How to Become a Certified Counselor

Last Updated on December 26, 2022 by

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Information About How to Become a Counselor

Becoming a counselor is a noble goal to pursue and adds a vital function to your local community. In order to be a practicing counselor in your area you will need to become a licensed counselor. In most states this requires a Master’s degree in counseling. When considering this career it is wise to have a group you wish to work with in mind. For some working with children and teens is a specialization that has particular appeal. Children are the group you will see the most rapid change in and can have the greatest impact on. For others working in couple’s counseling might be the focus one is drawn to. Still others will find they resonate with working with the disabled. Different focuses appeal to different people and you can be certain that if the idea of counseling appeals to you, that you can find a group you will really want to work with.

A career in counseling is one that offers many avenues for helping your fellow human beings and giving back to your community. However, when you start down the road of education it’s a great idea to have your end specialty already picked out. We will provide you with a few examples of career in Human Services counseling that might appeal to you.Sponsored

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Steps to Become a Counselor

Earn an Accredited Bachelors Degree

Any program that will accept you to further your education always requires a Bachelor’s Degree. Your Bachelor’s Degree can range in specialization outside of counseling up until the stage of application for graduate school.

Earn an Accredited Master’s Degree in Counseling

Apply to a variety of schools that offer Master’s Degree in Counseling. Choose a school that specializes in the program you are looking for. The schools you are applying too should hold high standards of accreditation such as CACREP. This accreditation will enhance the programs reputation which will make your job application to internships and career choices more appealing to the employer.

Take the Exam

Taking an exam in your state is required to be licensed in that area, therefore check with your state on specific exams and requirements. On a national level, The National Counselor Exam NCE for Licensure is designed to measure understanding and expertise to provide professional counseling services. For Mental Health Counseling, there is an additional National exam NCMHCE which is a requirement in some states for Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor certification. As well, you will want to check with the state in which you live on what specific exams, background check and requirements are mandatory to start practicing in your state.

Choose an internship or practicum

There a difference between the two:A practicum is an experience in the field of counseling that permits students to observe and document how working professionals perform their job responsibilities. Simultaneously the student can enroll in a program which frameworks the requirements of the practicum.
The Internship: takes on real scenarios of the concentrated career focusing on skill and knowledge in the working environment. The student is placed under supervision of a professional who can critique and pass valuable knowledge of the student’s observations and practice.

Choose Your Counseling Specialty

There are a variety of counseling specialties that you may want to pursue. Below, on this page, there are overviews on different types of counselor including School Counselors, Rehabilitation Counselors. Mental Health Counselors, and the list continues from there. Each type of counselor may require a different college degree or certification, which will also require different courses and education. Check with your state to understand what credentials you will need to practice to further becoming a counselor.

Continue Your Counseling Education

Each state will have additional requirements to keep your credentials as a counselor. You will have to check with your state on re-certification processes which may be required between three and ten years. There are a variety of ways to accrue these re-certifications which may include areas of your everyday work.

Get a Doctoral Degree

A Doctoral degree is not necessary to work in the field; however it will put you at the highest level of education which will allow you to become a director, manager or overseeing groups of colleagues or students. You will also have the credentials to teach courses for future counselors looking to get their certifications and licenses.

School Counselor

The school counselor is a career, academic and vocational counselor that works with students to help them determine what aptitudes and skills they have to pursue the education and career of their dreams. Whether you are working in a High School setting or as a College counselor, you will be working with young people who are looking for guidance in critical life choices. By properly assessing the natural skills, personality and aptitude of the student you can help them discover their inborn talents and natural career arc. Once you’ve determined a likely career you will have counseling sessions with the student to help them form an educational and extra-curricular plan to meet their vocational goals.

This is a field that has a massive impact on the lives of others and can really help a young person come into their own. If the idea of working with energetic young people and helping them find their life path is an exciting one, then a career as a school counselor might be a perfect fit for you.

