How To Become a School Counselor: 7 Things You Need to Know

How Do I Become a School Counselor?

Since I started working as a school counselor many years ago, my mother has told me countless times that her “school counselor didn’t do that.” And she’s not wrong; mine didn’t do “that” either. This job has changed a lot over the years.

School counselors do a lot more than most people imagine. Regardless of the grade level, our focus is always on one of three areas. We focus on social and emotional, academic, or career and post-secondary preparedness.

Let’s go over the basics together.

What kind of education do you need?

To become a school counselor, you must first have an undergraduate degree. Your bachelor’s degree doesn’t have to be in a specific area of focus, but my psych degree came in handy. Once you’ve gotten your four-year degree, you’ll need to go back to school to get a master’s degree. (Be sure to seek out a CACREP accredited program.)

Many schools require the GRE. But, admissions criteria vary based on schools. As with all exams, the higher the score, the better. If your scores are not as high as you would like, don’t skimp on the application–really put forth your best effort.

To get your master’s degree in school counseling, you’re going to jump through hoops–lots of hoops. 

First, you’ll need to complete your standard course work. You’ll take classes that teach you how to the things before you do the things. For example, you’ll learn the fundamentals and theories of counseling. You’ll learn how to facilitate groups and counseling for college and career readiness. You’ll even take statistics, but don’t worry, stats are doable. (I made it through, so can you!) 

Once you’re toward the end of your graduate program, you’ll take two big exams. You’ll need to take your Praxis exam and your college’s comprehensive exams. Be sure to prepare for both by studying and timing yourself. Some states will also require an NCC exam before you can practice, but it varies by location.

Side note: A word to the wise, apply for graduate assistantships. You might not get accepted for a G.A. position, but it’s well worth your time to apply since they’ll often pay all or most of your tuition. (I didn’t even know that was an option at the time I applied.)

Will you have to do an internship?

Of course! Once you have a good portion of your coursework under your belt, they’ll let you into the wild with real children! (Following a drug test and background check, of course.) You’ll have a practicum and internship experience where you’ll work with students.

You’ll be under the direct supervision of a licensed school counselor, so be nice and willing to work. Most schools will want you to divide your internship experience into different grade levels. Do it! Breaking your experience into pieces will enable you to try out working in different environments, without the perception of “job-hopping.”

Most of my classmates and I had an idea of our preferred grade level, and most of us were dead wrong about what age group we desired. I never dreamt that I’d enjoy working with elementary-aged students, but here I am, working with the littles and loving it.

What do school counselors do?

School counselor’s roles vary based on age group, school district, and state. Ultimately, our role is to guide students through their educational journey. I see myself as a connecter of people, ideas, and resources.

We help students learn explicit skills related to our three core domains: social and emotional, career and college readiness, and academic.

We teach classes related to the topics our students need. We host small groups to serve a specific population of students about a particular issue. We also work one-on-one with students as well as work with their families and teachers.

No day is ever the same, and there is never a shortage of work to do. Organization and prioritization are key, but being able to pivot is crucial. You might have a day of classes planned but have to bail last-minute to support a student in crisis.

We are a notorious group for our love of color-coded planners that get destroyed daily.

Elementary School

I spend a lot of my time as an elementary school counselor teaching classes and working with students. Most of my focus is on teaching social and emotional skills, such as being a good friend or managing big emotions. But we also teach organization skills, study strategies, and host career and college fairs.

Middle School

Oh my, if you love drama, this is the place for you!

(I’m only half-joking.)

Middle school is brimming with adolescent angst. At this age, students need communication and self-regulation skills, as well as academic support. Translation: You’ll help squash the drama between friend groups so they can focus on their math test.

High School

High school is one of the most challenging but influential jobs you can have as a school counselor. No, I don’t mean “influential” like you’re hanging out with the mayor. I mean, your actions have some serious repercussions.

Often, school counselors at the high school level focus on academic, college, and career planning. Most school counselors are in charge of scheduling classes and ensuring students graduate. (No pressure, right?!?) They’ll also be the ones to write recommendation letters to colleges and host study skills workshops.

But don’t count high school counselors out on the social and emotional component. They are the people kids turn to for emotional support. They’re the listening ear when students break up with their significant other or provide support when a family member passes.

The range of topics school counselors cover in each grade level is endless, and rarely are they exclusive to a particular age-group.

What school counseling is not?

School counseling is not: testing, filing, covering the nurse’s station, or serving as the Response to Intervention coach. All that to say, you will likely have to do tasks that are not counseling related.

Unfortunately, some schools treat their school counselor as the “catch-all” person. It’s a bit of a holdover mentality from the days when school counselors’ roles were less defined.

I’m not saying that because you aren’t “supposed to,” that you won’t have to do those non-counseling tasks. I certainly have. I’m letting you know in advance that “testing coordinator” is not the role of the school counselor.

So, what do you do if you get one of those jobs that treat you like Cinderella?

You are going to collect data. Lots of data.

Through data, you will prove to your administration what you are doing to improve the school. They’ll likely want you to focus on the big three: academic achievement, discipline, and attendance. When the people in charge see the test scores go up because you’re hosting a study skills workshop, they might find someone else to file those documents or count those test booklets.

What skills will you need to join this profession?

  • Empathy
  • Open-mindedness
  • Organization
  • Leadership
  • Speaking abilities
  • Listening skills
  • Collaboration
  • Flexibility

How much do school counselors make?

Are you ready to swim around in your money like Donald Duck? If so, you’ve chosen the wrong career path. Sorry!

This is not a six-figure career path–not even close; this is Boone’s Farm and Toyota Camry money. No Cristal for you.

I’m not trying to crush your dreams or discourage you. Salaries actually vary quite a bit by geography.

According to ZipRecruiter, school counselors make about $59,877 per year. See, it’s not too shabby! (I mean, I don’t make nearly that much, but I’m sure other people in the field do.)

It is worth your time to do a little research before you begin applying. Washington has the highest average salary at $66,658, and North Carolina comes in last at $43,379. Be sure to factor in your cost of living when you are considering salaries.

Will I be happy as a school counselor? 

That’s really the question you want the answer to, isn’t it? If you take the plunge and go after it–spend all that time, money, and effort, will you be happy in this job? 

I don’t know. 

I hope so. I am. But, I learned years ago that your happiness is not just around the corner. Happiness is not when you get this thing or reach that goal. 

Happiness is being in the present and finding a way to enjoy yourself. It’s learning to enjoy being in the rain, not despite the rain, but because of the rain. 

If you want to learn more about what school counselors do, go straight to the source and check out ASCA‘s home page to dive a little deeper into the field.