School counselors don’t often get credit for the significant roles they play in students’ academic and social development. When they aren’t overseeing state testing and distributing grade cards, school counselors may also spend a lot of one-on-one time with students. Traditionally, meeting with students to discuss class schedules, career aptitude tests and college applications was known as “guidance counseling.” But that term has faded out as a school guidance counselor’s responsibilities grow. When students come to them with emotional issues involving family or other students, guidance counselors provide an opportunity to be heard. They intervene when necessary and work with students to resolve conflicts and improve difficult situations. Even though students spend more hours with teachers, school counselors are quite often the faculty members who know them best.
If you’re considering this career but unsure how to become a school counselor, this guide will answer some of your questions. Let’s start by looking at valuable skills that school counselors typically need.
1. What Soft Skills Do School Counselors Need?
A certified counselor does everything from collecting data to communicating with parents and teachers to advising individual students. You will develop specialized knowledge for mental health counseling services through your degree coursework and internships. However, if you're considering this career, you may already have many of the general skills that professional school counseling practitioners use daily1. Are you skilled in these five areas?
Part of a school counselor’s job may involve reading and interpreting data, whether from career aptitude tests or school achievement reports. The ability to make sense of numbers is a plus.
The school guidance counselor is often the first person to hear about troubling or traumatic situations in students' lives. This professional counselor must respond with genuine concern and understanding.
Like administrators and teachers, middle school or elementary school counselors must be comfortable interacting with and relating to students, parents and colleagues.
Certified counselors must be good listeners and not rush to judgment when a student just wants to be heard.
Whether before a small group or the entire student population, school counselors should be comfortable speaking in public.
2. Which Student Age Group Do You Want to Work With?
An elementary school counselor focuses on students’ developmental and academic needs. Duties may overlap with special education teachers as school counselors and parents discuss learning and behavior issues. A middle school counselor also collaborates with teachers and parents, and supports students in developing good academic and social skills. A high school counselor is focused on helping students set career development plans and life goals and overcome personal problems.
Depending on where you complete your counselor education training, your school counselor certification may not necessarily apply to all K-12 grades. Most states offer K-12 or even PreK-12 certification. But Delaware, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri and Pennsylvania make you choose either elementary or secondary certification. Keep this in mind, as having a broader certification means possibly more potential job opportunities for you.
3. What Degree Do You Need to Be a School Counselor?
A few states accept bachelor’s degrees but require additional graduate-level credits in school counseling. Becoming certified in most states requires a master’s in school counseling or a related field of behavioral science2. Here’s a look at bachelor’s and master’s degree programs and typical coursework for each.
Bachelor’s degree in a related field.
Since most states require a master’s degree program in school counseling, few colleges offer an undergraduate major in that subject. Instead, undergraduates often major in a related field, such as psychology or education. Common topics of study in a psychology degree program can include:
- Biological foundations
- History of psychology
- Human development
- Abnormal psychology
- Personality theories
- Psychological testing
- Statistical reasoning
- Clinical psychology
In states like California and New York, a bachelor's degree is acceptable. But you'll also need to complete a certain number of credits through any of the approved and related educational programs in school counseling. Maine and New Jersey offer this as an option for acquiring, respectively, a one-year conditional certificate or emergency certificate. Ohio also offers a temporary school counseling license to licensed teachers who are enrolled in a school counseling program3.
Master’s in school counseling.
Some states refer to this degree as "guidance and counseling." Others don't require a specific master's in counseling, as long as the candidate completes a separate training program in professional school counseling. But "school counseling" is the degree most often specified in state requirements. In this degree program, you'll typical study topics such as:
- Lifespan development
- History of school support services
- School safety, violence prevention, and crisis intervention
- Research methods
- Multicultural students and their families
- Behavior management
- Family-school-community collaboration
- Curriculum modification and accommodation
- Group counseling
Required hours of practicum or internship experience in a school setting are usually built into this degree program.
Other educational requirements.