Rehabilitation Counselor

Some people feel the call to work with people with disabilities. This is a challenging and rewarding career choice as few professions give one the sense of satisfaction that comes from empowering someone to work with and overcome limitations imposed by their disability. There are many forms of disabilities a rehabilitation counselor might help a client to work with from emotional, developmental, mental and physical disabilities.
The rehabilitation counselor can act in many different capacities from helping clients overcome barriers to employment to increasing their self- sufficiency in day to day life. The variety of agencies a rehabilitation counselor can work at is also large. Some counselors might prefer to work in private practice or in another capacity within the private sector. Others might feel drawn to work at a non-profit working with a specific segment of the population. If working with disabled people in an empowering and healing way sounds appealing to you, then you might want to consider a career in rehabilitation counseling.

Mental Health Counseling

Perhaps you visualize a career working with families or individuals in dealing with mental health issues. Becoming a mental health counselor is an exciting career choice that gives you a wide variety of sub-sectors to choose from. As a mental health counselor you will be working with the client to assess their mental health needs and work on a strength based healing model. Increasingly this field works with the assumption that a client is able to work with and resolve their problems and return to a natural homeostasis of health. This stands in stark contrast to the past when mental illness was considered a static condition with little hope of relief and a chronic condition mentality.

To use this modern model the first priority is rapport with client and working with them to assess their own mental health needs. By empowering the client and working in a mental health partnership the mental health counselor acts as a catalyst on the personal healing journey of their client. For many people, working with a skilled mental health counselor can be a profoundly positive and life changing experience. If this sounds appealing to you, perhaps you should consider a career as a mental health counselor.

Procedure to Become a Counselor

To become a licensed counselor most states require that you earn a Master’s or Doctoral degree – or in some States a closely related field – from an accredited university. Getting into a Master’s program in counseling will first require a Bachelor’s in Counseling, Psychology, Sociology, Social Work or other highly related field. Once you’ve earned your Master’s you will need to check out the licensure laws in your state. Almost all states require 1000’s of hours of supervised professional experience to apply for your counseling license.

For example certain state require that you:

  • Be at least 18 years of age
  • Of good moral character
  • Have completed a Master’s or Doctoral degree from an accredited university
  • You must submit either a plan for supervision for your first 2,000 hours of practice or submit proof of 2,000+ supervised hours in a professional practice that is acceptable (as determined by the board)
  • You must demonstrate professional levels of competence by passing either the National Counseling Exam administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors or an equivalent national examination as determined by the board.
  • The board may also require ethical, oral or situational examinations if they choose.

Education requirements

To become a licensed counselor most states require that you earn a Master’s or Doctoral degree – or in some States a closely related field – from an accredited university. This will require that you earn your bachelor’s in a closely related field and go on to be accepted into a Master’s of Counseling program. Once you’ve earned your Master’s or Doctoral degree, you will need to check out the licensure laws in your state as they vary.

It is critical that you find a program that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP) or by a regional accrediting organization recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Here are a list of schools that have accredited programs in counseling

Exams to Prepare for

Most states will require you to have passed the National Counseling Exam administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors or an equivalent national examination. Some states may also require you to pass exams as prescribed the local board on counseling. It is important that you understand the licensure requirements of your state. Preparation for the exam will vary depending on your state so it is wise to research your local state licensure board and their requirements.

If the idea of helping people whether, children, the elderly, the disabled or individuals with mental health issues is appealing, then a career in counseling is an excellent choice. As most states have disciplined requirements in terms of licensure and lengthy academic studies it is wise to begin planning for your academic future right away. Get started on your path towards becoming a counselor today!

To become a counselor, you typically need to possess a master’s degree, although some employers prefer candidates with a doctoral degree. You also need to achieve licensure in the state where you practice, and licensure requirements vary by state. Each aspiring professional should research the counseling programs that best meet their interests and professional goals. Master’s and doctoral degrees in counseling vary by school, and some programs offer training in specific areas of counseling.

