How to Become a Counselor

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Counselor smiling while talking with a couple.

Professional counselors play an important role in society. Whether providing counseling services in a high school or through private practice, counselors use their professional skills and understanding of human development to help all different kinds of individuals and families. The scope of the profession is broad, with different types of counseling addressing issues as diverse as mental health and personal life to career planning.

Have you always found it easy to talk to others? Or been the friend or family member others seek out for an empathetic ear and sage advice? A career in counseling could provide you with a professional outlet for your personal passions and talents for helping others. And with a wide number of specializations — whether marriage and family therapist or rehabilitation counselor — there’s likely a counseling job and setting that is exactly right for your overall goals and interests.

However, the question that immediately comes to mind may be “How do I become a counselor?” Like any other career pathway, there are certain education qualifications and skills that are necessary. Also, prospective counselors must be aware of licensing requirements, counseling ethics and different state laws. One of the most important steps to becoming a professional counselor is earning a Master of Arts in Counseling, as a graduate degree is generally needed for licensure. Read on for more information about the counselor role, choosing a master’s program and getting licensed.

Counselors at a glance

Before diving into the process of how to become a counselor, let’s take a closer look at the counseling profession and the many possible jobs available. According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), counseling is a “professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education and career goals.” This was the consensus definition achieved between 31 separate counseling organizations ahead of 2020.

Counselor’s help clients identify goals or areas to improve on in their personal lives, as well as confront problems, sources of trauma or behaviors they want to change. The range of responsibilities a professional counselor might encounter on the job really depends on the type of counselor they become. A professional school counselor may have a very different experience than a crisis response counselor would. However, at the root of any career in counseling is the motivation to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Some of the most common types of counseling, according to the ACA, include:

  • Individual counseling: This type of counseling has many forms but overall may be used by an individual to help deal with personal topics like depression, anxiety, anger, social or communicative skills, relationship challenges or professional/career difficulties.
  • Group counseling: While group counseling sessions may broach some of the same topics as individual counseling — like personal emotions, behaviors, goals or mental health — group dynamics are much different. Thus, group counseling can serve different purposes, like in helping others find peers who experience the same challenges, or who have successfully implemented coping or self-management solutions. Some groups may meet to talk about self-esteem, domestic violence and recovery from substance abuse or traumas.
  • School counseling: School counselors are needed in grades K-12, and can also be employed by universities. Counselors play a crucial role in educational services by helping students develop interpersonal skills, plan academic and career goals, and help students with developmental disabilities achieve their fullest potential.
  • Couples counseling: Romantic relationships encounter their fair share of trials or obstacles, some more severe than others. Whether struggling with a feeling of stagnation and lack of communication and intimacy or aggressive fights, couples counseling can be used to help clear the air, resolve conflict and establish expectations and goals.
  • Family counseling: Similar to couples counseling, family counseling addresses the sometimes tumultuous experiences of close relationships. Family counseling can actually entail a mix of individual and group counseling, as families deal with major issues like moving to a different area, communication styles, new members (like step relations), closeness or structure (rules and roles).

While these might represent some of the core practice areas, many other careers in counseling exist. Substance abuse and mental health counseling are other common types of counseling, as are crisis counseling or industrial/organizational counseling, where counselors consult with or work for corporations, businesses, nonprofits and other agencies.

Where do professional counselors work?

Professional counselors have diverse client populations, and as such can often find employment opportunities in several different settings. The most common employment settings for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors are:

  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers
  • Social and human service agencies
  • State, local, VA and private hospitals
  • Community clinics
  • Residential mental health and substance abuse facilities
  • Government
  • Private businesses
  • Health care organizations
  • Self-employment (private practice)

For school counselors, the most common venues for employment are:

  • State, local and private elementary and secondary schools
  • Junior colleges, colleges, universities and professional schools
  • Health care and social assistance
  • Other state, local and private educational services

The projected job growth for all types of counselors is largely positive, which may encourage some thinking about pursuing the profession to start their career journey. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

  • Substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselor jobs are expected to grow 22% between 2018 and 2028
  • Marriage and family therapist jobs (including for counselors) are also expected to grow 22%
  • School and career counselor jobs are expected to grow 8%

The 2018 annual median salary for counselors was around $45,000, according to the BLS, but professionals may have increased opportunity to earn depending on where they work and how much experience or professional recognition they have. For instance, BLS data indicates elementary and secondary school counselors can earn more than $63,000, while a marriage and family counselor in the employ of state government (excluding education and hospitals) can earn more than $69,000.

How to become a counselor

While there are multiple years and steps involved in becoming a professional counselor, it is generally a straightforward path: counselors must earn a graduate degree, pass a national certification exam and obtain the necessary state licensure.

Timelines will vary based on your chosen counseling specialty and the degrees you opt to pursue, as well as the state in which you intend to work. Roughly, however, it can take six years to become a counselor. Let’s look what actions are involved in greater detail

Degrees to earn

Completing an undergraduate education and earning a bachelor’s degree is the first step for many would-be professional counselors. Typically, bachelor’s programs will introduce core concepts and theories of professional counseling, including:

  • Human development
  • Counseling ethics
  • Basic interventions
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Human services and social policy
  • Behavior and environment

A capstone project, practicum, internship or other experiential learning element may be included, but isn’t always necessary.

One thing to note about both baccalaureate and graduate degrees for counseling is that they differ from school to school. Some may award a Bachelor of Arts in Counseling or a Bachelor of Science in Counseling Studies. Other schools may not offer counseling programs outright, but incorporate curricula through a degree in a related field like psychology or social work. Non-social science degrees may also be acceptable for some masters in counseling programs.

The traditional bachelor’s degree often takes four years to complete, although students may finish early if they enter with enough credits or complete more than the average number of credits per semester. These programs are usually offered in on-campus and online formats. On-campus programs require in-person attendance and progress through coursework at a predetermined pace with assignments due on exact dates. In the online model, there is more leeway for counseling students to complete their work. Asynchronous online programs empower students to get their work done when personal and professional engagements allow. However, synchronous online programs, while extending the ability to complete work from a personal device, are more like on-campus formats in that they move forward at a dictated pace.

A bachelor’s degree is important because it’s generally needed to enter a graduate program, and a master’s degree is essential to becoming a counselor. Why? Because nearly every state plus the District of Columbia requires a master’s degree for licensure.

Master’s programs build on the fundamentals of undergrad programs by refining core skills (e.g. empathy, ethics and professional coordination) and expanding students’ knowledge and expertise in other areas of study, like:

  • Principles of group counseling: As mentioned, group counseling and individual counseling environments are very different. Counselors need different facilitation skills and methods for managing group interactions.
  • Assessment in counseling: This is the discipline of developing an understanding of the client on several levels. Methods of data gathering and analysis, as well as case study approaches, are often taught in such courses.
  • Loss and grief counseling: Everyone experiences and expresses grief in different ways. Counselors need to be familiar with related factors like cultural impacts, blockers and interventions.
  • Counseling diverse populations: Professional counselors, regardless of their specialty, are likely to work with diverse client populations. High school counselors may, for instance, work with adolescents of different ages, ethnic backgrounds and academic capacities — and need to be able to effectively serve each client’s needs.

In addition to core coursework on human development, behaviors and counseling interventions, master’s programs usually have curricula focused on a particular specialty. Many graduate degrees are offered on a particular career track. Bradley, for example, has two MAC programs:

  • The Clinical Mental Health Counseling (CMHC) track that prepares students for careers as a certified mental health counselor, rehabilitation counselor, grief counselor, substance abuse counselor or crisis counselor. Focused coursework includes “Counseling for the Dynamics of Aging” and “Diagnosis and Treatment of Mental Disorders”
  • The Professional School Counseling (PSC) track prepares students for careers in counseling from pre-kindergarten to college, such as a guidance counselor, college advisor or vocational counselor. Specialty courses include “Special Education Law.”

Experiential learning is a big part of master’s programs. At Bradley, internships, practicums and campus-based residencies are included in the curricula. Licensure as a professional counselor is dependent on logging thousands of hours of clinical practice. Still, earning an online master’s in counseling from Bradley is possible. Aside from residencies, students can complete the 60 credits they need online and at local sites with approved supervisors. It can take as few as two years to complete either the MAC-CMHC or the MAC-PSC.