You will most likely need to complete a state-approved school counseling preparation program if:
- you have a master’s degree in a field not related to school counseling
- your school counseling degree did not include hands-on practicum or internship experience
Completing this non-degree program will earn you graduate-level credits.
Before pursuing your degree, check your state’s department of education website for the most up-to-date certification requirements.
4. What Experience Do You Need?
A school counseling degree alone does not qualify you for certification or licensure. In almost every state, you must also have “clinical experience” applying those learned counseling skills with students in public schools. This requirement varies by location, but usually includes a practicum and an internship. Both offer hands-on experience, but they differ in the amount of responsibility a counselor-in-training is given.
In a practicum, you work side-by-side with a professional school counselor. Much of the time you are observing the professional, taking notes and asking questions. As you become more comfortable in the setting, the licensed counselor assigns you more duties to perform under close supervision. You are regularly supervised by an advisor or faculty member from your training program. Many states require a practicum of 100 hours or more, with 40 of those directly involved in counseling real students. The practicum serves as a warm-up for the internship, which is much more hands-on.
Before becoming a certified school counselor, your college or university education culminates in an internship. Like a practicum, an internship is where you apply counseling skills in a real school setting, but with greater responsibilities. Even though you still meet regularly with a faculty supervisor, as an intern you work more independently. Out of the 600 internship hours required in most states, 240 of those must be directly involved in counseling services. By the end of a typical internship, trainees should know how to fulfill school counselor duties, including:
- Planning and implementing school counseling program
- Analyzing and interpreting data on school achievement, attendance and discipline
- Finalizing, printing and distributing school report cards
- Counseling individual students and groups of students
- Reviewing and assessing school safety plans
- Reporting suspected abuse and neglect
- Providing college and career advisement
- Presenting state test security information
A few states, like Illinois, count previous classroom experience towards internship requirements, while other states actually require teaching experience. In Kansas and Louisiana, for example, you need a state teaching license in addition to hours as a school counseling intern. This is good news for people looking to move from classroom teaching into counseling.
5. Do You Need to Take an Exam?
Many states require you to take one or more tests before you get your school counselor certification. Praxis exams are state tests that assess whether or not you have sufficient content knowledge in your chosen field. The Professional School Counselor Praxis (5421) is a two-hour exam that contains 120 selected response (multiple choice) questions. Major domains and topics covered include:
- Foundations: History and Role of the Professional School Counselor
- Foundations: Human Growth and Development
- Foundations: Ethics
- Foundations: Legal Issues
- Delivery of Service: Guidance and Counseling
- Delivery of Service: Consultation and Collaboration
School counselor candidates in Nebraska and Oregon must also take a basic skills exam. This measures whether or not you possess basic skills in math, reading and writing in those states. If you’re wondering how to become a school counselor in California, this state also requires a basic skills test, but does not require a Praxis exam for school counselor certification.
6. Do You Need a Background Check?
This also varies by state. Some states require you to be fingerprinted before you apply for your state license. Other places conduct the background check after you’re hired. A few states require no background check at all.
7. Will Your Certification Transfer to Other States?
If you see yourself ever moving to a different state, you might check whether your school counselor certificate will transfer. States like Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin do not have reciprocal agreements. This means that they do not accept out-of-state education licenses. However, most other states do.
Alliant International University’s California School of Education (CSOE) offers school counseling master’s degree and credential programs. These programs combine convenient online coursework with real-world fieldwork experience. Contact our team today to learn more about our counseling program.
- American School Counselor Association, The Role of the Counselor, https://www.schoolcounselor.org/getmedia/ee8b2e1b-d021-4575-982c-c84402…, accessed Nov. 29, 2021
- The Best Schools, How to Become a School Counselor, https://thebestschools.org/careers/career-guide/school-counselor-overvi…, accessed Nov. 29, 2021
- “State Certification Requirements,” State Certification Requirements - American School Counselor Association (ASCA), accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.schoolcounselor.org/About-School-Counseling/State-Requireme…;