how to become a school counselor in USA

how to become a school counselor in USA

The role of a school counselor is pivotal in the educational and emotional development of students.

Serving as guides in academic achievements, personal growth, and social skills, school counselors in the USA are essential components of the educational system.

The journey to becoming a school counselor involves a structured path, blending educational qualifications with practical experience.

From obtaining the right degrees to fulfilling state-specific requirements, the process is designed to ensure that counselors are equipped to address the multifaceted challenges that students face.

This article outlines the key steps involved in becoming a school counselor in the USA.

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree serves as the foundational step for those aspiring to be school counselors.

While many master’s programs in school counseling do not mandate a specific undergraduate major, possessing a degree in a related field can offer valuable groundwork.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown:

  1. Choice of Major:
    • The bachelor’s degree does not have to be specifically in counseling or psychology. However, majors such as psychology, education, social work, or human services can provide pertinent knowledge and skills that will be beneficial later during master’s coursework and practice.
  2. Coursework:
    • Relevant courses during undergraduate studies might include child development, psychology, education, and introductory counseling. These courses not only provide foundational knowledge but can also clarify a student’s interest and commitment to the counseling profession.
  3. Gaining Relevant Experience:
    • As an undergraduate, seeking out opportunities to work or volunteer in settings that cater to children and adolescents can be advantageous. This might include roles in after-school programs, summer camps, tutoring centers, or mentoring programs. Such experiences provide insight into the challenges and rewards of working with students, offering a practical understanding of their needs and concerns.
  4. Networking:
    • University years also offer a chance to network with professionals in the field. Joining student chapters of professional counseling associations, attending workshops, or seeking internships can provide connections and open doors for future opportunities.
  5. Preparation for Graduate Studies:
    • As the path to becoming a school counselor typically requires a master’s degree, the undergraduate years are also a time to prepare for future graduate studies. This involves maintaining a good academic record, seeking recommendation letters, and researching potential graduate programs that align with one’s career goals.

Earn a Master’s Degree

Earning a master’s degree in school counseling or a closely related field is a critical milestone for aspiring school counselors.

This advanced degree deepens one’s understanding of the field and equips candidates with the specialized knowledge and skills required to guide students effectively.

Here’s a detailed look at this stage:

Selecting a Program:

  • It’s essential to choose a master’s program that is accredited by organizations such as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Accreditation ensures that the program meets established professional and educational standards.


  • Master’s programs in school counseling typically cover foundational topics including human development, counseling theories and techniques, educational psychology, multicultural counseling, ethics in counseling, group counseling, career development, and assessment methods.

Practical Training:

  • In addition to classroom instruction, these programs emphasize hands-on training. This is often achieved through supervised internships or practicums, where aspiring counselors gain real-world experience by working directly with students in school settings under the mentorship of licensed school counselors.

Research & Thesis:

  • Some master’s programs may require students to complete a research project or thesis. This experience can provide a deeper understanding of specific topics within school counseling and contribute to the broader academic and professional dialogue.


  • While the length of master’s programs can vary, many full-time programs are designed to be completed in two to three years. Part-time options may also be available for those balancing other commitments.


  • Some programs offer specializations or concentrations, allowing students to dive deeper into specific areas such as college readiness counseling, trauma-informed counseling, or counseling for specific populations (e.g., special education students).

Preparation for Licensure:

  • Most master’s programs are structured to ensure graduates meet the educational requirements for state certification or licensure. However, it’s crucial for students to be proactive and ensure they are meeting all necessary state-specific criteria.

Complete Required Internships or Practicum Hours

Hands-on experience is essential in shaping competent school counselors.

Completing required internships or practicums provides aspiring counselors the opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world situations and hone their skills under supervision.

Here’s a breakdown of this step:


  • Internships and practicums allow students to immerse themselves in a school setting, providing a real-world context to understand students’ challenges, the educational environment, and the broader role of a counselor.


  • These experiences are typically supervised by licensed or experienced school counselors, ensuring that students receive constructive feedback and guidance. This mentorship is invaluable in refining one’s counseling techniques and understanding best practices.

Duration and Hours:

  • The number of required hours can vary based on the specific master’s program and state licensing requirements. Typically, students might need to complete anywhere from a few hundred to over a thousand hours of combined practicum and internship experience.

Types of Activities:

  • During their internships or practicums, students will engage in a range of activities, such as one-on-one student counseling, group counseling, conducting assessments, participating in meetings with parents and teachers, and developing and implementing school-wide programs or initiatives.

Diverse Settings:

  • Gaining experience across different educational levels (elementary, middle, high school) or diverse settings (urban vs. suburban, public vs. private) can be beneficial, offering a comprehensive understanding of the various challenges and nuances across different environments.

