Master’s Degree in Counseling Guide

A master’s in counseling is a prerequisite to becoming a state-licensed professional counselor. Students pursuing a master’s in counseling choose a specialty in a concentrated area such as marriage and family therapy, mental health counseling, rehabilitation counseling, and school counseling. Most master’s in counseling programs take at least two years of on-campus or online full-time study to complete.

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Why Earn a Master’s in Counseling?

For most types of counseling, the master’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for a professional license and/or independent practice as a counselor. In most states “counselor” is a protected title, which means that only individuals who have been licensed or certified by the state can use it. This means that most people who wish to become professional counselors must earn a master’s degree.

A master’s degree in counseling provides a pathway for a satisfying career helping others in a field that has high demand, with 18% growth projected from 2022 through 2032.1 This growth rate is over four times faster than the overall US job growth rate of 4% for the same period.1

Choosing a Master’s in Counseling Degree Program

There are many fields of counseling in which you can earn a master’s degree. These can be narrowed to five broad categories of practical counseling generally recognized from state to state:

  • Licensed professional counseling (also sometimes called mental health counseling)
  • Marriage and family therapy
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • School counseling
  • Substance abuse counseling (not all roles require a master’s degree)

While each of these shares similarities, they also differ in their approaches to counseling and focus areas for treatment. As a result, a master’s program in counseling will focus on only one area, and each state generally has separate licenses with different requirements for each field. Keep in mind that there are also subspecialties offered within most of these fields.

Admission Requirements

While admission requirements vary for every school, master’s in counseling programs commonly require a bachelor’s degree with a minimum undergraduate GPA (typically 3.0 or greater), letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, and a resume. Some programs may require standardized test scores, like the GRE. An interview with counseling faculty is also commonly required for admission.

Licensure With a Master’s in Counseling

With a master’s in counseling, you will typically be eligible for licensure only in the counseling focus area of your degree. The type of license you have and the state where you live will dictate which careers you can pursue. License titles vary, but may include:

  • Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor (LDAC)
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC)
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Rehabilitation Counselor (LRC)
  • Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor (LSAC)

For more information about licensing with a master’s in counseling, check with your state’s board of professional counselors or see our guide to counseling licensure by state.

Types of Master’s Degrees in Counseling

Most master’s programs in counseling are between 48 and 60 hours since most states require a minimum of 60 hours of graduate study including at least a 48-hour master’s degree. Depending on the number of credit hours required and other factors, most master’s degrees in counseling take two or three years of full-time study to complete. You can read more about master’s in counseling programs in the five largest fields below.

Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy

Master’s in marriage and family therapy programs are often shortened as MFT (Marriage and Family Therapy), MAMFT (Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy), or MSMFT (Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy). Specializations with a master’s in marriage and family counseling include couples therapy, family therapy, child and adolescent family therapy, and general family therapy. Marriage and family therapy can also include one-on-one counseling to help individuals improve their relationship skills. To earn a license in the filed, all 50 states require a master’s in marriage and family therapy plus supervised experience. Read more about programs in marriage and family therapy on our degree guide.

Master’s in Mental Health Counseling

Mental health counseling, also known as professional counseling or clinical counseling, can touch on all aspects of counseling practice from individual therapy to family therapy to group therapy. There are numerous types of master’s degree programs in this field, including Master of Science in Counseling (MSC), Master’s in Professional Counseling (MPC), Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (MACMHC), and Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (MSCMHC). Specializations in mental health counseling include behavioral counseling, eating disorders, anxiety, parenting, and focus areas that treat a full range of social and emotional disorders. A master’s degree is the minimum requirement for a license to practice counseling independently. Many states require accreditation by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or the equivalent. Our Mental Health Counseling Degree Guide shares more in-depth information about degrees and opportunities in this field. If you’re interested in online study, be sure to visit our guide to and ranking of online LMHC programs.

Master’s in Rehabilitation Counseling

Rehabilitation counseling focuses on helping clients adapt to disabilities in order to lead a fulfilling life. Common terms for this degree include Master of Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling (MCRC), Master of Arts in Rehabilitation Counseling (MARC), and Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling (MSRC). As most states include rehabilitation counseling within the practice of professional counseling, a master’s degree is typically required for practice. A handful of states license rehabilitation counselors separately from other professional counselors and many others recognize the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRCE) from the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) as a qualifying exam for mental health counseling licensure. While there may be jobs in the rehabilitation counseling field that do not require a master’s degree, a master’s can still be a stepping stone to more advanced careers. Specialties for a master’s in rehabilitation counseling tend to focus on specific emotional, behavioral, or physical disabilities, and/or practice with specific age groups, such as children, adults, or older people. Read our guide to rehabilitation counseling degrees to find out more.

