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How to Become a School Counselor in 2020
Adobe Stock / Valerii Honcharuk
Lorelei Yang
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Wonky consultant with a passion for words
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  • As a school counselor, you'll be able to help children work through issues they're facing at school and in their homes. 
  • Get started with your career by pursuing a bachelor's degree in a relevant field and earning a master's degree in school counseling.
  • Pass any exams that are required for certification/licensure and apply for school counseling jobs.

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If you enjoy working with children and helping them realize their full potential, becoming a school counselor may be right for you. As a school counselor, you'll be able to help children work through issues they're facing at school and in their homes. You'll be an important source of support for them, helping ensure that all children can succeed and thrive at school, regardless of their family situations. 

It's a tough job, as school counselors are often on the front line of helping children deal with major problems at home and school, but also a rewarding one. If you're ready to take the leap, here's how to achieve that goal.

What does a school counselor do?

As you may recall from your own school years, school counselors are part of elementary, middle and high school settings. They're important resources for students and teachers alike, helping students achieve their academic goals, resolve interpersonal disputes between students and more. The American School Counselor Association calls them "vital members of the education team" who help students in "the areas of academic achievement, career and social/emotional development, ensuring today's students become the productive, well-adjusted adults of tomorrow."

School counselors' responsibilities vary a bit based on the settings they work in. At the elementary school level, they often focus on looking for early signs of learning, developmental or behavioral problems and working with teachers, parents and administrators to address these challenges. At the middle school level, school counselors most frequently work with students to overcome challenges associated with problems that rear their heads in that age group. These include peer pressure, puberty, self-esteem issues and identity development. 

At the high school level, they often focus on academics (including academic struggles and post-high school plans), career exploration, relationships and sex, mental illness challenges, suicide prevention and substance abuse (such as drugs and alcohol).  Additionally, high school counselors are highly involved in their students' journeys to college. They're responsible for coordinating college admissions officers' visits to their schools, helping students choose between and apply to colleges and answering students' questions about the college application process.

However, regardless of the school they work in, all school counselors are involved with:

  • Referring students to and connecting them with outside counseling services or community resources as needed.
  • Talking to students to help them determine their interests, abilities and goals (and working with them to develop plans to help them achieve their goals and nurture their interests).
  • Identifying and reaching out to students who need help but may not be able to self-advocate.
  • Responding to crises, such as a loss of a community member, in the school community.

As already discussed, school counselors serve as important resources for students dealing with difficult situations at home. The following are only a few of the issues school counselors might be called upon to help students deal with:

  • Divorce
  • Abuse or neglect
  • Drug/alcohol abuse
  • Bullying
  • Mental illness
  • Poverty
  • Gender and sexual identity development

In addition to the one-on-one work they do with individual students, school counselors are also called on to develop preventative and responsive programs to address community-level issues at their schools. These may include peer-to-peer support programs; workshops and presentations for students, faculty and/or parents; or speaking to classes about important issues.

How to become a school counselor

Regardless of the age group (elementary, middle or high school) you hope to work in, the general steps for becoming a school counselor are the same. You'll need to meet certain educational, certification and continuing education requirements to join this profession.

1. Earn a bachelor's degree in a relevant field.

Earning a bachelor's degree in counseling, education or psychology forms an essential foundation that will give you the necessary context to understand the dynamics of helping professions like counseling. A degree in one of these fields will also give you the opportunity to learn about mental health foundations, education systems, theories of learning and student services, among other important topics that you'll need to be familiar with. Most importantly, they'll give you the opportunity to start working with students.

2. Earn a master's degree in school counseling.

A master's degree in school counseling from an accredited university is a requirement for any school counselor position. As such, you'll need to earn this degree in order to become eligible to be considered for positions. These programs will generally cover important topics such as counseling theories, learning and behavior disorders, human development and counseling ethics.

You can pursue a master's degree in school counseling in person in a traditional classroom environment or online. In some cases, if you have particular areas of interest, you may want to look into master's degree programs that are best-suited to exploring the specific topics you're interested in. For example, if you're interested in bilingual school counseling, New York University (NYU) offers a concentration in this topic with coursework focused on language development and the adaptation of immigration students.

3. Complete a graduate internship.

While in a school counseling master's degree program, you'll be required to complete graduate supervised internship experiences in schools under certified/licensed school counselors. You'll be required to complete at least one of these internships, as these experiences are an important part of preparing you for postgraduate employment. Just like a college internship, a graduate internship will afford you important hands-on experience that you'll need to eventually dive deep into work with your own students.

4. Take (and pass) any exams that are required for certification/licensure.

In some states, aspiring school counselors are required to pass state-recognized examinations for graduation or certification/licensure. To see if your state is one of those jurisdictions, check the American School Counselor Association's state-by-state list of state certification requirements. 

In those states where exams are required, there's usually a fee (generally somewhere in the $100 to $200 range) associated with taking the exam and a minimum score that's needed to pass the exam. To be successful on your state's exam, you'll need to know and review the topics it will test. Your state's education department will be your best resource for current requirements, exam topics and related information.

5. Apply for licensure and/or certification.

After you pass the required exams (if any are required in your state), you'll need to apply for licensure and/or certification. Again, as with exam requirements, each state's requirements for licensure and/or certification vary. You'll need to understand your specific state's requirements. To help with this, consult both the American School Counselor Association's state-by-state list of state certification requirements and your state education department's most up-to-date information to ensure that you understand what you need to do to become licensed in your state.

6. Find and apply for school counseling jobs.

Once you've secured the necessary educational credentials and certification/licensure, you can seek a school counselor job in your local area or anywhere else in your state. To do this, you can take advantage of your graduate school's alumni network, mentors from your graduate internships and others, as well as browse job listings at the school district or individual school level.

7. Engage in continuing education to stay up-to-date in your field.

Like teachers, school counselors must complete ongoing education requirements to stay current with new developments in their field. There are also additional certifications that school counselors can pursue for additional education and to further specialize in their profession. To this end, the American School Counselor Association and other professional organizations for school counselors offer a broad range of additional certifications.

School counselor salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a median pay of $56,310 per year (or $27.07) for school counselors in 2018. However, it's important to know that school counselors' pay can vary wildly based on the state they're employed in. For example, the USC Rossier School of Education notes that California, which is home to some of the highest-paying school counselor positions in the U.S., boasts an average annual salary of $68,000 for school counselors across the state. In some cases, they can even earn upwards of $107,690.

Now that you're armed with the information you need to become a school counselor, you're ready to take the plunge. Should you embark on this path, expect a challenging yet incredibly rewarding career. Regardless of the educational setting you end up working in, you'll make a real difference in students' lives as a school counselor. You'll be responsible for guiding students through some of the most difficult challenges they'll face in their young lives; in exchange, you'll get the satisfaction of seeing them through safely to the other side of the challenges they're confronted with. In many cases, you'll leave a lasting impression on the young lives you touch.

Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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