Reflection & Growth:

  • Beyond the hands-on work, these experiences are an opportunity for introspection. Reflecting on each interaction helps in understanding one’s strengths and areas for improvement. Many programs also require students to maintain journals or participate in group reflections to process their experiences and learn collaboratively.


  • Internships and practicums can also serve as networking opportunities. Building relationships with professionals in the field can lead to potential job opportunities upon graduation or offer avenues for collaboration in the future.

Obtain State Certification or Licensure

State certification or licensure serves as an official endorsement, indicating that an individual has met the necessary educational, experiential, and exam-based criteria to work as a school counselor within a specific jurisdiction.

Here’s a breakdown:

State-Specific Requirements:

  • Each state in the USA has its own set of standards and processes for certification or licensure. While there are similarities, it’s essential to be familiar with the specific requirements of the state in which you intend to practice.

Educational Prerequisites:

  • Almost all states require candidates to have a master’s degree in school counseling or a related field from an accredited institution. Some states may have additional coursework requirements.

Experience Requirements:

  • Many states stipulate a certain number of supervised internship or practicum hours, often mirroring or exceeding the requirements set by master’s programs. This ensures that candidates have adequate hands-on experience before practicing independently.


  • Most states require candidates to pass a comprehensive examination to demonstrate their knowledge in the field. Common exams include the Praxis School Counseling examination and the National Counselor Examination (NCE).

Background Check:

  • Given the nature of the work with children and adolescents, most states will require applicants to undergo a thorough background check to ensure the safety and well-being of students.

Application Process:

  • Once all requirements are met, candidates typically submit an application to the state’s licensing or educational board, along with any necessary documentation and fees.

Maintaining Licensure:

  • Once obtained, licensure or certification isn’t permanent. Professionals often need to renew their credentials every few years. Renewal may involve completing continuing education credits, undergoing additional background checks, or meeting other state-specified criteria.


  • Some states have reciprocity agreements, allowing counselors licensed in one state to obtain licensure in another without going through the entire certification process again. However, this varies, and it’s essential to verify reciprocity rules if considering a move or practicing across state lines.

Pass a Background Check

Ensuring the safety and well-being of students is paramount in any educational setting.

Given the nature of their role, school counselors often work closely with students, sometimes in one-on-one settings.

The background check is a mechanism to ensure that those entering the profession have a history consistent with the high trust placed in them. Here’s what this entails:


  • The primary objective of a background check is to identify any criminal history, ensuring that individuals with past behaviors that could pose a risk to students are not placed in a position of trust and responsibility.


  • The background check typically reviews criminal records at both the state and federal levels. This can include a check of the FBI’s national database and any relevant state databases.
  • It might also cover checks against child abuse and neglect databases, sexual offender registries, and other pertinent records.


  • Typically, the applicant will need to provide fingerprints, which are then used to check against various databases.
  • Some states or districts may use third-party agencies to conduct these checks, while others might have their internal process.

Potential Challenges:

  • If a background check reveals a criminal history, it does not necessarily mean automatic disqualification. Depending on the nature and recency of the offense, the licensing board or hiring institution will make a decision. However, serious offenses, especially those involving minors, will likely pose significant barriers to entering the profession.


  • While the initial background check is conducted when applying for certification or licensure, periodic checks might be required, especially when changing jobs or districts or upon license renewal. This ensures continued safety and trustworthiness throughout a counselor’s career.


  • The results of background checks are treated with a high degree of confidentiality. Only relevant personnel involved in the hiring or licensing process will typically have access to this information.


  • There’s often a fee associated with conducting a background check, which the applicant might need to cover. The cost can vary based on the depth of the check and the agency conducting it.

Begin Working as a School Counselor

Entering the professional realm as a school counselor signifies the culmination of years of academic preparation, practical training, and meeting licensure criteria.

Here’s a detailed examination of this phase:

Job Search:

  • As with any profession, starting your career as a school counselor often begins with a job search. This might involve researching school districts, attending job fairs, networking, and submitting applications to multiple schools or districts.

Interview Process:

  • The hiring process typically includes interviews where candidates might discuss their philosophy of counseling, strategies for handling specific scenarios, and experiences from their internships or practicums. Some schools might also require a practical demonstration, such as conducting a mock counseling session.

Onboarding & Orientation:

  • Upon receiving a job offer and accepting it, new school counselors typically undergo an orientation process. This helps them familiarize themselves with the school’s policies, procedures, and culture, as well as meeting fellow staff members.

Roles & Responsibilities:

  • Once on the job, school counselors wear multiple hats. They provide individual and group counseling, address academic and career planning, handle crisis intervention, collaborate with teachers and parents, and often develop and implement school-wide programs promoting mental health and well-being.

Continued Supervision & Mentorship:

  • Some states or school districts might require new counselors to undergo a period of supervised practice, even after obtaining their full licensure. This can provide additional support and guidance during the initial stages of their career.

Professional Development:

  • The learning doesn’t stop once the job begins. Attending workshops, conferences, and seminars can help school counselors stay updated with the latest research, strategies, and tools in their field.


  • Building relationships with other educators and counselors, both within and outside one’s school or district, can be beneficial. This network can offer support, share best practices, and provide opportunities for collaboration.

Feedback & Reflection:

  • Regularly seeking feedback from peers, supervisors, and even students can help counselors continually refine their approach. Self-reflection is also an integral part of the profession, allowing counselors to introspect on their practices and grow in their roles.


  • With experience, school counselors might take on leadership roles, such as department heads or lead counselors. Some also branch into specialized areas, like college counseling, or move into administrative roles within education.

Engage in Continuing Education

To ensure that school counselors remain updated with the latest advancements, techniques, and best practices in their field, continuing education is often mandated and undeniably beneficial.

Here’s a more detailed look at this aspect:


  • The primary objective of continuing education is to ensure that professionals stay informed about the latest research, methodologies, and developments in the realm of counseling and education. This ensures they offer the highest quality support to students and other stakeholders.

State Requirements:

  • Many states mandate a specific number of continuing education hours or units for the renewal of counseling licensure or certification. These requirements ensure a consistent standard of practice across the profession.

Types of Continuing Education:

  • Workshops & Seminars: Often organized by professional associations, universities, or specialized training institutions, these offer insights into specific topics or hands-on skills training.
  • Conferences: National or regional conferences provide opportunities to hear from leading experts, engage in discussions, and network with peers.
  • Online Courses: With the rise of digital platforms, many counselors opt for online courses that allow flexibility while still delivering quality content.
  • Graduate Courses: Some professionals choose to take additional graduate-level courses or even pursue further degrees, such as a doctoral program.

Topics Covered:

  • Continuing education might cover a broad range of topics, from new counseling techniques and technological tools to understanding emerging issues affecting students (e.g., cyberbullying, mental health trends, diversity and inclusion practices).

Documenting & Reporting:

  • It’s essential to keep thorough records of all completed continuing education activities, as these might be required when renewing licensure or certification.

Benefits Beyond Licensing:

  • While fulfilling state requirements is one motivation, the broader benefit of continuing education is professional growth. It allows counselors to expand their toolkit, address new challenges more effectively, and contribute more significantly to their school communities.

Professional Associations:

  • Organizations such as the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) often provide resources, calendars, and opportunities for continuing education. Membership in such associations can also lead to discounts or exclusive access to certain programs.

Peer Learning:

  • Beyond formal programs, engaging in discussions, study groups, or collaborative projects with peers can also be a valuable form of continuing education. Sharing experiences and insights from diverse school settings enriches everyone involved.

Join Professional Organizations

Professional organizations serve as hubs for individuals within specific fields, offering a plethora of benefits and support mechanisms.

For school counselors, these organizations can be instrumental in their professional growth and effectiveness. Here’s what this entails:

Membership Benefits:

  • Resources: Many professional organizations provide a wealth of materials, such as publications, research articles, best practice guidelines, and toolkits tailored for school counselors.
  • Training & Workshops: Members often have access to exclusive or discounted training sessions, webinars, and workshops, which can count towards continuing education requirements.
  • Conferences: Annual or regional conferences are a hallmark of many organizations, presenting opportunities to learn from industry leaders and experts.

Networking Opportunities:

  • Being part of a professional organization facilitates connections with peers, mentors, and industry experts. This network can provide support, collaboration opportunities, and potentially lead to job prospects or advancements.


  • Many professional organizations actively advocate for the interests of their members, lobbying for policies, funding, or legislation that supports the role of school counselors and the broader educational community.

Staying Updated:

  • Through newsletters, journals, and digital platforms, these organizations ensure that members are informed about the latest trends, challenges, and developments in the world of school counseling.

Recognition & Awards:

  • Many organizations recognize outstanding contributions to the field, offering awards or scholarships to those who excel in their roles or demonstrate innovation.

Communities & Special Interest Groups:

  • Larger organizations often have sub-groups or forums dedicated to specific interests or areas within school counseling. This can help members find niche communities or resources tailored to their particular focus.

Code of Ethics & Standards:

  • Professional organizations often develop and uphold a code of ethics and professional standards. Adhering to these guidelines ensures the integrity and quality of service in the field.

Mentorship Programs:

  • New or aspiring school counselors can benefit from mentorship programs that many organizations offer, connecting them with experienced professionals for guidance and support.

Popular Organizations:

  • One of the most prominent organizations for school counselors in the U.S. is the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). Joining such national bodies, or even state-level or regional organizations, can provide localized benefits and support.

Pursue Further Specializations or Certifications

Expanding one’s expertise through additional specializations or certifications can lead to a deeper impact in particular areas of school counseling and potentially open up new career opportunities.

Here’s an exploration of this step:

Areas of Specialization:

  • College & Career Counseling: Helping students navigate post-secondary education choices and potential career paths.
  • Mental Health Interventions: Focusing on more in-depth therapeutic techniques for students with pronounced mental health challenges.
  • Crisis Intervention: Equipping oneself with tools and strategies to handle emergency situations or severe personal crises among students.
  • Special Education: Tailoring counseling techniques for students with disabilities or special needs.
  • Substance Abuse Counseling: Addressing issues related to drug and alcohol misuse among students.

Certification Programs:

  • Various bodies and institutions offer certification programs that validate expertise in specific areas. These might include intensive coursework, practical experience, and often, examinations.

Benefits of Specialization:

  • Increased Expertise: Specializations allow for deeper knowledge and more refined skills in specific areas, leading to more effective interventions.
  • Career Opportunities: Some roles or positions might prefer or require counselors with certain specializations.
  • Professional Recognition: Achieving additional certifications can be a testament to one’s commitment and expertise in the field.

Ongoing Learning:

  • As with the broader field of school counseling, areas of specialization also evolve. Continual learning and staying updated with the latest research and techniques is crucial.


  • Specialized counselors can collaborate more effectively with other specialists, educators, or external agencies. For instance, a counselor specialized in substance abuse might work closely with rehabilitation centers or community health programs.


  • Pursuing further specializations often means joining niche communities or sub-groups within professional organizations. This can lead to meaningful connections with professionals who share similar interests.


  • While specialization can offer many benefits, it’s also essential to balance one’s niche expertise with the broader skills and knowledge essential for school counseling. The goal is to enhance, not limit, one’s ability to address the diverse needs of students.


The journey to becoming a school counselor in the USA is both structured and multifaceted, designed to ensure professionals are well-equipped to support students in their academic, social, and emotional development.

Starting with foundational academic pursuits, such as obtaining a bachelor’s and master’s degree, aspirants then immerse themselves in practical experiences through internships and practicums.

Obtaining state licensure solidifies their readiness, while passing rigorous background checks emphasizes the trust placed in them.

Once they embark on their professional journey, school counselors are encouraged to engage continuously in their education, stay connected through professional organizations, and possibly pursue further specializations, ensuring their skills and knowledge remain cutting-edge.

The entire pathway underscores the importance of the role these counselors play in the educational landscape, emphasizing rigorous preparation, continual growth, and a deep commitment to enhancing students’ lives.

Whether guiding academic decisions, addressing personal challenges, or shaping broader school policies, school counselors stand as pivotal figures in the education ecosystem, with a preparation process befitting their significant role.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do I need a specific undergraduate degree to pursue a master’s in school counseling?

While most master’s programs in school counseling don’t require a specific undergraduate major, having a degree in psychology, education, social work, or a related field can provide a useful foundation. However, all relevant coursework and experiences will be beneficial when applying.

How long does it typically take to become a fully licensed school counselor?

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, a master’s program in school counseling usually takes two to three years to complete. Additional time may be required for fulfilling internship or practicum hours and preparing for and passing any required state examinations.

Are the licensure requirements the same across all states in the USA?

No, licensure requirements vary by state. While there are common elements, such as needing a master’s degree and completing supervised experience, specific criteria like examination types or required hours might differ. Always check with your state’s department of education or licensing board for precise details.

Why is a background check necessary for school counselors?

Given the nature of their work with children and adolescents, school counselors need to pass a background check to ensure the safety and well-being of students. The check identifies any criminal history, ensuring individuals with potential risks aren’t placed in positions of trust.

What benefits do professional organizations offer for school counselors?

Professional organizations, like the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), offer resources, training, networking opportunities, advocacy, and access to research. Membership can provide support, professional development, and opportunities to stay updated with industry trends.

Can school counselors specialize in areas like substance abuse or mental health?

Yes, school counselors can pursue further certifications or training to specialize in areas like substance abuse, mental health, crisis intervention, or special education, among others. Specializations allow counselors to address specific challenges more effectively.

Do school counselors only deal with academic issues?

No, school counselors address a comprehensive range of student needs, including academic, emotional, social, and career development. They play a pivotal role in helping students navigate challenges, make informed decisions, and thrive in their educational journey.

Meet Ankit Kumar holding a master's degree in Museology, Ankit Kumar brings a profound understanding of the cultural and historical significance of museums. With a passion for research and a keen interest in writing, they have not only excelled in guiding individuals in their career paths but also have a flair for creating insightful and engaging blogs on various aspects of museology as well as different professions.

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