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As you pursue a graduate degree in the mental health field, hands-on experience will be a key aspect of your professional development. Early and frequent industry immersion will help prepare you for board examinations, licensure, and a future career in counseling. You can learn more about the process on how to become a clinical counselor in California for state-specific guidelines.

If you’re wondering how to get clinical counseling experience during grad school, you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, we’re exploring a few best practices for getting that all-important practical experience: from attending an accredited master’s program to leveraging your network for opportunities.

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Attend an Accredited Master’s Program

Perhaps the most important element students should consider when choosing their graduate program is whether or not their program of choice is accredited. 

In the mental health field, two distinct accrediting organizations recognize graduate programs:

  1. The Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)1
  2. The Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)2

Both of these accrediting bodies are widely respected in the mental health field for counselor education, and their roles are to recognize and oversee graduate programs that meet rigorous quality standards for:

  • Instruction
  • Stability (financial and institutional)
  • Student support

Any graduate program in the mental health field accredited by either of these organizations is almost guaranteed to require students to partake in clinical hours: practical, hands-on training in patient care. Students looking for an immersive clinical counseling graduate program that will offer numerous opportunities to get counseling experience should consider accredited programs first and foremost.

Apply to Private Practices or Clinics

In addition to attending an accredited program, future mental health professionals should make every effort to engage with private practices or clinics in their communities as they search for practical clinical counseling experience. 

Working, interning, or volunteering at a private practice or clinic during graduate school will offer you a chance to:

  • Interact with patients – While you likely won’t be able to interact in a clinical setting, getting facetime with patients in a treatment environment will offer practical skills you can use in your future career.
  • Learn about clinic and practice operations – If you dream of opening your own practice one day, you’ll need to know how to run one. Working in a clinic during graduate school is an excellent way to peek behind the curtain and learn more about how these facilities function day-to-day.
  • Grow your contact list – The professional contacts you make with licensed clinicians and other staff at a clinic or private practice may come in handy when you’re looking for a job after graduation, preparing for licensure, or looking for advice from seasoned pros. 

Create a Portfolio

Even before you secure an internship or work experience during grad school, start building a portfolio of your past work. If you choose to apply for a job in a private practice or clinic during graduate school, a portfolio is an excellent way to stand out in interviews and showcase your commitment to the field.

A portfolio should feature:

  • Your resume or CV
  • A log of key assignments you’ve completed during your studies
  • Past volunteering, internship, or work experiences during your graduate program
  • Any supervised clinical experience you’ve garnered throughout the program
  • Certificates from your past professional development endeavors

And your portfolio creation shouldn’t stop once you secure an internship, job, or volunteering opportunity during grad school: Make sure to keep your portfolio up-to-date as you continue to add feathers to your professional cap. Your portfolio can serve as a log of your hands-on experiences—a document that will go a long way with employers once it’s time to acquire hours of supervised experience after graduation. 

Lean on Your Network

As you progress in your graduate program, your contact list will grow as you interact with:

  • Instructors
  • Non-instructional staff
  • Fellow master’s students
  • Doctoral students
  • Program alumni

When it’s time to put out feelers for hands-on experience opportunities, lean on this growing network. Your instructors might have connections in private practice, staff in the registrar’s office might know of a local volunteering opportunity, or a doctoral candidate might need a research assistant for their dissertation project. 

For graduate students pursuing mental health careers, contacts are key: start building relationships and growing your network as early in the program as possible to lay the groundwork for future practical opportunities. 

Start Your Journey to a Counseling Career at Alliant International University

Learning how to get clinical counseling experience in grad school is key to your success as a prospective mental health professional or licensed professional counselor, as hands-on training is a must for your future state counseling licensure process. Getting comfortable in the clinical environment—even if you can’t treat patients yet—can help enrich your experience in your graduate counseling program. 

If you’re looking for a counseling graduate program from an accredited, immersion-focused institution, look no further than Alliant International University. We offer numerous continuing education and mental health master’s programs, including degrees in clinical counseling, marital and family therapy, organizational psychology, counseling psychology, and social work. Plus, our emphasis on industry immersion and hands-on experience can uniquely prepare you for future practice and to be a licensed mental health counselor. 

Explore our programs, and start your path on the right foot.


  1.  “About CACREP.” CACREP. Accessed June 21, 2023.
  2. “About COAMFTE.” COAMFTE.…. Accessed June 21, 2023. 

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