School Counselor Career Guide

School counselors provide academic, career, mental health, and career guidance to students. According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, there are about 296,000 school and career counselors in the US.1 On this page, you’ll learn more about how to become a school counselor, common requirements, and the salary and career outlook for school counselors.

Table of Contents

How to Become a School Counselor

School counselors must have a master’s degree and be licensed by their state, in part because they work with school-aged youth in a position of trust. The typical process to become a school counselor is to:

  1. Earn a master’s degree in school counseling or a related degree such as a master’s in mental health counseling with an emphasis in school counseling that meets state requirements.
  2. Earn supervised experience (typically paid) as required by your state.
  3. Take the licensing exam(s) required by your state.
  4. Apply for a school counselor license.
  5. Once you receive your license, apply for school counselor jobs.
  6. Complete continuing education requirements required in your state.

School Counselor Licensure and Schools by State

School counselor licensure always requires a master’s degree and passing exams, but the specific process and requirements vary by state. Check with your state below for more licensure information and to learn about schools in your state that offer school counseling programs.

School Counselor Job Description

The goal of school counselors is to help students plan their academic and career paths to reach their full potential. School counselor is the most common title for this career, although other titles include guidance counselor, career counselor, college counselor, school guidance counselor, elementary counselor, middle school counselor, and high school counselor.

School counselors help their clients – who are typically school-age children and teenagers – in the areas of academics, careers, and mental health, among others. In large school districts, school counselors may be assigned a role working in only one of these areas. In small school districts, it is common for a single school counselor to support students in all of these areas. In academic and career planning, a school counselor will help students identify their strengths, set goals, and develop a plan to meet those goals.

In the area of mental health, a guidance counselor can provide mental health counseling services typically on an as-needed or as-requested basis. For example, a student struggling under the pressure of an important class may request a counseling meeting to help them work through stress management techniques and coping mechanisms.

School counselors working with elementary-aged children are more focused on developing social skills and foundational academic skills. High school counselors may be more focused on helping students plan for college and careers after graduation, especially with students in their junior and senior years. In professional school and adult enrichment program settings, guidance counselors are typically highly focused on the career aspects of counseling and may be called “career counselors”

School counselors also complete paperwork to maintain student records. In many school districts, the school counselor job description includes class scheduling, documenting any mental health counseling services provided to students, and referring students to other professionals, such as the school psychologist or school social worker. School counselors will also conference with parents regarding their student’s needs.

School counselors typically must complete continuing professional education to keep their license current. The amount of continuing education required will vary according to state guidelines and the type of license held. In addition to being a licensure requirement, continuing education helps school guidance counselors stay up-to-date on best practices for meeting the needs of their clients.

School Counselor Careers by Degree Level

According to a survey from O*NET OnLine, 93% of respondents working in the industry said that a master’s degree is required to be a school or guidance counselor.3 To help you learn more about careers in school and career counseling with different degrees, we have outlined the following summary of careers by degree level. Note that school counselor certification requirements can vary widely by state, role, and the type of clients you will serve. Additionally, employers commonly use different terms to describe similar roles, so there may be different requirements for the same job title. With this in mind, the table below provides an overview of the common degree requirements for a given role.

Counseling Job TitleMinimum Degree
Commonly Required
Counselor AideAssociate’s
Career Counselor/ConsultantBachelor’s*
College Counselor/ConsultantBachelor’s*
Education & Career Advisor (Adults)Bachelor’s*
Vocational CounselorBachelor’s*
Youth CounselorBachelor’s*
Academic CounselorMaster’s
Guidance CounselorMaster’s
Professional CounselorMaster’s
Research AssistantMaster’s
School CounselorMaster’s
School Social WorkerMaster’s
Student Support CounselorMaster’s
School PsychologistSpecialist
Department ChairDoctorate

*A master’s degree will generally be required to work in K-12 schools.

School Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the average annual school counselor salary was $63,090 as of 2021.1 The state with the highest concentration of school counselor jobs was New Hampshire, followed by Hawaii, Vermont, Louisiana, and Utah.1 The average guidance educational, guidance, and career counselor salary is highest in California ($81,590 per year), followed by New Jersey ($76,040), Massachusetts ($75,660), Washington ($75,160), and Maryland ($72,730).1

The career outlook for school and career counselors is bright. Through 2030, job growth of 11.5% is expected in this field and that is over 3 times the average job growth in the US.4 This equates to 37,000 new jobs added between 2020 and 2030.4 Growth is expected in virtually all segments of the school counseling field, from elementary, middle, and high schools to colleges and universities as school enrollments rise.2 Growth is also expected in adult career advising as more adults change jobs and adapt to a shifting economy and military personnel transition to the civilian workforce.2

Additional Resources

  • American Counseling Association (ACA): The largest organization representing professional counselors in the world, provides advocacy, continuing education opportunities, professional networking events, and more.
  • American School Counselor Association (ASCA): Representing school counselors working in all types of schools, the ASCA provides leadership in the professional practice of school counseling and seeks to improve school systems and the counseling practice as a whole.
  • National Career Development Association (NCDA): An organization focused on the needs of career counselors, provides professional development and publication opportunities while promoting high standards for the career counseling profession.
  • National Board for Certified Counselors: Offers the National Certified School Counselor (NCSC) credential to qualified school counseling professionals.

School Counselor Career Interviews

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a master’s degree or to be licensed if I want to just be a career counselor at a high school?

In some states and for some roles, it may be possible to become a career counselor providing counseling solely in the area of career planning and management without being licensed as a guidance counselor. Check with your state’s licensing board for up-to-date information on requirements.

What is the difference between a school psychologist vs. a school counselor?

School psychologists are licensed psychologists working in a school setting who specialize in identifying, assessing, diagnosing, and managing mental illness in children and adolescents. As psychologists, they are doctorally trained and licensed in psychology. While school counselors may provide mental health counseling services to students, they typically cannot diagnose and assess mental illness and have a different scope of practice as a result.

What is the difference between a school social worker vs. a school counselor?

While they must be master’s trained and licensed similarly to school counselors, school social workers play a different role in the educational environment. School social workers provide social work services such as identifying families in need and referring families to resources both internal and external to the school such as school lunch programs and other financial assistance programs. They may also provide behavioral health counseling services (particularly for students with diverse abilities) and referral services for further health counseling and management. School counselors may perform services in this scope, but they are more focused on services within the school environment, while social workers act as a “bridge” between school, home, and community.

What if I want to be a school counselor but have not gotten my bachelor’s degree yet?

If you have not yet earned a bachelor’s degree, this will be your first step. Many states require that prospective school counselors first become licensed as classroom teachers; if this is the case in your state, you will likely choose a bachelor’s degree that includes a teacher education program to prepare you for state certification. In some states, you may be required to gain classroom teaching experience before completing a master’s in school counseling program. Fortunately, there are many online master’s in school counseling that can allow you to continue working while you earn the degree required for school counselor certification.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211012.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, School and Career Counselors:
3. O*NET OnLine, Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1012.00
4. Projections Central, Long Term Occupational Projections: https://projectionscentral.org/Projections/LongTerm