How To Become A School Counselor

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School and career counselors devote their working lives to helping students develop life skills and find their path. They work with young people of all ages, ranging from elementary school students to young adults at colleges and universities. Today’s post will cover working conditions, salary, job outlook, and how to become a school counselor. Let’s dive in!

What Do School Counselors Do?

School counselors help children or young adults develop academic and social skills. Specializations vary: some school counselors help young children develop the skills they need to thrive in their schools, while other counselors help college students choose their majors and work towards careers that interest them. Each school counselor is responsible for overseeing the academic success and overall well-being of hundreds of students at a time. 

Elementary school counselors work with children between the ages of four and ten. They may observe children in their classrooms and at recess or meet with children in groups, but their primary work is often to meet with children individually and offer guidance. At the same time, they meet with each child’s teacher(s) and parent(s) or guardian(s) to discuss struggles and strategies for helping that child to thrive. Their duties may include:

  • Helping children to overcome social or academic challenges
  • Collaborating with teachers and families to help children succeed 
  • Running groups to facilitate certain social or academic skills
  • Coordinating parent-teacher conferences
  • Maintaining records for each child that they work with
  • Connecting families with additional resources for support
  • Reporting cases of abuse or neglect

Middle school counselors work with children between the ages of eleven and thirteen. They often meet with students individually to talk through challenges that the children are experiencing at school or at home. They also help older students plan and prepare for their transition to high school. Daily responsibilities may include:

  • Conferences with students, teachers, and/or family members
  • Helping students to improve their decision-making, study, and social skills
  • Identifying factors that negatively affect academic performance
  • Determining how best to help students with poor attendance or low grades 
  • Teaching students about specific issues such as bullying or drug use
  • Maintaining student records 
  • Referring students to therapists or other specialists as needed
  • Report cases of possible neglect or abuse 

High school counselors work with young people between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. Often, their primary task is counseling students on their academic goals and college applications. They’re also available to help students overcome personal issues that may interfere with their academic performance. This job often includes: 

  • Working with students to develop study skills and effective time management habits
  • Evaluating students’ abilities and interests through aptitude assessments and interviews
  • Educating students about educational or vocational options
  • Maintaining records and submitting official transcripts 
  • Guiding students in making academic and career plans 
  • Providing information about potential colleges and universities
  • Teaching students about subjects like healthy relationships or interview skills
  • Organizing and facilitating college visits 
  • Helping students find and apply for scholarships and other types of financial aid 
  • Writing to colleges and universities on behalf of applicants 

College advisors work with college students to help them plan their course schedules, graduate, and achieve their career goals. Some may focus entirely on academics, while others specialize in counseling students through trying or traumatic experiences and helping them to find long-term help if needed. For most college advisors, their work includes:

  • Helping students to choose their majors and minors
  • Meeting with students multiple times each year to plan their course schedule 
  • Assisting students with financial aid, internships, and work opportunities
  • Teaching students how best to craft their resumes and apply for these opportunities

Working Conditions

Most school counselors work full-time during regular business hours. If they work at a middle school or high school, their day usually begins early to match the start of the school day. They generally spend most of their time in their own private offices. It’s common to work long hours during the school year and then have time off over the summer. 

The majority of school counselors, over 150,000 in the United States in 2021, work in primary and secondary schools. Roughly 130,000 people work as counselors at colleges and universities. A small percentage, perhaps 7,000, are self-employed. 

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How to Become a School Counselor

Unlike most of the careers that we’ve highlighted in this series, this job requires a college education. Most states require school counselors to have a master’s degree in a relevant field such as psychology or counseling. 

Important Qualities

If you’re interested in becoming a school counselor, you should love working with people – particularly people in the age group that you intend to specialize in. You should have sufficient self-regulation skills to remain calm and patient even when children are struggling and acting out. For work with older students, you should be undaunted by large amounts of paperwork. 

Here are some other important qualities to foster if you want to become a counselor:

  • Compassion: You’ll be working with people who are dealing with stressful and difficult situations, and you must be able to empathize in order to help them.
  • Listening skills: You must be able to give your full attention to students in order to help them feel heard and fully understand their struggles.
  • Communication skills: You’ll need to be able to communicate effectively with students, teachers, and families.
  • Interpersonal skills: Your work will require you to forge and maintain collaborative relationships with students, parents, and colleagues. 
  • Organizational skills: Students and teachers will be counting on you to maintain flawless records and submit important paperwork for each student on time. 