Master’s in School Counseling

School counselors work with children and adolescents in K-12 schools, providing counseling that touches on emotional-social development, academic choices, career choices, and more. At the master’s level, this degree frequently takes the form of a Master of Education (M.Ed.) with a concentration in school counseling, though you can pursue a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Arts (MA) program. All 50 states require a master’s in school counseling to become licensed as a school counselor. Our school counseling degree resource provides further information on opportunities with a school counseling degree.

Master’s in Substance Abuse Counseling

Substance abuse counselors specialize in helping people overcome addictions. Frequently-used titles for a master’s in substance abuse counseling include Master’s in Addictions Counseling (MAC), Master of Health Sciences (MHS), and Master of Professional Studies (MPS). A master’s degree in substance abuse is not always a requirement to become licensed or work in this field. However, it is widely recognized as a professional degree that can lead to wider career opportunities compared to undergraduate-level study. It is also possible in some states to work in substance abuse counseling by earning a master’s degree in professional or clinical mental health counseling. Read our Substance Abuse Counseling Degree Guide to learn more.

On-Campus Counseling Master’s Degree Programs

Lewis University

The Master of Arts (MA) in School Counseling at Lewis University serves both currently licensed teachers and non-licensed professionals and is designed to prepare graduates to meet the requirements for school counselor licensure in Illinois. Students are exposed to various theories of school counseling service while developing their skills in academic, career, and social-emotional counseling with children in K-12 settings. Classes are held in the evenings with an emphasis on small class sizes that allow for increased participation and networking in the learning environment. Selected courses may be available online or in a hybrid format. At graduation, students are eligible to take the school counseling exams for licensure in Illinois. Lewis University also offers the option for graduates to take additional courses that can qualify them for Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) licensure in Illinois to work with adults.

Southeastern University

Southeastern University (SEU) is home to a Master of Science (MS) in Professional Counseling that takes 60 credit hours to complete. Courses are held in the evenings to accommodate students with work or commitments outside of school. All courses take place at SEU’s Lakeland campus. During study, students learn both the history and theory of counseling through multiple schools of thought. The curriculum includes hands-on, real-world practice through an applied internship in a clinical setting. Courses are led by highly qualified professors who have clinical and research expertise. Graduates are prepared for the two years of supervised clinical experience required to earn professional counseling licensure in Florida. SEU also offers a Master of Science (MS) in Marriage and Family Counseling.

Texas Tech University

Texas Tech University’s (TTU) Master of Science (MS) in Addiction Counseling emphasizes the modification of problematic behaviors in the treatment of addictions and co-occurring disorders. In addition to training future practitioners in traditional clinical counseling, TTU’s program emphasizes the skills needed to offer remote counseling services. The 60-credit hour program is academically rigorous and specializes on the needs of diverse and rural communities. A field practicum and an internship are embedded in the core curriculum, which also includes courses such as Psychopathology and Diagnosis, Research and Statistics, Micro Counseling, and Neurobiology of Addiction. The Master of Science in Addiction Counseling at TTU satisfies the education requirement for the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) credential in many states. Program admission is competitive and considers several factors, including past academic performance, career goals/intent, previous work and volunteer experience in the counseling field, and writing skills.

University of Rochester Medical Center

The University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) offers a Master of Science (MS) in Marriage and Family Therapy through its Department of Psychiatry. The program’s relationship with the Department of Psychiatry provides students hands-on clinical experiences in a dynamic, real-world hospital setting. Students gain a deeper understanding of the interdisciplinary relationships between relationship counseling and mental health. Courses include Foundations of Clinical Practice in Family Therapy, Family Therapy Research, and Narrative and Integrative Approaches to Family Therapy. Applications are accepted year-round with a fall start date for full-time students, though part-time students may be approved to enter beginning with the spring semester. Admission to the URMC program is competitive and is based in part on the student’s alignment with the program’s mission statement and commitment to integrative, multi-culturally informed education and clinical care. Prospective students will also need to complete three faculty interviews.

Online Counseling Master’s Degree Programs

Angelo State University

Angelo State University is home to an online Master of Science (MS) in Professional School Counseling program that prepares graduates for careers as professional school counselors in Texas. The 48-credit hour program includes courses like Career and Occupational Counseling, Professional Practice, School Counseling Techniques, and Comprehensive School Counseling Programs. Other courses involve a hands-on practicum and a capstone course to synthesize previous learning. Financial aid, including GPA-based scholarships, is available. To qualify for admission, prospective students must have at least a 2.75 GPA in their undergraduate studies. Note that to qualify to take the required Texas Examination of Educator Standards (TExES) for the Professional Certificate for School Counselors exam, students must also have two years of full-time classroom teaching experience. Angelo State University also offers an online, non-licensure Master of Education (MEd) in Guidance and Counseling designed for professional development and careers outside of the public school system.