An enrollee pursuing a degree with an emphasis in one area can study, research, and explore subspecialties in the field. Once you complete your degree, you possess the skills, tools, and knowledge to practice as a counselor with a specific population. You may need to complete additional licensure and certification requirements to practice with a counseling subspecialty.VIEW HOW TO BECOME A COUNSELOR IN YOUR STATE

How Long Does it Take to Become a Counselor?

The length of time it takes to become a counselor depends on your qualifications. A counselor typically holds a master’s degree, which makes for a two-year commitment on top of the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. However, accelerated programs allow students to earn their degree in less time. Online master’s programs and licensure also require a certain number of practicum, clinical, and internship hours for degree completion.

Clinical experience for a master’s degree involves supervised, one-on-one sessions and group counseling activities. The required number of hours varies by program and state, specifically as it relates to licensure, but a clinical internship can last up to one year. Make sure to check state requirements, any reciprocity or prohibitions, application due dates, any necessary exams, and renewal timelines.

Continuing to a Ph.D. in counseling usually makes for another 5-6-year commitment. Doctoral degrees in counseling include additional advanced coursework, practicums, internships or residencies, and research-based dissertation projects. Some counseling fields prefer each practitioner to possess a Ph.D. Working as a counseling educator or researcher at a college or university typically requires a Ph.D.

Types of Counselors

Each aspiring counselor can start by choosing a specialization, such as mental health, addictions and substance abuse, or rehabilitation. Read on for a few concentrations in the field.

Mental Health Counselors

Mental health counselors work with individuals in need of emotional and psychological support. These counselors apply different theories and techniques to each case as appropriate.

Mental health counselors help patients and clients develop the skills and tools needed to make healthy decisions and behavioral choices for themselves, their relationships, and career goals. These counselors work in hospitals or public agency settings with other doctors, social workers, and specialists.

Those who work in private practice typically have one-on-one contact with patients and clients, but some counselors lead group therapy and support group sessions. Mental health counselors may also refer patients to other healthcare professionals.

Addiction Counselors

The different types of addiction counselor roles require varying amounts of education, but most of these professionals need at least a master’s degree to practice. Addiction counselors can work one-on-one with patients and lead group therapy sessions.

Some professionals specialize in gambling addiction, shopping addiction, sex addiction, or alcoholism. Counselors help patients and clients understand their addictions, establish treatment plans, and develop coping mechanisms.

Addiction counselors also provide support to individuals with substance abuse or other behaviors that have resulted in mandated or voluntary therapy. If an addiction counselor works on behalf of a state agency or court, they must submit reports on patients and clients regarding progress and treatment outcomes. Private practice addiction counselors most often focus on patients that are in therapy by choice.

Marriage and Family Therapists

Spiritual Counselors

Rehabilitation Counselors

Domestic Violence Counselors

Grief Counselors


Use our degree finder to find an accredited online university that will help you achieve your educational goals.Search Colleges

The Path to Becoming a Counselor


Most schools do not offer undergraduate degrees in counseling, but a bachelor’s degree in psychology prepares you for further study in the field. A bachelor’s degree in psychology involves survey courses on the types and applications of psychology, along with theories and practices in the field. Undergraduate degrees in psychology may have coursework specific to counseling or clinical interests and offer courses on specific aspects of the field.

However, students do not need a bachelor’s degree in psychology to pursue a master’s degree in counseling. Undergraduate degrees in anthropology and sociology also prepare students with the critical thinking, communication, reading comprehension, and research skills needed to be a counselor.

If you are interested in becoming a counselor, you can prepare yourself by taking prerequisite coursework that relates to the field. Classes in research methods and statistics often qualify as prerequisites for master’s programs in counseling.


Types of master’s degrees in counseling include master of arts, master of science, master of education in counseling, and master of counseling psychology. Consider which degree best aligns with your interests and professional goals. A master’s degree of any kind usually makes for a two-year commitment, including an internship, practicum, and project or thesis.

