again

#6 Take the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Exam (NCMHCE)

For most LPCC applicants whose applications are approved, the Board will instruct you to take the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Exam (NCMHCE). The NCMHCE is offered through the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC), and applicants must take the exam within one year of their application approval. 

If you fail the NCMHCE, you’ll have to take it again within one year of your most recent attempt to continue the licensure process. If you miss the deadline, you’ll have to submit a new licensure application. 

Start Your Career Path in Clinical Counseling at Alliant International University

Getting acquainted with how to become a counselor in California is the first step on your path to a successful career as a licensed professional counselor. Although the process is time-consuming, from the counselor education to the exam, it ensures that you’ll be ready to safely and effectively treat patients as soon as you receive your license. 

If you’re looking for a higher education graduate program that offers exceptional preparation for a career in counseling in California (and that satisfies the state’s licensing requirements), consider Alliant International University. We combine quality instruction with hands-on experience and industry immersion to produce highly qualified LPCC candidates in California. 

Learn more about our master’s in clinical counseling program and start your path to a lifelong career today.


  1. “Handbook for Future Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors.” Board of Behavioral Services of the State of California. January 2023., Accessed June 21, 2023.  
  2. “Chapter 16. Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors.” California Legislative Information. 2022.…. Accessed June 21, 2023.
  3. “Why Should I Choose an Accredited Program?” CACREP.…. Accessed June 21, 2023.
  4. “Handbook for Future Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors.” Board of Behavioral Services of the State of California. January 2023., Accessed June 21, 2023. 
  5. “Handbook for Future Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors.” Board of Behavioral Services of the State of California. January 2023., Accessed June 21, 2023. 
  6. “Handbook for Future Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors.” Board of Behavioral Services of the State of California. January 2023., Accessed June 21, 2023. 

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