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

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Everyone has stories about their school counselors from K-12. From elementary school all the way through high school, school counselors empower students and help them navigate the many ups and downs of school life.


Generally, school counselors are education professionals who have a positive impact on students through their energy, compassion, and communication skills. They use their skills and training in public and private elementary, middle, and high schools to guide student development, personally and academically.


School counselors are in high demand, with the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommending a 250:1 student-to-counselor ratio, and major states like California only achieving a 708:1 ratio. With that said, you may be wondering how student counselors obtain the education, training, and certification they need to practice in schools.


In this article, we will walk you through the primary responsibilities, average salary, and career path of a school counselor.


What Does a School Counselor Do?


The main goal of a school counselor is to promote the academic, social, emotional, and career success of their students. 


Some positive impacts of school counselors include increased student attendance, student access to mental health resources, and student preparedness for later life. Counselors also work to decrease racial disparities in the K-12 system (and subsequently, the University system), bullying, and feelings of otherness.


Primary roles of school counselors include:


  • Paying attention to the interactions between a student’s personal life and a student’s academic life
  • Assisting students with situations that they may not feel comfortable talking about with others
  • Working with students and parents as they make hard decisions (decisions like whether to hold a child back in elementary school or which colleges to apply to in high school)
  • Helping students identify their interests, skills, and natural abilities
  • Helping students set career and life goals and create tangible plans to accomplish those goals
  • Working with students when a major event affects the student body (like a community tragedy, the death of a teacher or student, or student issues with their school’s administration)
  • Promoting well-being in the general school community
  • Working actively with teachers and administrators to help specific students


How Much Do School Counselors Make?


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for school and career counselors and advisors in 2020 was $58,120 (about $27.94/hour). It is important to note that the BLS predicts an 8% increase in employment opportunities for school and career counselors and advisors between 2019 and 2029, a much faster growth rate than the average for all occupations.


Steps to Take from High School


School counselor certifications are offered individually by state boards, meaning that the certification requirements vary from one state to the next. When looking at requirements, pay attention to the three ‘E’s—education, experience, and examinations. While some states don’t require experience or examinations for licensing (we will discuss this later), the three ‘E’s are the factors that most education boards take into account when deciding that you are ready to be a licensed school counselor.


Let’s get into the details!


Undergraduate Studies


To become a school counselor, you must first earn your bachelor’s degree. Your degree can be in any field, as long as you continue to a more specialized master’s program for school counseling. 


When deciding on an undergraduate major, it is important to remember that many master’s school counseling programs require prerequisites like general psychology and research methods or statistics for applicants. Some bachelor’s degrees that typically fulfill these requirements and are relevant to the work of school counselors include psychology, education, and social work.


Psychology, education, and social work will prepare you for the courses that you will take during your master’s counseling program due to their emphasis on behavior, development, and sociology.


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It’s important to find programs at colleges that are good fits for you and advance your career goals. If possible, a student should apply to 8-10 schools, with about 25% being safety schools, 40% target schools, and 35% reach schools. These categories—safety, target, and reach—are determined by your chances of acceptance at the schools you are applying to. 


We’ve made it easy to figure out which schools fall into which categories with our free chancing engine! This tool will calculate your odds of acceptance at different schools and will give you tips for improving your candidate profile.



For future school counselors, this tool can be particularly helpful because, if you want to attend school in a specific state due to their certification requirements, you can search based on school location. Also, if psychology, education, or social work appeal to you, you can search based on those majors. Keep in mind that the main role of your bachelor’s degree is to set yourself up for success in your school counseling master’s program!


Master’s Program


Next up: your master’s degree. Master’s coursework typically emphasizes developmental psychology, testing and research practices in education systems, and social and cultural diversity. Most master’s programs for school counseling take 2-3 years to complete. 


Additionally, during these years, students typically decide whether they want to focus on elementary or secondary education, as these different jobs present different demands. Elementary school counselors often help teachers identify students who need extra help or have special needs, as well as students who may require more challenging content. Middle school and high school counselors spend lots of time advising about colleges and scholarships and helping students choose classes.


Clinical Hours


Experience is a licensing requirement that varies heavily by state. Some states do not require any clinical experience before licensing, while others require hundreds of hours of internships and shadowing. This can be slightly confusing, but the good news is that clinical hours are typically included in the curriculum of master’s programs. Additionally, master’s programs take the licensing requirements of their home state into account when building their curriculum, meaning that when you finish a master’s program, you should be pretty close to satisfying all the licensing requirements for your state. 


Some states without required clinical hours include Arkansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, and West Virginia.


Required Examinations


Master’s programs help prepare students for their required examinations. Examination requirements vary by state, with some states not requiring an examination and others requiring state-specific examinations (e.g. in Illinois, you must pass the ISBE examination for school counseling and in Massachusetts, you must pass the Massachusetts Communication and Literacy Skills Test). Many states also use the Praxis II Professional School Counselor Test, with passing scores varying by state. It is a two-hour, 120-question exam that covers four topics: foundational skills, delivery of services, management, and accountability.


Some states without a licensing exam include Arizona, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and Wisconsin.


Obtain Your License


The final step before actually working independently as a school counselor is to obtain your license from your state’s board of education. Your certification is how you show that you have met the educational and training requirements to be a school counselor. 


After completing all the previous steps, obtaining a license is simple. You must complete an application, provide your transcripts and test scores, and pay a licensing fee.


Continuing Education


After getting your license, you can become a practicing school counselor!


The only thing left is keeping up-to-date with your continuing education courses throughout your career to maintain your license. Continuing education requirements also vary by state, but when you are completing continuing education, you will be quite familiar with the inner workings of your state’s board of education, so it should be a breeze!


Brooke Elkjer
Blog Writer

Short Bio
Brooke is a film and television production assistant, originally from Dallas, Texas. She holds Bachelor’s degrees in English and Neuroscience from the University of Southern California. At USC, Brooke was a producer for the intersectional feminist production company on campus, a Resident Assistant (RA), and a student worker for the Thematic Option Honors GE Program. In her free time, Brooke enjoys reading, writing, and watching Gilmore Girls.