Admission requirements for master’s programs in counseling vary by school. Still, a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a field related to psychology is often sufficient as long as academic performance and any test scores, like the GRE, meet admission requirements. If you want to continue to a doctoral degree in counseling, you need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the field.

Some Ph.D. programs in counseling accept students directly from undergraduate programs, while others require previous graduate work for admission. A Ph.D. in counseling is ideal for learners who seek to become professional psychologists, academic researchers, or college and university educators in the field.

When choosing a graduate degree in counseling, make sure to check for accreditation of both the school and the program. Master’s and doctoral programs within higher education institutions receive accreditation by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes CACREP as an accrediting body. On-campus, online, and hybrid graduate programs in counseling receive CACREP accreditation, adding legitimacy and prestige to their degree offerings.


Some counseling jobs, such as psychologists, academic instructors, and researchers, are best suited for individuals with a doctoral degree. Master’s degree-holders can pursue roles as professors, but colleges and universities generally prefer that an instructor holds a Ph.D. in counseling.

Doctoral degrees in psychology and counseling that are accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) hold the highest regard in the country. The APA Commission on Accreditation assesses the educational standards, aims, competencies, and outcomes of a program. CACREP also accredits doctoral programs in counseling.

Admission to a doctoral degree requires a bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology, counseling, or a closely related field, along with professional experience, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement of purpose. Doctoral degrees in counseling can take up to ten years, but enrollees often complete them in 5-6. In addition to advanced coursework, students complete practicums, an internship, and write a dissertation.

With a Ph.D. in counseling, individuals can pursue job opportunities with higher salaries, especially for psychologists working in private practice. Professionals with this degree commonly work in leadership positions in the field, along with supervisory roles at universities, colleges, and hospitals.

Average Reported Salary for Counselors by Degree Level

Master of Arts, Counseling$51,000
Ph.D., Counseling$75,000

Source: PayScale

Clinical Experience

To enter the workforce as a mental health counselor, you need to possess a specific number of clinical hours, based on your intended licensure and location. States require supervised practicum and internship hours, along with one-on-one client contact hours. Some states mandate as many as 6,000 supervised hours and 900 personal contact hours, many of which students can obtain during practicums, internships, and residencies. On average, an aspiring counselor earns 2,000 hours during their internship.

Under close supervision, practicum settings allow counseling students to observe sessions and demonstrate what they have learned during their coursework by working directly with patients and clients. Practicums take place before internships or residencies, during which students are still supervised but receive more autonomy. Interns may hold one-on-one sessions or conduct group counseling at placement sites.

Interns regularly check in with faculty and program administrators to assess their skills, techniques, and efficacy as counselors. Online students may receive placements or complete their practicums and internships on campus.

Getting Licensure

Licensure requirements relate to your degree level and credentials, but requirements vary by state. In addition to formal applications and submitting credentials, some states may require an examination, a background check, and letters of support from instructors, colleagues, and other counseling professionals.

Some states, such as California, require 48 hours of specific graduate coursework. Washington state requires HIV training and additional hours of education at a post-master’s degree level. States maintain different requirements for in-state and out-of-state applicants, but reciprocity agreements may allow students to apply in multiple states more easily.

During your program, you should consult state requirements to make sure you are on track to apply. You should refer to deadlines, examination dates, and lists of credentials needed for each state where you seek a license. You may want to keep a portfolio of your research and dissertation work as you progress through your coursework, practicums, and internships, or if you are in a doctoral program.

You can find requirements at your state’s licensure board, department of health, or comparable website. Program accreditation also affects state licensure.

Getting Certification

Counselors can obtain certifications based on their specialty to enhance their credentials and stay current with the standards and practices within their field. Certification also opens up additional job opportunities and potential salary growth. Mental health counselors can become certified mental health counselors from the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC). To become certified, each counselor must hold a master’s degree, meet clinical hour and education requirements, possess professional endorsements, and take a formal examination.

School counselors and substance abuse counselors can obtain specialty certifications through the NBCC after becoming board-certified counselors. To become a nationally certified school counselor or a master addictions counselor, professionals must meet additional guidelines defined by the NBCC.

