How to Become a School Counselor

While counselors still offer academic guidance, today’s school counselor does a lot more than you imagine when you think “guidance counselors.”

The ASCA breaks down school counseling into three intersection areas: Academic, Personal-Social, and Career Post-Secondary (ie. helping students navigate academic difficulties, personal problems, and plan what to do after high school).

But what you may not realize is that they’re involved in these areas not just on a student to student basis, but also helping teachers and staff handle these issues, counseling parents, and at times even helping shape school policy.

They’re a key part of ensuring student academic success, despite outside factors, and they’re key to making sure student rights are upheld and that schools are safe, supportive spaces for learners.

Already a school counselor and looking for resources? Check out this School Counseling Toolkit!

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Job Description for School Counselors

A school counselor steers students on the road to academic success by evaluating and implementing a plan to best fit each student’s needs and goals. This role greatly exercises leadership and collaborative skills to ensure a smooth educational experience for all students.

School counselors may also use other resources, including standardized test results and other student data to accurately plan, monitor, and manage a student’s development.

In addition to academic excellence, a school counselor prepares students to be career ready by helping them gain the desired skills and competencies. For the students who are uncertain about which career field they want to enter in, a school counselor enables them to make well-informed decisions.

School counselors also work with parents, teachers, and community organizations, bringing people together and collaborating with them. They may write up referrals and conduct consultations to provide indirect services to students.

Demand for School Counselors

The job outlook for school counselors is about average, at a projected 8% growth from 2014 to 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

School Counselor Shortages by State

A shortage area is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as a role in which "there is an inadequate supply" of qualified professionals. The Department allows states to identify their own shortage areas, but encourages them to follow a prescribed methodology based on unfilled positions, positions filled by professionals with irregular certifications, and positions filled by professionals certified in other areas. Because the Department allows states to report shortages as they wish, some states only report teacher shortages while others include administrative shortages as well. Please reference each state's department of education to learn more about their particular shortage areas.

The following states reported a shortage in school counselors:

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Iowa
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • Oklahoma
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia

Teachers on Making the Transition to School Counseling

I enjoy being an important part of my school community and making lasting impressions with the work that I do with students, staff and parents." —Andrea Burston, 8 Questions with a School Counselor

I became a school counselor rather than choosing to work in an office first and foremost because I'm an educator at heart, but also because I prefer prevention work to intervention work. I always believed that if we were to give our children tools preventatively then we could avoid some of their desperation when they're in crises." —Barbara Gruener, Outside the Classroom with a School Counselor

Interested in reading more about school counselor career transitions? Catch up on the latest Outside the Classroom and 8 Questions interviews here. 

Other School Counseling Programs and Related Degree Options

Vanderbilt’s online M.Ed. with a specialization in school counseling prepares aspiring and experienced professionals interested in becoming K–12 school counselors for diverse populations.

Through dynamic clinical training and coursework, Counseling@Northwestern offers a CACREP-accredited online Master of Arts in Counseling from The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

NYU’s online master of arts in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness prepares students to work with clients to create lives of health and meaning.

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Job Functions for Different Grade Levels

The role of a school counselor varies with different grade levels. In an elementary school setting, a counselor’s role varies widely. They may help identify with many complex issues, such as family and personal/social developmental issues, as well as less serious issues that we can imagine an average six-year-old may face. Elementary school counselors offer education, prevention and intervention services as their main function.

Middle school counselors support students during rapid growth, development, and change. They help apply the lessons that they learn in the classroom to practically use the skills and knowledge learned in real life. During this stage, students balance academics while finding identities and exploring different interests and hobbies.

In high school, school counselors mainly focus on academic guidance rather than personal/social development, unlike the other two grade levels. While preparing to get accepted into a college, there are many things they will need help with: career decisions, college information, sending in the necessary documents, graduation, and so on.

Necessary skills for most positions include: 

  • Leadership
  • Collaboration
  • Patience
  • Communication
  • Relationship Building
  • Empathy
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Salary for School Counselor

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, school counselors earned an average of $53,660 per year, or $25.80 per hour, in 2015. The job outlook for this career is about 8%, or as fast as average.

Steps to Becoming a School Counselor

School counselors require a master’s degree from an accredited institution (usually in a field relevant to school counseling) along with state certification to become a practicing school counselor. Keep in mind education and certification requirements are different for each state.

Learn more about the specific education requirements for becoming a school counselor.