How To Become a Counselor

A counseling career gives you the opportunity to help others every day and this resource is here to help you achieve your professional goals. Whether you are a practicing professional, seeking a career change, or following a dream or passion, our mission is to provide all of the information you need to pursue a career as a professional counselor, no matter where you live.

Steps to Become a Counselor

  1. Pursue a master's degree in counseling
  2. Complete practicum and/or internship hours
  3. Obtain counseling licensure and/or certification
  4. Choose a counseling career path
  5. Advance your practice through continued learning

1. Pursue a Master's Degree in Counseling

To forge a successful career in counseling , and to receive state licensure or certification, you will first need to earn a master’s degree in counseling. Determining your counseling preference and specialty before application helps to best prepare you for your future career in this rewarding profession. Obtaining your master’s degree in counseling with a state license or certification demonstrates to employers and clients that you are a qualified counselor and are competent within your scope of practice.

What should you look for in a master's in counseling online program?
Discover the important factors to your online counseling degree with these guides.
  • Discover which graduate counseling programs can help you launch your career as there are many counseling specialties and add-on certifications.
  • Explore a master’s level education offered online or on campus by CACREP accredited graduate programs.
  • Research the counseling curricula and related career pursuits such as therapy, social work and clinical psychology.
  • Find out how you can specialize your study and focus on a concentration or specific population you would prefer to work with, i.e. adolescents, geriatric, urban, LGBTQIA, or couples - to name a few.
  • Learn about admission requirements, application processes, tuition, financial aid and scholarships.

Learn more about online master's in counseling programs.

2. Complete Practicum and/or Internship Hours

In order to obtain licensure or certification, counselors are required to participate for a minimum number of documented hours in supervised clinical fieldwork. Accredited master’s programs require an on-site practicum or internship for graduation. These hours may be counted toward your state requirement, but depending on your state, you will likely need to complete additional fieldwork hours to become a licensed or certified counselor. This is also dependent upon your concentration.

  • Practicum: Required practicum hours range from 100 to 300 hours. Students have the opportunity to work alongside licensed or certified counselors during sessions both supervised and independently. They also attend meetings, participate in trainings, write reports and clinical notes, review tapes, engage in professional development, and more.
  • Internship: Required internship hours calculate to about 600 hours. Students work under supervision and independently both in and out of sessions with clients. Counseling interns are held to the same standards as other practicing professionals at the clinical site. Interns must keep clinical records, engage in professional development, collaborate and interact with other counselors and family members as well as meeting with their assigned clients.

Learn more about the counseling internship experience.

3. Obtain Counseling Licensure and/or Certification

Without a license or certificate, most states will not allow you to practice or accept health insurance from clients. To meet state requirements for practice, counseling licensure/certification is necessary. A valid state counseling license/certification serves as proof that a counseling professional has met state-determined qualification standards, including a minimum level of education and requisite hours of supervised clinical experience.

  • Research the licensing or certification requirements in your state.
  • Learn how many supervision and fieldwork hours are necessary in your state of interest and how/where you can fulfill them.
  • Find out the details about licensing or certification exam to include costs, study guides and registration.

Learn more about counseling licensure in your state.

4. Choose a Counseling Career Path

With a state license/certiication and a master’s degree, you’ll find counseling career opportunities in hospitals, mental health clinics, private practices, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, schools, nursing homes, and government and community agencies. Continue to visit this website for guidance and as a resource as you work toward your educational and career goals.

  • Explore the many counseling specialties and the types of clients you can help.
  • Research where the counseling jobs are in your state.
  • Learn about employer requirements and job expectations as well as responsibilities as they correlate with your lived and learned experiences.

Learn more about different counseling careers.

5. Advance your practice through continued learning

A successful counselor stays ahead of the curve and continues to expand their knowledge as their career progresses. The counseling field is always growing with research and new findings. There may be a new way to apply a counseling technique to a mental health concern that was previously unexplored. As a professional counselor, in any specialty and field, it can even be required by licensure and certification to engage in continuing education credits and research. You may also wish to explore additional professional certifications and doctoral programs for counselors.

  • Become a member of professional counseling organizations.
  • Explore PhD counseling programs.
  • Understand the value of additional certifications and learn how to obtain it.
  • Research different ways to obtain continuing education or professional development credits for licensure, certification, or renewal.

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More Information on How to Become a Counselor

How Long Does It Take to Become a Counselor?

Counselors typically complete a four-year bachelor’s degree and pursue a master’s degree in counseling before they begin their practice. Some counselors earn a counseling undergraduate degree, but those interested in pursuing a master’s degree may have a bachelor’s degree in a different or related field such as sociology, cultural anthropology or psychology.

There are different types of graduate counseling degrees, depending on what the school offers and what topics interest you the most. Some schools offer a Master of Arts in Counseling while others offer more specialized degrees that include mental health, clinical counseling, school counseling, and family and marriage therapy.

The time it takes to complete a graduate degree depends on the program you choose. If you are interested in pursuing a full-time program, two-year master’s degrees available. If you would like to continue working and need more flexibility, there are part-time as well as online options, which may take between two and three years to complete, depending on your level of commitment.

A master’s degree requires a supervised practicum, which allows students to practice counseling in the real world. Depending on the program, a practicum can range from 500 to 1,000 hours.

What Do Counselors Do?

Professional counselors address the mental, emotional, and behavioral needs of individuals, families, students, and communities. After their counseling education, professional counselors go on to earn post-graduate hours in working with a variety of people under the supervision of an already licensed counselor. Through use of different approaches, therapies, and skills many different counselors treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Counselors will also often work with other mental health professionals and community resources to ensure that their clients receive holistic care.

Check out our reasons to become a counselor, from our interviews with professional and licensed counselors.

What Career Options Are Available in Counseling?

There are at least 10 different careers in counseling you can pursue. As a counselor you can work with students as a school counselor or assisting those getting back to work as a rehabilitation counselor. Majority of counseling careers require a master's degree in either counseling or a specialized field like substance abuse counseling. While there are sometimes options for alternative pathways to licensure, be sure to check with your state's licensing board first.

  • Mental Health Counselor
  • School Counselor
  • Career Counselor
  • Child Counselor
  • College Counselor
  • Grief Counselor
  • Military Counselor
  • Pastoral Counselor
  • Rehabilitation Counselor
  • Substance Abuse Counselor
Check out our careers in counseling guide for more details on the different pathways.

Counseling Licensure

Becoming a licensed professional counselor will require you to pursue licensure standards set forth by your state of practice. Some states offer reciprocity licensure paths, but it is important to understand your initial licensure pathway first. Most states require the following: accredited graduate degree program completion, practicum and/or internship hours during graduate coursework, post-graduate supervised hours of practice and sometimes a submission of a state of national exam.

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FAQs

How long does it take to become a counselor and what degree do I need?

According to CACREP’s standards, a master’s in counseling degree program should be at least 60 semester credit hours or 90 quarter credit hours, which generally translates to two academic years. Additionally, counselors must apply for licensure, which necessitates completing an exam and supervised postgraduate hours as mandated by the relevant state counseling board.

How long does it take to become a LPC?

After earning a master’s in counseling or equivalent from a CACREP-accredited degree program, aspiring LPCs must apply for licensure. Counseling certification and licensure is processed by state boards according to their own requirements, but generally necessitate completing an exam and a number of supervised postgraduate hours. The AASCB advocates for the National Counselor Examination (PDF, 430 KB), which is available monthly, and the American Mental Health Counselors Association advocates for 3,000 hours of supervised practice within two years (PDF, 677 KB)

Is an online counseling degree respected?

Yes, online degrees can be equivalent to on-campus degrees. The question is not whether the degree is earned online or on campus, but whether it is properly accredited. The accreditor of postgraduate degrees in counseling, CACREP, accredits 72 online counseling degrees. While CACREP acknowledges that graduation from an accredited program does not guarantee licensure eligibility, most states recognize CACREP standards.

Is CACREP accreditation important?

CACREP is the only programmatic accrediting organization recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. While CACREP acknowledges that its accreditation does not guarantee that graduates of accredited programs will qualify for licensure, it is endorsed by AASCB, which counts most state counseling boards among its members. That said, keep in mind that some master’s in counseling degree programs may be in the process of accreditation but have yet to complete it.

Are there any online counseling programs that don’t require the GRE?

Yes, online counseling programs differ in their application criteria and many do not require the Graduate Records Examinations (GRE). Because each master’s in counseling degree program can be unique in its requirements, applicants should speak with an admissions counselor about the necessary qualifications, such as GRE scores.

Information regarding salary, licensure, coursework, certifications, and internships was updated as of April 2020.