A master’s degree is the standard for state licensure, but if students want to pursue the highest level of practical skill and theoretical knowledge, a doctorate is a possibility. Graduate programs in counseling, like undergraduate education programs, can confer differing degrees. Some of the doctoral degrees achievable include:

  • Ph.D. in Counselor Education
  • Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology
  • Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) in Counseling Psychology
  • Ed.D. (Doctor of Education) in Counseling Psychology
  • Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy

These programs build on the skills and knowledge gained through master’s studies, and may explore in greater depth research methodology, proposal writing, advanced counseling theory or brain-based interventions. Doctoral degrees are often used to enter academia or education. Because of their intensive nature, which culminates in the development and defense of a dissertation, doctoral programs may take upward of five years to complete.

Any graduate program that you consider should be accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the main independent body for certifying that education programs adhere to standards for learning outcomes, curricula and experience.

Passing the national certification exam

Once you’ve completed the necessary education, the next step is taking the National Counselor Examination (NCE), which is maintained and administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Many states require the NCE for licensure.

Any CACREP-accredited graduate program is designed to prepare graduates to sit for the exam, which both Bradley MAC tracks do.

Passing the NCE is required to become an NBCC-recognized National Certified Counselor (NCC) or National Certified School Counselor (NCSC). To become a National Certified School Counselor you must also have the equivalent of two academic years in a school counselor position or 3,000 hours over a period of at least 20 months.

The test itself is a 200-item multiple-choice test that is “designed to assess knowledge, skills and abilities determined to be important for providing effective counseling services.” The exam looks different for each administration, but all questions are thoroughly crafted and field-tested. The NCE is also periodically updated and revised; sitting for the exam costs $275.

The subject matter of the NCE tests counselors in these general areas:

  1. Fundamental counseling issues: The theory and application of counseling clients with various conditions — like neurocognitive, personality, anxiety or depressive disorders, among others — that may be the focus of clinical attention.
  2. Counseling process: Or how to assess a client’s course of development, or a counselor’s own professional appropriateness to work with a specific client. This includes conducting diagnostic interviews, distance counseling and school/community outreach.
  3. Diagnosis and assessment: The capacity to gauge clients’ educational preparation and potential for harm to self and/or others, which entails conducting biopsychosocial interviews, initial assessments and custody evaluations.
  4. Professional practice: How well a counselor advocates for client needs and the counseling profession by applying career counseling interventions, current counseling and multicultural counseling models.
  5. Professional development, supervision and consultation: The quality, honesty and professionalism in communication or consultation with credentialing boards, the justice system, peers or other professionals, prescribers of medications and professional organizations.

Some states may also require that students take the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE), which is another NBCC examination. Or, they may require other examinations as the basis of counselor specialization. For example, some states may accept the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRCE) administered by the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC), or the Examination of Clinical Counselor Practice administered by NBCC.

Just remember that ongoing and active certification as a counselor is contingent on the completion of continuing education. This often includes both supervised clinical hours and coursework.

Getting state licensure

The final step in becoming a professional counselor is securing state licensure and any other credentials required by your state.

According to the ACA, there are many types of counseling licensures that can be obtained, including:

  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor of Mental Health (LPCC)
  • Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC)
  • Licensed Mental Health Practitioner (LMHP)

It’s important to research your state’s laws regulating the licensure. Some states may require that you have completed specific coursework, or require more clinical hours than other states. If you move, research whether the state has a reciprocity agreement, which might honor your previous state credentialing.

Earn your master’s degree from Bradley

Many people have taken the path to becoming a professional counselor — and choosing the right graduate program is crucial to your career. Not only should you look for a program that is accredited and has a robust curriculum, but you also need to find a degree program that offers a track for the specialty you want and can be completed even if you’re still working.

The online master’s programs at Bradley can allow students to get the most out of their education by letting them learn at their own pace, while still enabling them to graduate within the expected timeline. Not only will you gain advanced skills and knowledge, but you will also accrue key real-life experience needed for certification and licensure as a clinical mental health counselor or professional school counselor.

Want to learn more about how to become a counselor, or r looking for more information on the online Bradley MAC programs? Contact an enrollment advisor today.

Recommended reading:

What is an online Master of Arts in Counseling program?

Marriage and Family Counseling or Mental Health Counseling? A Guide


American Counseling Association

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics



National Board for Certified Counselors