Antioch University

Antioch University New England (AUNE) offers a hybrid Master of Arts (MA) in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Addiction Counseling Concentration that is designed to prepare competent clinical practitioners with a specialty in the treatment of addictions. The degree plan requires 60 credit hours and is designed to be completed in five semesters. Students can take select classes online or on the AUNE campus. Students take courses like Integrative Approaches to Addiction, Counseling Theories, and Couple and Family Counseling. Graduates meet the requirements for licensure as clinical mental health counselors in many states, as well as the requirements for licensure as substance abuse counselors in most states. Prospective students are encouraged to attend an online webinar or on-campus visiting day to learn more about the opportunities offered in this program.

Colorado Christian University

Colorado Christian University (CCU) is home to a Master of Arts (MA) in Counseling that can be completed online or on campus at the school’s Lakewood or Colorado Springs campuses. Courses in this 60-credit hour program take place in seven-week blocks, allowing students to focus on a limited number of courses at one time and complete the program in as few as two-and-a-half years. The curriculum also includes a counseling residency, a counseling internship, and a professional orientation. Students can transfer up to 12 credit hours toward the program from other graduate institutions. The MA in Counseling at CCU is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Graduates are qualified to sit for CACREP’s National Counselor Exam, which is the licensure exam required in Colorado as well as in many other states.

Syracuse University

Through its David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, Syracuse University offers an online Master of Arts (MA) in Marriage & Family Therapy. The 60-credit hour program is based around a 51-credit hour core with nine credit hours of electives. The majority of the curriculum can be completed online, with only a short on-campus residency required. Note that although the practicum can be completed in the student’s local area, it must be completed in-person as well. Like its on-campus counterpart, Syracuse University’s online MA in Marriage and Family Therapy is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). While this program is designed to qualify graduates for licensure, prospective students must be sure to verify their state’s requirements. The David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics emphasizes a theory-to-practice academic model that prepares students to practice ethical and effective counseling that promotes emotional and physical well-being.

Careers With a Master’s in Counseling

For further information on careers you can pursue with a master’s in counseling, including education requirements, license guidelines, salaries, and outlooks, review the following careers pages.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can an online master’s in counseling qualify me for a counseling license?

Yes, an online master’s in counseling can qualify graduates for a counseling license, so long as you meet the course and experience requirements set by your state for licensure in your desired practice area. Be sure to check with your state’s licensing board for detailed requirements. Even online programs must include a supervised clinical internship to meet licensure requirements. You can work with faculty to find a placement that will work for you and still satisfy these requirements. Learn more on our guide to earning a master’s in mental health counseling online. You can also visit our guide to counselor licensing for an overview.

How long is a master’s in counseling?

Most master’s in counseling programs, especially those designed to lead to licensure, require a minimum of two years of full-time study to complete. Since a master’s program must cover both theory and practice while preparing graduates to work in a position of trust with individuals who are often at-risk, such programs are typically around 60 credit hours in length. It is possible to find shorter programs, but you must be sure to check whether a shorter program will meet licensing requirements in your state.

How much does a master’s in counseling program cost?

As a two-year graduate program, a master’s in counseling can be significantly more expensive than an undergraduate degree as graduate tuition tends to be higher per credit hour. However, many schools offer financial aid based on need and/or academic talent. Schools may also offer graduate assistantships that provide discounted tuition or a stipend in return for research and tutoring work during the school year. As you evaluate programs, be sure to look into the options available to reduce the cost of attendance.

What are the requirements for a master’s in counseling?

While requirements for admission to a master’s in counseling vary widely by program, most programs share similar requirements. These include requiring candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree, typically with a minimum GPA of 3.0 or above. Some programs may require graduate admissions exams such as the GMAT or GRE. Competitive programs may require letters of recommendation, personal statements, or even faculty interviews.

What is the difference between counseling and counseling psychology?

While they are both mental health practices, have an array of specialties, and involve helping clients confront obstacles in order to promote well-being, counseling and counseling psychology have important differences. In counseling, the terminal degree – that is, the highest degree one is generally required to earn – is the master’s. In counseling psychology, as in most realms of psychology, the terminal degree is a doctorate. Another important difference is the scope of practice. Once licensed, counseling psychologists have the same scope of practice as other psychologists; in most states, this grants them the ability to treat and diagnose a wider variety of mental illnesses than their counselor counterparts. Some states may also allow psychologists prescription privileges, which is not seen in counseling without additional qualifications.

1.Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm