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School Counselor Career Guide

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are about 296,000 school and career counselors in the US.1 School and career counselors provide academic, mental health, and career guidance to students and clients. 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 handle all three as needed. In addition to working in K-12 schools (where 44% of school counselors are employed), school counselors work in colleges and universities (35%), healthcare and social assistance agencies (8%), other types of educational settings (4%), and as self-employed professionals (3%).2 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.

What Do School Counselors Do?

School counselors help their clients – who can be school-age children, teenagers, young adults, or older adults, depending on the work setting – in the areas of academics, careers, and mental health. As noted above, depending on the role and employer, a counselor may work in all three of these areas or specialize in just one or two. In academic and career planning, a school counselor will help students (or adult clients) identify their strengths and goals and work out a plan to meet those goals. In the area of mental health, a guidance counselor can provide mental health counseling services specific to the needs of the student (or client) in the context of the school environment.*

School counseling degree programs tend to focus on the mental and social needs of adolescent children in the context of K-12 school environments. This means that the goal of school counseling is typically to help students reach the highest possible level of achievement and plan their academic and career paths. School counselors will also help support students’ mental and social development through one-on-one and group counseling, 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.

The focus, however, will vary according to the school and performance level of the student. For example, school counselors working with elementary-age children are more focused on developing social skills and foundational academic skills; compare this to high school counselors who may work in these areas, but may be more focused on helping students plan for college and careers after graduation, especially with junior and senior students. 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 counselor” instead of school counselor to reflect the different needs of these populations. In some cases, you may also see career counselors referred to as “vocational counselors,” although this term is somewhat out-of-date and has fallen out of favor.

*Note that in some states and circumstances, such as working with adult clients, mental health counselor licensure may be required in addition to school counselor certification in order to provide mental health counseling services.

School Counselor Requirements and Common Tasks

While school counselor requirements may vary somewhat by employer, in all 50 states and Washington DC school counselors must be licensed in order to work in K-12 public schools. School counselors must also be licensed to provide the full range of school counseling services in colleges and universities, as these positions often overlap with mental health counseling. School counselor certification requires a master’s degree in most states, and in all states the highest level of licensure requires at least some graduate-level study. Depending on the state and pathway to licensure, supervised experience (typically paid) may also be a requirement. Those with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree will not be eligible for most school counselor positions but may qualify for support roles or related roles working with adults.

School counselors work one-on-one with students as well as handle paperwork related to maintaining student records. In many school districts, the school counselor job description includes class scheduling, meaning that as students drop, add, or switch classes, the school counselor must update their records accordingly. Guidance counselors must also thoroughly document any mental health counseling services provided to students. As needed, they may refer students to other professionals, such as the school psychologist or school social worker. School counselors will also conference with parents regarding their students’ needs, which may involve referrals to mental health or other support professionals outside of the school environment. There are many school counseling degree programs that can help you prepare for the various duties involved in this career.

School counselors typically must complete continuing professional education in order to keep their licenses 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.

How to Become a School Counselor

Since the majority of school counselors work with children and adolescents, and even those who are working with young adult and adult clients are put into a position of trust, school counselors must be appropriately licensed. As noted above, becoming a school counselor typically requires a master’s degree or at least some graduate-level study, such as a state-approved graduate certificate. 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 licensure requirements.
  2. Earn supervised experience (typically paid) as required by the state in which you are seeking licensure.
  3. Take the licensing exam(s) required by your state.
  4. Apply for a school guidance counselor license.
  5. Once you receive your license, start applying for school counselor jobs.

School counselor is the most common title for this career, although you will see variations. Other titles for this career you will see as you search for school counselor jobs include guidance counselor, career counselor, college counselor, school guidance counselor, elementary counselor, middle school counselor, and high school counselor.

School Counselor Education and Job Training

For most states and practice areas, a master’s degree is the minimum requirement to become licensed as a school counselor. In some states, you may be able to become licensed with a graduate certificate or appropriate combination of teaching experience and education.

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.

There are many school counseling degree programs that can help you prepare for a school counseling career. 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 preparing you for this license. You may be required to gain classroom teaching experience prior to completing a master’s in school counseling program, again depending on your state’s guidelines. 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.

School Counselor Careers by Degree Level

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, and different states will have different licensure exceptions. Additionally, employers commonly use different terms to describe roles that may be similar, or may also have differing requirements for roles with the same title. With this in mind, the table below provides an overview of the common degree requirements for a given role.

Job TitleAssociate’s Degree Commonly RequiredBachelor’s Degree Commonly RequiredMaster’s Degree Commonly RequiredPhD Commonly Required
Academic CounselorYes
Career Counselor/ConsultantYes*
College Counselor/ConsultantYes*
Counselor AideYes
Department ChairYes
Education & Career Advisor (Adults)Yes*
Guidance CounselorYes
Professional CounselorYes
ProfessorYes
Research AssistantYes
ResearcherYes
School CounselorYes
School PsychologistYes
School Social WorkerYes
Student Support CounselorYes
TherapistYes
Vocational CounselorYes*
Youth CounselorYes*

*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 $57,040 as of 2019.1 The state with the highest employment level of school counselors was California (32,650), followed by New York (26,500), Texas (25,810), Florida (19,030), and Illinois (13,210).1 The average guidance counselor salary is highest in California ($78,250 per year), followed by New Jersey ($73,160), Maryland ($70,380), New York ($68,890), and Washington DC ($68,810).1

The career outlook for school and career counselors is bright. Through 2028, job growth of 8% is expected in this field.2 This equates to a total of 27,200 new jobs added, based on an average of 2,720 new jobs per year.2 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

School Counselor Career Interviews

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a school counselor do?

School counselors provide academic, career, and mental health counseling to students and clients. While they may be most commonly associated with K-12 schools, they also work in colleges and universities, adult education and development centers, and other facilities related to education and continuing development.

How much do school counselors make?

The average school counselor salary nationally is $57,040 per year.1 The salary an individual school or career counselor can expect may be higher or lower according to factors including geographic area, school/work setting, level of education, and experience.

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, 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, 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 special needs) and referral services for further health counseling and management. School counselors may perform services that overlap this scope, but will typically be more focused on services within the school environment, compared to a social worker who more commonly acts as a “bridge” between school, home, and the community.

Is a vocational counselor the same thing as a school counselor?

While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, vocational counselor is actually an older term for career counselor. However, as the practice of counseling in school settings has advanced, vocational counselor is not used as often as it once was. School counselors, while they can be career counselors, are generally understood to have a wider scope of practice due to their education, training, and licensure, which is why different terms are used.

What is the role of the school counselor?

The role of school counselor is to assist students in achieving their academic, career, and interpersonal goals. This is accomplished through direct guidance counseling as well as referrals to other resources, such as dedicated career or college counseling, school-work programs, and other services.

References:
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:
https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/school-and-career-counselors.htm