Education 

If you want to become a school counselor, you’ll most likely need to earn a Master’s in School Counseling; most states require it for licensure. And if you want to be admitted to a master’s program in School Counseling, you’ll need to study psychology as an undergraduate.

You don’t necessarily need to earn a degree in Psychology. Many programs will accept students who chose other majors, particularly relevant majors such as education or sociology. But regardless of major, they generally require students to have completed a certain amount of coursework in psychology or a closely related field. Students should also have earned good grades in courses having to do with statistical techniques and research methods. 

Many programs require a college GPA of at least 3.0. The application process also includes a professional resume, personal statement, and letters of recommendation from college professors. Many colleges include interviews as part of the admissions process. 

Many master’s programs include internships that allow students to gain real-world experience at local schools. Some programs, such as the ones offered by Texas A&M, require two years of teaching experience in an accredited school. 

You can find the American School Counselor Association’s list of school counseling degree programs (Master’s and Ph.D.) here. At the bottom of the page, you’ll find a list of over two dozen schools that offer online programs.

The cost of a college education varies wildly depending on a number of factors. Some students are able to get their education for free, usually by staying in state and meeting certain metrics or by qualifying for a full ride to a private university. Others accrue six figures worth of debt in six years of school. For information relevant to your unique situation, make an appointment with your own school counselor.

Credentials

School counselors are licensed and credentialed by the state that they work in. They need to complete requisite coursework and then complete a state or national exam. Some states require teaching licenses as part of the credentialing process, and most require criminal background checks. 

Required advanced-degree coursework may include:

  • Theories
  • Human growth and development
  • Social and cultural foundations
  • Individual counseling
  • Group counseling
  • Testing and appraisal
  • Research and program evaluation
  • Professional orientation
  • Career development
  • Supervised practicum and/or internship

The American School Counselor Association lists state-specific credential information here.

This career also has continuing education requirements. Most states require renewal certificates every five years, earned by completing a set number of continuing education units. You can find information for each state here

How Long Does It Take to Become a School Counselor?

It generally takes at least six years to become a school counselor – four to earn a bachelor’s degree, and two more to earn a master’s degree in a relevant field. Nearly every state requires a master’s degree, but some will accept a bachelor’s degree and additional certification or a set number of hours of graduate study in the field of school counseling. 

Career Outlook for School Counselors

The job outlook for this line of work is excellent, with a projected growth rate of twelve percent over the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to see about 32,000 openings for school and career counselors and advisors each year.

How Much Do School Counselors Make?

School counselors earned an average of $60,510 in 2021. This was significantly higher than the national average but lower than the salaries earned by many people with a similar level of schooling; most people with master’s degrees earn upwards of $77,000 per year. 

The lowest ten percent of school counselors earned less than $37,550, and the highest ten percent earned more than $98,190. Elementary and secondary school counselors earned an average of $63,460, while counselors at junior colleges, colleges, universities, and professional schools earned an average of $49,430.

California is the top-paying state for this career, with an annual mean wage of $81,590. New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Washington, and New York each pay over $70,000 per year on average. 

Working as a School Counselor: An Overview

Careers in school counseling have the potential to be deeply satisfying, rewarding life paths. Most counselors love working with kids every day, watching them grow and mature over the years, and helping them on their way. 

Becoming a school counselor is a solid career choice. There will be plenty of job openings in the coming years. The income potential is decent, significantly higher than the national average but lower than average for people with master’s degrees.

Here are some pros and cons to keep in mind as you consider work as a school counselor:

Pros:

  • Potentially rewarding, meaningful work
  • Variety in day-to-day tasks and experiences
  • Average annual salary is nearly $15,000 higher than national average

Cons:

  • May be emotionally draining
  • Some counselors are assigned overwhelming numbers of students
  • Many counselors work long hours during the school year
  • Relatively low salary for years of study required ($17,000 lower than average for master’s degree)

If you’re interested in this profession, consider contacting local school counselors to ask about the possibility of interviewing or shadowing them to learn more about this line of work. 

Stay tuned for upcoming articles on how to become a dental assistant, personal trainer, or nutritionist.

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