How to Become a Psychotherapist: Steps to Take from High School

Psychologist. Licensed social worker. Counselor. These are just some of the types of therapists. And just as there are different degrees and qualifications associated with this varied profession, there are a number of specialties and approaches. In this post, we’ll focus specifically on psychotherapists, which are professionals trained to help people with their emotional and mental problems.

 

If helping people is your calling, the idea of becoming a therapist has probably crossed your mind at one point or another. So, what does this job entail? And how do you get there?

 

What Does a Psychotherapist Do?

 

Psychotherapists work with patients on a range of issues, such as mental health disorders (including depression and anxiety), family counseling, anger management, addiction, divorce, and many others. Different levels of credentials will enable therapists to have varying responsibilities. However, they do not prescribe medication; psychiatrists, who have an MD and work in the mental health space, are qualified to write prescriptions.

 

Many therapists specialize in working with certain groups of people, such as children, or treating specific issues, like depression and anxiety.

 

Therapists can work with patients one-on-one, in group settings, or with families or partners together. They work in settings such as private offices, hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centers, and other institutions. Among other tasks, their responsibilities might include:

 

  • Performing intakes with new patients
  • Diagnosing mental health disorders
  • Creating treatment plans
  • Meeting with patients and working on developing coping and other skills
  • Giving patients tools and resources to work through problems
  • Documenting sessions
  • Maintaining confidentiality except in instances in which the patient presents a danger to themself or others, or if a child or elderly or disabled person is being abused

 

Depending on which type of psychotherapist you want to become, you’ll need different levels of education, although almost all of them require an advanced degree. For example, psychologists must earn doctorates, usually a PhD or PsyD. Social workers, on the other hand, will need to earn a master’s degree.

 

How Much Do Psychotherapists Make?

 

Salaries for therapists vary widely based on factors like type of practice, specialty, highest level of education attained, and experience. For example, according to PayScale, the median clinical therapist salary is $48,418, while for psychologists, the median salary is $77,702 annually.

Discover your chances at hundreds of schools

Our free chancing engine takes into account your history, background, test scores, and extracurricular activities to show you your real chances of admission—and how to improve them.

How to Become a Psychotherapist: Steps from High School

 

Take a preparatory curriculum in high school.

 

An undergraduate psychology major usually doesn’t require any particular courses beyond the college’s general requirements. However, in order to start preparing early, there are some courses you can take that will give you a solid foundation. For example, you’ll probably need to take statistics as part of a psychology or therapy program, so AP Statistics is a great choice for high school students. AP Psychology, of course, is another course you should definitely take if your high school offers it, although it’s not as common as some other APs.

 

Biology is another subject that will prove relevant to a psychology curriculum, so this is also a good pick for high school. Ultimately, any course grounded in social sciences, writing and communication skills, anthropology, or economics is helpful preparation for a psychology major.

 

Participate or start therapy-related extracurriculars.

 

Does your school have a peer counseling group? If so, join it! If not, why not start one? While you should make it clear that students who need it should seek out the help of a licensed therapist, your group can serve as a sympathetic ear and support system for classmates and, of course, maintain confidentiality.

 

You could also volunteer in clinics or therapists offices. Some might even hire you to work as a receptionist or file paperwork, although this, too, will have confidentiality agreements and age restrictions attached.

 

Participate in informal activities, too, such as reading books about therapy and psychology.

 

Apply to colleges with a strong, relevant undergraduate program. 

 

While you don’t need to major in a specific discipline for graduate school, many undergraduates choose to study psychology, therapy, social work, or sociology. This will help you learn about topics you’ll explore further in graduate school and give you a solid grounding in the field of therapy.

 

Determine the type of therapy you want to pursue.

 

During college, you should be thinking about what type of therapist you want to be. This will dictate the rest of your path, including your graduate program, so it’s important to spend some time reflecting on your strengths and what you want to do in your career.

 

Consider, too, the time investment involved in different types of therapy. For example, earning a doctorate to become a psychologist will require more time than earning a master’s to become a counselor.

 

Complete the requirements for your graduate degree of choice.

 

Look into the requirements for the graduate degree you choose, so you can ensure that you complete those requirements before you finish your bachelor’s. There might be specific courses, such as statistics and psychology, that you’ll need to complete at advanced levels. Usually, you’ll need to submit GRE scores as well. Remember that requirements will vary based on the graduate program you ultimately select.

 

Apply to and complete a graduate program.

 

No matter what type of therapist you want to be, you’ll more than likely need to obtain a graduate degree. Research the options for schools that offer accredited programs in your desired focus. 

 

Also, keep in mind that it’s possible to practice therapy, including various specialties, with multiple degrees in many cases. Psychologists, for example, could pursue a PhD, PsyD, or even an EdD. Make sure you check the requirements for any state in which you’re thinking of practicing before you look into graduate programs.

 

Complete an internship.

 

Most therapists will need to gain a certain number of hours of supervised experience before obtaining licensure. That means working with licensed therapists, usually through an internship, to complete clinical hours of therapy work. Again, you should check with the state in which you’re planning to practice to find out how many hours you need. This will also vary by type of therapist.

 

Become licensed.

 

Licensing requirements vary by state and type of therapy. You will be licensed by your state board after completing these requirements and, generally speaking, passing an exam that will certify you to practice. If you want to practice in another state at any point, you’ll probably need to become licensed in that state, too.

 

Continue your education.

 

You’ll need to continue professional development by completing additional education every few years or so (again, this varies by state). You might also want to complete additional education if you plan on specializing in a particular area of therapy.

 

Although it’s a rigorous path, in some cases taking upwards of a decade to complete, becoming a therapist is very rewarding. If you’re considering applying to an undergraduate psychology or therapy program, CollegeVine can help you navigate the admissions process. Find out your real chances of admission to top schools and get tips for optimizing your profile with our Chancing Engine  — it’s completely free!

Want more tips on improving your academic profile?

We'll send valuable information to help you strengthen your profile and get ready for college admissions.


Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and works as a freelance writer specializing in education. She dreams of having a dog.