How to Become a College Counselor

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A college counselor sitting behind a desk with a student seated beside the desk.

The college experience can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling journeys in a person’s life. As with any adventure, preparing for and adjusting to college life can be uncertain without the proper guidance and advice. College counselors are the pathfinders who help college students take full advantage of the opportunities they’re given. They also alert students to the potential pitfalls that can sidetrack their career goals.

Pursuing a career as a college counselor goes beyond supporting the immediate academic and personal needs of college students to include preparing them for long, successful careers in their field. Navigating  college life requires the steady hand of a professional with the education, training and experience to help ensure a successful collegiate experience.

Being a college counselor entails a broad range of skills, including those making a positive and long-lasting impact on students’ professional and personal lives.

What Is a College Counselor?

It isn’t always clear what a college counselor is and what roles they play in facilitating students’ education and career preparation. These are the dual roles college counselors play:

  • As school counselors, they help students achieve academic success in an education program preparing them for their chosen profession.
  • As career counselors, they help students explore professional options and develop the skills required to succeed.

College Counselor Definition

A college counselor aids students in determining their educational and professional goals. The counselor works with students to determine the education, skills and knowledge they’ll need to qualify for a career in their chosen profession.

  • Counselors support students as they encounter personal or family challenges. When counselors meet with students, they can offer advice on dealing with the stress and challenges of earning a degree or reaching other academic goals.
  • Counselors help students thrive academically, personally and professionally. The transition from high school to college is an emotional time for students and parents. Counselors need to be trained in showing empathy as they respond to a student’s complex emotions.

College Counselor Duties and Responsibilities

A student’s decision about which career to pursue begins by examining strengths and interests, followed by exploring the range of professions best suited to those skills and areas. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the typical duties of school and career counselors:

  • Use aptitude assessments, interviews and other tools to evaluate students’ abilities and interests.
  • Work with students whose academic progress is threatened by social or behavioral problems.
  • Help students develop the study habits, organization and time management skills required to succeed in college.
  • Assist students as they set their academic and professional goals.
  • Teach students job interview and negotiation skills, and prepare them in other ways for entering the working world.
  • Confirm the credentials, certificates and other professional requirements students must meet to qualify for positions in their chosen profession.
Six benefits college students’ gain from counseling.

Making the transition to college life presents students with many challenges, both academic and professional. These are some ways college students benefit from the work of college counselors: view problems from a different perspective, get help coping with anxiety, develop effective interpersonal skills, be presented with opportunities to change, gain confidence in themselves and their abilities, and learn strategies for coping with setbacks and obstacles.

How to Become a College Counselor

Once potential college counselors understand the important role they can play in helping people choose and pursue a career, the next step is to investigate how to become a college counselor. Take a look at the following five steps:

  1. Decide on a counseling specialty, such as academic counseling, admissions or career advising.
  2. Graduate with a bachelor’s degree in behavioral or social science, education, psychology, communication or a related field.
  3. Earn a master’s degree in counseling, psychology, social work or similar area of study. While not required for all college counseling positions, a master’s is the preferred degree for many potential employers and a requirement for some professional certifications.
  4. Receive certification from the National Board for Certified Counselors and a license to work as a professional college counselor in that state.
  5. Gain work experience counseling college and prospective college students.

College Counselor Education Requirements

The BLS notes a master’s degree in school counseling or a similar field is a prerequisite to qualify for a position as a school counselor in nearly all states and the District of Columbia. The degree program must be accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

College Counselor Certifications

After completing the educational requirements for college counselor positions, the next step is to earn certification as a National Certified Counselor or National Certified School Counselor from the National Board of Certified Counselors. To qualify for National Certified School Counselor status, applicants must hold a current National Certified Counselor certification in addition to meeting specific coursework, supervision, work experience and other requirements.

Certification demonstrates to colleagues and potential employers the candidate possesses the knowledge and skills required for the position. After passing the National Counselor Examination, students apply for a state license to work as a college counselor.

The National Board of Certified Counselors explains how board certification differs from state licensure:

  • Board certification is voluntary, while a state license is typically required to practice and identify as a counselor in the state.
  • School counseling is one of three specialty certifications that the National Board of Certified Counselors offers, along with addiction and clinical mental health certification. Licenses that each state’s regulatory board issues include Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor.
  • Board certification demonstrates the candidate has met voluntary standards of the counseling profession, while licensing is a legal definition of who can work as a counselor in the state.

State licensure boards typically call for a master’s degree and a set amount of counseling experience and supervision in addition to passing either the National Counselor Examination or National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination.

College Counselor Work Experience

Graduate degree programs in counseling include clinics, internships and other opportunities for aspiring college counselors to gain hours of hands-on experience working with students to determine their college and career goals. In addition to virtual residencies, the graduate programs offer a practicum and local internships that help students earn the work experience required for NCC certification and state licensure.

  • Most states’ work experience requirements for counselor licensure mirror the National Board for Certified Counselors’ mandate that candidates for National Certified Counselor certification have at least 3,000 hours of postgraduate counseling experience in a minimum 24-month period.
  • Most states also require at least 100 hours of postgraduate counseling supervision over a minimum 24-month period for licensure.

Resources for Becoming a College Counselor

  • The American College Counseling Association’s Resources page features links to webinars for acclimating to college counseling, email lists for college counselors and standards for the profession.
  • The American Counseling Association’s Knowledge Center includes a Competencies section providing links to information covering multicultural career counseling, disability-related counseling and other skills college counselors need.

College Counselor Salary

College counselor salaries are expected to rise as demand for these professionals continues to grow and the need for their services increases. The nonprofit College Advising Corps has found high-income students are 16% more likely to enroll in college than equally qualified low-income students, while 25% of low-income students who score in the top quartile on standardized tests never attend college.

As schools and businesses realize the vital need to encourage all qualified students to pursue postsecondary educational opportunities, the valuable contributions of college counselors toward achieving this goal are increasingly recognized. Higher salaries for college counselors are now seen as an investment in the future.

College Counselor Salary Ranges

The BLS estimates the annual mean salary for educational, guidance, and career counselors and advisors as of May 2020 was $62,320. However, their salaries vary depending on the industry in which they work.

  • Counselors who worked for colleges, universities, and professional schools earned $55,060.
  • Counselors who worked for junior colleges earned $63,440.
A sample of college counselor salaries in 10 states.

The annual mean salary for U.S. college counselors is $55,060, but the salaries college counselors can expect to earn vary considerably by region. Here are sample annual salaries for college counselors working in various states as of May 2020: California ($81,350), New York ($69,760), Hawaii ($62,220), Texas ($59,860), Illinois ($57,920), Vermont ($56,610), New Hampshire ($56,290), Louisiana ($56,050), Florida ($52,770) and Arizona ($52,190).

College Counselor Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the number of jobs for school and career counselors will increase by 11% between 2020 and 2030, which is much faster than the average growth rate of all occupations in the period. Students’ increased need for career advice will drive much of the increase in college counselor positions. More colleges are creating career centers on campus to help students develop professional skills and prepare them for the transition to working in their chosen fields.

Types of College Counselor Jobs

College counselor jobs serve the academic and career needs of students in roles including professional school counselor, guidance counselor, college adviser, college readiness counselor and career/vocational counselor. The roles and duties of these and other college counselor positions overlap, but they tend to focus on assisting students in one of two areas:

  • The student’s academic aspirations, including assessing needs and interest, developing skills, and setting academic and career goals.
  • The student’s career aspirations, which may involve aptitude and achievement tests to determine interests and abilities, as well as guidance in deciding a career to pursue.

Professional School Counselor

Statistics compiled by the BLS indicate of the 322,000 jobs for school and career counselors in 2020, 35% were in junior colleges, colleges, universities or professional schools. These are principal duties of school guidance counselors:

  • Conduct aptitude assessments, interviews and individual sessions to determine students’ interests and abilities.
  • Identify potential obstacles to students’ academic performance, and discuss ways to overcome any social or behavioral problems that may arise.
  • Help students learn organization and time management skills that will help them achieve their academic and career goals.
  • Educate students on such topics as bullying, substance abuse and emotional problems that may affect them or their classmates.

College Adviser/College Readiness Counselor

As more careers require postsecondary education, college readiness becomes increasingly important to students, schools and employers. The American Counseling Association outlines the strategies college counselors must adopt to give students the training and skills they’ll need to achieve their academic and career goals:

  • Promote lifelong academic and career skills in elementary and secondary schools.
  • Focus on developing proficiency in language arts; science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); and social sciences.
  • Take advantage of all forms of learning contributing to workplace preparation.
  • Educate students and parents on the mechanics of academic achievement and career preparation, including admission tests and procedures, career options and sources of financial aid.
  • Prepare to meet the needs of first-generation college students, underprivileged students and students with disabilities.

Career/Vocational Counselor

Career and vocational counselors work with students and others to help them choose a career and devise a plan for acquiring the skills and knowledge the career requires. This is an outline of the types of services career counselors provide:

  • Assess clients’ career values and options based on their skills, aptitude and interests.
  • Use exercises, personality tests and interviews to narrow the career search and devise career strategies.
  • Identify potential obstacles to achieving clients’ chosen career goals and plan ways to overcome foreseeable and unforeseeable circumstances impacting their career plans.
  • Prepare clients for the job application and interviewing process and work with them to develop strategies for identifying and pursuing job opportunities.

Resources for Learning About Types of College Counselor Jobs

  • This Career Counseling Job Profile outlines the job duties of career counselors, typical work environments, and education and training requirements.
  • The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) provides Work-from-Home Resources for college counselors and admissions professionals.

College Counselor Skills

The skills required to succeed as a college counselor encompass all aspects of the college experience: from initial research into potential schools, through the application process, and into financial planning and setting career goals. College counselors tend to be natural-born helpers: They typically focus on assisting, serving and teaching others.

Here are the college counselor skills and qualities that help people thrive in the profession.

Analytical Skills

The assessment tests and other tools college counselors rely on require the ability to collect, process and interpret large amounts of data. This is a list of the types of aptitude and career assessment tests available to college counselors:

Oral and Written Communication Skills

College and career planning entails many of the most important decisions students and their families will make; as a result, a great deal of emotion and potential confusion is brought to the process. Avoiding misunderstandings and being clear is always imperative when college counselors are dealing with students, parents, educators, administrators and others.

The Balance Careers highlights the vital communication skills that help boost a college counselor’s job prospects:

  • Don’t just hear — listen. Active listening involves paying attention to what the person is saying and understanding the message fully and completely.
  • Communicate nonverbally. Body language and other forms of nonverbal communication can be the most effective means of getting your message across and indicating to others their message is received.
  • Be clear and concise. Say only what needs to be said, and use simple, direct language. This applies to all of your oral and written communication.
  • Project a friendly and polite attitude. Always be open and honest to encourage others to be open and honest with you. Adding a little personal message to emails helps people feel appreciated.
  • Demonstrate you’re open to and respectful of people’s opinions. Show empathy by indicating you understand what the person thinks and feels.
  • Know the appropriate medium to use for each type of communication. For example, bad news and negative feedback should be communicated in person and in private, while compliments and good news should be shared broadly.

Mentoring/Compassion

College counselors naturally focus on helping students develop career competencies, build resilience and identify career opportunities. However, as they work to impart their wisdom, counselors may undervalue the power of showing kindness to students struggling to make career choices. Mentoring with kindness and compassion is especially important to counter the negative emotions that often accompany choosing or switching careers.

There is an important role of kindness in career development theory and career counseling. Counselors can use mentoring techniques and compassion to influence students to select financially rewarding careers that will also make them happy.

  • Treating people kindly lets them know they matter. This may influence them to enter a career that allows them to have a positive impact and establish meaningful relationships. The result is a more meaningful professional and personal life.
  • Kindness gives students hope for the future. This is the model for hope-centered career development; the goal is to build optimism and positivity.
  • Kindness in career counseling also goes hand-in-hand with building resilience, particularly for students switching careers after a negative experience in the work world.

Listening and Interpersonal Skills

Active listening is a key component of oral and written communication, but listening in a counseling context is more complex than many people believe. Not only do counselors hear what their clients are saying, they also pay close attention to how they say it:

  • Do they sound relaxed or tense?
  • Are they speaking shyly or confidently, or perhaps overconfidently?
  • Do they welcome your questions and comments? Do they respond openly or defensively?

Developing interpersonal skills in counseling environments starts by seeing the world from the students’ perspective, paying close attention to how they’re responding and showing empathy in understanding the best way to help them.

Public Speaking and Presentation Skills

The need to help others drives people into careers such as college counseling. While much of the help counselors offer is done through one-to-one meetings and communication, many of the duties of the position require making presentations and speaking to small and large groups of people. Public speaking is one of the three practical skills counselors rely on, along with data analysis and multicultural awareness.

  • Learn the most effective ways to use presentation tools such as PowerPoint and Prezi to ensure audiences stay engaged in the content and are receptive to your message.
  • Know the factors involved in leading meetings by preparing attendees beforehand, focusing on the agenda and effectively following up with participants afterward.
  • Prepare for leading or contributing to large meetings by understanding how to use tact to defuse potentially explosive situations and advocate for students and their needs.

Resources for Developing College Counselor Skills

  • The American Counseling Association’s School Counselor Connection provides links to such professional development and training resources as books, webinars and briefs discussing issues facing the counseling profession.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop offers Career Exploration and Guidance for career counselors and educators, including competency models for career exploration, step-by-step guidelines for using the models and worksheets for performing competency gap analyses.

Preparing for a Career as a College Counselor

Counseling is a passion as much as a profession. The key to transforming a passion for helping people into a successful career is to acquire the optimal mix of education, skills and hands-on experience. College counselors offer much-needed academic and career guidance to students and others pursuing their professional goals. Few occupations have a greater impact on the lives of the people they serve, pointing the way for students and smoothing the path leading to career success.

Infographic Sources:

Serene Self, “Benefits of Counseling for College Students”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, “Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors”