How to Become a High School Counselor

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High school counselor with student.


High school is a pivotal time in a young adult’s life. This is often the stage where they start to learn more about themselves as individuals and their own ambitions for the future. In doing so, they may benefit from having a knowledgeable professional school counselor to help them sort through emotions, manage mental health, set personal goals and take the next steps toward higher education.

The assistance of a high school counselor can be invaluable for adolescents and late teens who must balance the daily routine of school with extracurricular activities, or navigate the sometimes-difficult social dynamics of high school hallways — all while preparing for the next step in life. As such, high school counselors are relied upon to provide guidance not just in educational pursuits, but also in life and mental health. Some may also specialize in working with gifted students, or those who are developmentally challenged or have behavioral disorders like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

A career as a high school counselor can be personally and professionally rewarding, but gaining the skills, education and certification needed is a multistep process. While the first step is getting a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree is required for employment as a high school counselor in many states. Finding the right degree program will help you gain advanced skills and knowledge, as well as prepare for licensure. Here’s more information on how to become a high school counselor and find a Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) program.

High school counselor working with a student.Who are professional school counselors?

School counselors are found throughout the education system and provide counseling and academic/career guidance services. Not only that, but they also advocate for students, help connect students with resources, and collaborate with teachers and other school staff. School counselors are typically employed by both public and private schools in K-12 settings, encompassing elementary school, middle school and high school. They may also find work in postsecondary education, state or local government, nonprofit organizations or health care.

As the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) notes, school counselors at a minimum must have a master’s degree in school counseling. Additionally, they must meet licensing standards for the state in which they teach, fulfill continuing education requirements and uphold ASCA ethics.

School counselors provide services that address the needs of students at an individual as well as class level. The variety in their responsibilities often means they hold individual or group sessions on the same day they advise children on academic success. Some of the core duties of the school counselors, as outlined by ASCA, include:

  • Helping students manage their emotions or work on interpersonal skills
  • Planning for higher education or the next step in life (e.g. military service or entering the workforce)
  • Working with students individually to plan and establish academic goals
  • Providing short-term counseling when urgently needed and making referrals for long-term counseling
  • Collaborating not only with teachers and other faculty, but also students, families and the larger community
  • Advocating for students to administration or public agencies

It is important to note that school counselors do not provide long-term counseling in school settings.

Besides providing direct services to students, counselors also have miscellaneous administrative duties. And increasingly, big data is becoming part of the daily lives of school counselors. Collecting and analyzing data can help counselors identify challenges, opportunities for interventions or students who need help.

What does a high school counselor do?

After defining the role of school counselor, it becomes easier to imagine exactly what a high school counselor does. In general, their jobs include the same provision of direct student services through counseling and academic guidance, as well as working with interdepartmental colleagues. A focus for many is helping students adapt or respond to social pressures, which tend to become more pronounced in high school. Peer influence can be an especially powerful force when teenagers are looking to find their place in the world. Substance use and abuse is a topic high school counselors will encounter, and they can help students by equipping them with prevention strategies. Social pressures may manifest in other ways, however, like bullying or forming cliques. Helping students work through the social maze that is high school is a core responsibility of the school counselor.

According to ASCA, a high school counselor is “uniquely trained in child and adolescent development, learning strategies, self-management and social skills who understands and promotes success for today’s diverse students.”

High school counselors should be prepared on any given day to:

  • Teach students study habits and help them apply those strategies in advance of a critical test
  • Provide counseling to a student, or group of them, whose behavioral issues are impacting their academic achievement
  • Attend a parent-teacher organization meeting to listen to what the community is saying
  • Work with a student to identify goals for after high school, both career and personal
  • Counsel students who have had problems with bullying (both in person or online) and try to mediate between the involved parties, or take necessary action
  • Assess a student’s abilities, interests and ambitions to inform a life or academic plan
  • Assess the performance of the school in educating its students, noting where improvements can be made, like in absenteeism
  • Educate students on drug and alcohol awareness, as well as teachers so they can spot potential problems

High school counselors hold a central place in the school environment, facilitating student progress and achievement. To that end, they may encounter additional or specialized responsibilities in the role. For instance, some counselors may be highly involved with special education for developmentally challenged students or programs for gifted students. They may run workshops to raise awareness of mental health issues or crisis counseling sessions, or take on administrative leadership roles that allow them to impact policy and advocate for students’ needs at a higher level.

What skills and education are needed?

Given the variety in their job responsibilities, high school counselors are expected to be proficient in a number of counseling competencies. Some of the basic subjects that high school counselors need to be well-versed in include:

  • Human growth and development
  • Theories of counseling practice
  • Individual counseling and group counseling
  • Social and cultural foundations of diverse student populations
  • Assessment and career and life planning
  • Research methodology and program evaluation
  • Professional orientation

A master’s degree is the primary path to gaining these skills and knowledge. Completing advanced courses on these topics is a requirement for employment as a high school teacher anywhere in the U.S. A wide majority of states explicitly require that applicants possess a master’s degree in counseling to work in high schools. While the requirements vary from state to state, counselors must also have completed a practicum, internship or state-approved program, or combination of them. Some states may also require that counselors possess a teaching certificate, pass a state-administered examination or undergo suicide prevention and CPR training. It will also be important to research whether guidance counselor is a separate role from high school counselor, as it is in some states. This will entail meeting separate certification and education requirements.

The steps to becoming a high school counselor, roughly, are:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in counseling, psychology or a related field.
  2. Earn a master’s degree in counseling, psychology or a related field from a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP); or complete advanced courses equivalent to a master’s education
  3. Satisfy experience requirements for number of clock hours with school-aged children, professional internships or supervised practicums (whether as part of a master’s program or otherwise)
  4. Complete any programs or certification steps as required by the state
  5. Renew your certification and pursue continuing professional education

How can earning a master’s degree help?

There’s no real argument over whether a master’s degree is useful in becoming a high school counselor. A graduate degree is required to work in schools, but getting the most of your education  depends on finding the program, one thst can impart the advanced skills and knowledge to address the needs of students and scholastic institutions. Completing a master’s program will include internship and practicum opportunities, which prepare you for certification.

At Bradley, counseling students can encounter all this through our MAC program with a focus on professional school counseling. The curriculum covers essential subject matter and advanced topics like neurocounseling, and also includes a pre-practicum in counseling, a practicum, two internships and a thesis. Altogether, the content of the program is designed to equip students with advanced competency, build their experience and clock hours, and help them prepare for certification.

Some of the courses in the Bradley online MAC program that can help shape high school counseling expertise are:

  • Human Growth and Development: Exploring cognitive and experiential learning in human growth and development. Becoming familiar with the developmental patterns of humans through birth, infancy, early childhood, primary, middle and high school years, adulthood and senior life. Experiential activities emphasize personal contact and on-site work with individuals of different ages and stages of physical and psychological development.
  • Substance Abuse Counseling: Basic counseling interventions for prevention, remediation and treatment of substance abuse. Differentiating between substance use and abuse, and the appropriate interventions for both. Determining when or if to escalate a matter.
  • Professional School Counseling in Secondary Schools: Covering the administration, finance and accountability of secondary school counseling programs. Building cognitive and experiential skills. Examining the history and development of school counseling, secondary school education and the counselor’s role in school testing and career planning and exploration.
  • Professional School Counseling, K-8: Even those who intend to work as high school counselors will need insight into counseling practices and other aspects of K-8 school. This class will cover elementary and middle school education, administration and career planning
  • Career and Life Planning Across the Life Span: Learning basic counseling skills for career planning, exploration and decision-making. Includes looking at specific issues like the roles of women entering the workforce, physically handicapped workers, inner city youth, adult workers making vocational changes in middle life and older workers preparing for retirement. Practical experience involves interviewing, vocational assessment, career information gathering and distribution, as well as labor market research.
  • Counseling Professional Orientation: Introducing the counseling profession as the promotion of human development through an overview of the historical and philosophical development of the field, a survey of relevant skills, client populations and settings.
  • Counseling Diverse Populations: Understanding the values systems in diverse groups. Examining in deeper detail the cultural impacts and expectations surrounding education that may impact students of diverse backgrounds. Using philosophies and models of diversity in establishing an effective helping relationship with students.
  • Crisis Intervention: Reviewing the responses to crises of various types including those that affect individuals, families and entire communities. Working on problem-solving methods and critical thinking skills that can address the level of emotional and social difficulties involved in a crisis, which means observing these tactics in the field and then practicing them yourself.
  • Interpersonal Behavior and Organizational Leadership: Refining interpersonal communication, organizational behavior and leadership skills. Taking advantage of the extensive opportunities for practicing and evaluating personal communication skills (critical to collaboration with school colleagues).

As part of your studies at Bradley, you’ll have the chance to deepen your counseling experience through experiential learning. This includes:

  • A pre-practicum to counseling that centers on instruction, demonstration, practice and evaluation in basic interviewing and response skills, with an emphasis on practice and skill development.
  • A practicum that includes supervised counseling experience with individuals and groups in your area of interest.
  • Two internships that involve supervised post-practicum work experience appropriate to your career goals (e.g., becoming a high school counselor).
  • Two on-campus residencies, each lasting a week, that dive deep into neurocounseling and group counseling, respectively.
  • Completion of a thesis, which is educational or social science research completed under the guidance of a departmental faculty member. You will design, develop and present a research proposal, then conduct the approved research study consistent with regulations and university ethical guidelines.

Earn your degree from Bradley

Students in the Bradley online MAC program can complete their practicums locally, as well as select their own site supervisor with the approval of the university. This and other factors help ensure that you get the most of your master’s education, which includes advanced skills and knowledge and a direct path for certification. All of this is possible with an online master’s education that lets you complete coursework when your work and personal life allows. Want to learn more about the program, its outcomes and how to become a high school counselor? Contact an enrollment advisor today.


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