Certification for rehabilitation counselors is available through the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification. Grief counselors can obtain certification from the American Association of Grief Counseling in areas of child and adolescent or pet grief counseling.

Continuing Education

To maintain state licensure, counselors need to complete a certain number of continuing education hours each year. Specific requirements vary by state but include training in counseling theory and practice, professional identity and practice issues, and assessment and research in psychology and counseling. Counselors can earn continuing education credits by taking college and university courses; attending webinars, seminars, and conferences; publishing or taking part in projects; and holding leadership positions in the field.

To apply continuing education hours to licenses and certifications, counselors need to make sure that they take continuing education courses from state- and association-approved providers. Organizations like the NBCC offer lists and databases with approved providers, while the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) clearly defines what each state requires for continuing education.

Joining an organization like the American Counselor Association allows professionals to take part in continuing education courses for free or at a discounted rate.

Students must provide documentation to receive continuing education credits. States, organizations, and associations may require counselors to submit certificates of completion for online courses or webinars, program information from conferences and seminars, or letters of support from colleagues and superiors.

Counselors must ensure that they complete all continuing education requirements by state, organization, and association deadlines to maintain licensure and certification.

Employment and Salary Outlook for Counselors

With more people seeking out mental health and addiction treatment, counseling careers continue to experience employment growth. Professionals commonly find work in outpatient care centers and individual and family services. They earn mid-level wages in comparison with their counterparts in local government and residential facilities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment for mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral disorder counselors to increase by 22% from 2018-28. BLS projections also indicate that marriage and family therapists will experience a 22% growth rate in the same period.

Psychologists will experience a lower rate of projected job growth at 14% from 2018-28, while school and their career counselor employment will grow at a projected rate of 8% during the same period. Aspiring professionals must earn master’s or doctoral degrees for these careers, making graduate coursework and degree completion essential to securing a job.

Highest Employing Industries for Mental Health Counselors

Mental health counselors evaluate their clients’ behavior to determine their readiness for treatment. These counselors create, recommend, and review treatment plans and goals with clients to help them stay on track. Mental health counselors also work with their clients’ families to ensure that they understand the coping strategies and treatment plans in place.

These counselors work with individuals, couples, and families, sometimes focusing on specific patient populations such as students, children, or the elderly. Professionals interested in pursuing career opportunities with the highest employment levels for the occupation can consider the outpatient care centers industry. The outpatient care centers industry also offers the highest concentration of employment for mental health counselors.

Top-Paying Industries for Mental Health Counselors

Mental health counselors receive varying salaries based on their location, industry, and educational and professional background. These professionals receive the highest salaries in junior colleges. Other high-paying industries include insurance carriers; agencies, and brokerages; colleges, universities, and professional schools; and local government, excluding hospitals and schools.

Top-Paying States for Counselors

Mental health counselors in the western half of the U.S. receive the highest pay in the country. Utah, Alaska, and Oregon boast three of the highest annual mean wages for mental health counselors, ranging from $59,000-$66,000 in 2018. Washington, D.C. and New Jersey also make the top five highest-paying states for mental health counselors, with annual mean wages of $60,000 and $58,000 in 2018, respectively.

Metropolitan centers, such as St. George and Salt Lake City, Utah, and Bloomington, Indiana, offer some of the highest pay for mental health counselors.

How Much Do Counselors Make?

Entry-level annual salaries for mental health, substance abuse, and rehabilitation counselors and marriage and family therapists reach about $46,000 and $50,000, respectively. Factors like location and certifications contribute heavily to initial offers and subsequent salary increases, but experience affects salary the most over time.

Each field exhibits salary growth of $2,000-$6,000 with 10 years of experience. At about twenty years, counselors and therapists will see $10,000-$20,000 in annual salary growth.

Junior colleges rank as the top-paying industry for mental health counselors, with specialty and consulting services in second. These employment opportunities appear outside the traditional hospital and healthcare facility settings, opening up career options and salary ranges for mental health professionals.

