Mental health counselors can be found in an array of settings, from hospitals to private clinics. They work to help clients navigate any number of personal and mental health issues by providing a therapeutic relationship that empowers people to make decisions they wish to make to improve their life experiences. Counselors also typically are responsible for helping clients develop plans of action for improving their lives and moving past the issues that necessitate counseling interventions.
As detailed in an information page from Bradley University, qualified mental health counselors can opt to work as generalists, helping clients navigate any number of mental health problems, from depression to anxiety to substance abuse to grief and more, or they instead can choose to specialize in certain areas. For example, some counselors may opt to work exclusively with clients who are living with an addiction to drugs or alcohol or with clients who experienced a recent bereavement.
In any case, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to work as a counselor, individuals will need to complete a course of advanced study — a master’s degree or Ph.D. — before becoming licensed by local authorities. It is not enough, however, to simply earn the correct qualifications to begin work as a counselor. Often, counselors will work within organizations, which means they will need to complete interviews with hiring managers in order to secure the job. As such, prospective counselors likely will wonder, “What are hiring managers looking for in counselors?”
Professional qualities for which hiring managers look
No matter the industry, hiring managers will typically look for some of the following qualities when interviewing candidates:
Consideration of the bigger picture
Forbes contributor Liz Ryan shares that hiring managers typically look for applicants who are keen to learn more about their role in terms of its position within a wider organization. Put another way, in addition to understanding in detail the role they are applying for, the best candidates will display a nuanced understanding of the organization they are applying to, including its values, goals, how it functions, its history, any major competitors and so on. A candidate who is able to demonstrate that level of understanding indicates to hiring managers that they are prepared to work as a member of a team.
Attention to detail
Candidates who pay attention to small details, such as delivering firm handshakes, being polite to everyone at any level in the organization and sending thoughtful and timely follow-up emails and phone calls usually impress hiring managers, U.S. News & World Report contributor Alison Green explained. Candidates commonly let these small details slide in their bid to impress on a larger scale, which is problematic according to Green, as many hiring managers are attuned to small details that may reveal insights into a candidate’s personality.
Effective communication skills
The ability to communicate clearly and effectively is a vital skill across virtually all industries, although proficiency in this area is particularly imperative in the counseling field, wherein effective communication between counselors and clients is key to successful outcomes. Journalist Becky Karsh, writing for employment resource The Muse, explained that hiring managers are able to discern whether candidates are able to communicate well in several key ways. They first will assess cover letters and resumes to ensure that candidates are able to produce clear and concise writing. Next, they will scrutinize a candidate’s ability to communicate verbally in the interview stage, monitoring whether the candidate’s answers are effective at making a clear argument or point. Finally, hiring managers will monitor post-interview communication to determine whether a candidate maintains a consistently high level of communication in areas such as follow-up emails and phone calls.
Desire to ask questions
When candidates fail to ask questions during the interview process, that typically is regarded as a negative sign, Green stated. When candidates do ask questions, they demonstrate that they have considered the bigger picture in terms of working within the organization and are keen to learn as much as possible about their potential employer. Failure to ask questions signifies a certain level of apathy toward the opportunity. Questions along the lines of “What is the organization’s culture like?” and “What do you enjoy most about your role?” typically are well-received by hiring mangers, Green noted.
Punctuality and professionalism
Ryan explained that hiring managers expect punctuality and professionalism from all candidates. It is difficult for candidates to impress if they arrive to an interview late, no matter their qualifications and work history. The most professional candidates will arrive with materials for making notes —ideally a pen and paper, not a laptop computer — they will dress in business professional clothing, regardless of the dress of the organization they are applying to and they will carry spare copies of their resume and cover letter.