Salaries for Counselors by Experience

Mental Health Counselors$39,000$40,000$45,000$48,000
Marriage and Family Therapists$44,000$46,000$53,000$57,000
Rehabilitation Counselors$38,000$42,000$49,000$51,000

Skills for a Successful Counseling Career

Your program will help you acquire and learn to use the skills, tools, and techniques needed for effective communication, critical thinking, and research in the field. With additional certifications, continued education, and advanced training, counselors also work on themselves to employ best practices in the field.

  • Interpersonal SkillsInterpersonal skills characterize how you relate to other people, including body language, verbal and nonverbal communication, active listening, empathy, and leadership. Counselors need these skills to foster a supportive environment.
  • Communication SkillsCounselors must practice active listening and learn awareness of body language cues like hand motions and facial expressions. Counselors need to be able to verbalize psychological ideas, theories, and practices in a way that relates and resonates with individual needs and circumstances.
  • Research SkillsResearch skills involve seeking out information and finding the latest data, theories, summaries, and feedback on specific subjects and issues. Counselors must possess these skills to explore treatment options and find relevant resources for specific behaviors and disorders.
  • Critical Thinking SkillsCritical thinking skills involve analysis, applying theories and standards, using logic, and seeking out resources to respond accordingly. These skills allow counselors to compare and contrast treatment options, draw inferences and reach conclusions, envision an outcome, and adapt as necessary.

How to Find Counseling Jobs

As you complete your degree, you can look for counseling jobs at job fairs, organization’s websites, listservs, and career services departments.

Your instructors and supervisors can offer helpful tips on building your resume. You should also consult with your instructors and other department resources about which certifications and credentials will best serve you in your job search. Departmental or institutional career service officers can also help you write your resume, prepare for an interview, and set up mock-interview sessions.

Aspiring professionals can pursue career networking opportunities at annual conferences and professional group meetings. Universities and colleges often hold job fairs, and job opportunities may arise at the hospital or healthcare facility where you complete your internship or residency. Virtual job fairs, like those offered by the Health Resources and Services Administration, also provide future behavioral health professionals with potential career options.

Depending on your specialty, you may be able to visit specific websites tailored to your job goals. ASCA offers a list of each state’s affiliate website and resources on job descriptions, competencies, and tips for your job search.

The ASCA SCENE website provides networking opportunities to build connections and provide resources for job seekers and job posters alike. The Association for Addiction Professionals maintains a job center for substance abuse and addiction counselors to explore, as well.

Professional Organizations for Counselors

  • American Psychological AssociationAs the leading association of psychology students, professionals, practitioners, and consultants in the U.S., APA provides information about research, development, and applying psychology to broad audiences to expand general knowledge on the topic. APA members can pursue networking opportunities, continuing education resources, advocacy updates, and the latest research and advancements in the field.
  • American Counseling AssociationACA supports and enhances counseling as a profession by focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion, integrity, professional and community relationships, scientific practice and knowledge, social justice and empowerment, and proactive leadership. ACA members include educators, researchers, and practitioners who advocate for the profession and protect the field’s ethical standards.
  • National Board of Certified CounselorsNBCC offers credentials to counselors according to educational and ethical guidelines to advance the profession of counseling and maintain national professional standards. NBCC also provides state licensure information to counselors, government policy and advocacy updates, and resources to the public.
  • American Board of Professional PsychologyAs the main body for specialty certifications in the U.S., ABPP oversees and maintains the high educational and ethical standards among psychological professionals and services. Board certification through ABPP offers counselors increased job and salary growth and mobility and advancement in their specialty.
  • International Association for CounselingIAC works to advance counseling by supporting the development of education, research, and advocacy initiatives. This association focuses on expanding counseling globally and strengthening counseling services by bringing together counselors from around the world. IAC holds annual conferences, publishes a journal, holds roundtables, and provides certifications to counseling students and professionals.


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