Capacity to articulate a clear professional narrative
Hiring managers are looking for candidates who are able to articulate, clearly and in detail, their professional journey thus far and goals and aspirations for the future, Ryan detailed. Candidates are encouraged not to simply state why they believe they are a good fit for the open position in question. Rather, they are expected to outline how the open position fits into their professional journey and how it will contribute to their growth. A clear professional narrative will take a critical look at each step in a candidate’s career path, highlighting important skills cultivated and lessons learned. The narrative should make logical sense and be engaging.
Qualities that all successful counselors will have
All hiring managers, no matter the industry, will look for certain qualities, including those listed above. When it comes to the counseling field specifically, hiring managers will need to see that candidates embody a number of qualities that make for a truly adept counseling professional. So which traits do counseling professionals need to truly excel? Some of the most pertinent characteristics include the following:
As stated by journalist Ashley Miller, writing in an article published by the Houston Chronicle, counselors may be living with their own mental health issues while helping clients. As such, it is important for counselors to have a nuanced understanding of their own mental health and the kinds of issues they deal with that may influence the way they address and help clients. Self-awareness may not even necessarily apply to mental health issues. Self-aware counselors will understand how factors such as their religion, age or nationality may impact the way they perceive and address client issues and will subsequently work to address such biases in their counseling work. Without a keen sense of self-awareness, counselors run the risk of perceiving client issues through the lens of their own issues and world-outlook, which can lead to ineffective counseling.
A desire to help clients
The president of the American Counseling Association, Bradley T. Erford, was interviewed for an article by Lynne Shallcross for Counseling Today about his thoughts concerning what makes for a truly effective counselor. He argued that the primary attribute that all counselors should possess is a desire to help others and invest considerable time in ensuring that they get the most from their counseling sessions. Counselors should also be able to help clients implement strategies to navigate issues and improve their lives. Erford argued that counselors who truly are able to connect with their clients will understand their plight in a way that transcends simple verbal discussion in the office — they will be able to identify with patients on an emotional and empathetic level:“[Great counselors] have the ability to see beyond the spoken word and connect what is truly happening in a client’s or student’s life through even the unspoken words. A great counselor is someone who enjoys helping those they serve [to] become empowered by teaching their clients and students to become life problem-solvers. Ultimately, a great counselor works him or herself out of a job with a client by helping [that client] to learn to navigate life on their own with maybe periodic mental health check-ups.”
The ability to connect with a diverse range of clients
Counselors, particularly those who opt to work as generalists, will encounter clients from an array of backgrounds and demographics, Bruce E. Wampold explained in an article published by the American Psychological Association. For example, a counselor may work with a white middle-aged male client living with alcoholism one day and a young African-American girl experiencing clinical depression the next. Consequently, the most effective counselors will be able to cultivate working relationships with clients from various backgrounds that may differ notably from their own. This ability is known as multicultural competency, according to Miller. As detailed by Wampold, who holds his doctorate in counseling psychology, building connections with all clients is an imperative strategy for counselors, as it typically leads to more positive outcomes. Indeed, the cultivation of a solid connection, or therapeutic alliance, as it is widely understood according to Psychology Today, leads to a trust between patients and counselors that allows both parties to work toward shared goals.
A belief in the transformative power of counseling
According to Susan Krauss Whitbourne, the best counselors will hold a steadfast belief in the power of the methods they choose to employ and will work to ensure clients that therapy is an important and effective undertaking. After all, clients likely will only see improvements if they place trust in their counselors and believe that the work they are undertaking is important.
The capacity to be non-judgmental
Counselors work with clients from a range of backgrounds and situations, and it is likely that counselors will encounter clients who have engaged in behavior that may be illegal or morally problematic. Effective counselors, however, will refuse to perceive their clients through a judgmental lens and will instead try to identify with them, no matter what they have done in the past. An accepting and non-judgmental attitude is the best way to connect with clients and build the trust that is imperative for any counseling relationship to succeed.
Consider Bradley University
If you are interested in becoming a mental health counselor, consider applying to Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program. With two specialty tracks to choose from — Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Professional School Counseling — the program is designed to help you study in a way that complements your professional schedule. To learn more, click here.