How to Become a School Counselor

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A school counselor meets with a student.At the heart of school counseling is the desire to see students succeed. By encouraging positive self-motivation and self-direction habits in students, school counselors are critical to the progress of both students and the programs they attend. According to studies reported by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), students attending schools with K-12 counselors have better attendance records, better graduation rates and higher SAT scores than students in schools without counselors. With the proper knowledge and skills, counselors can help students optimize their educational experience and transition effectively into adult life.

As student enrollment continues to grow and studies show the benefits of lower student-to-counselor ratios, the demand for master’s-educated school counselors is not only on the rise, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), it’s increasing much faster than the average for all occupations. Learning how to become a school counselor can become the first step in a fulfilling new career.

What Does a School Counselor Do?

School counselors are an integral part of the education system. From one student to the next, school counselors must be able to address different challenges and apply a variety of strategies to equip students with the skills to improve their educational experience. Counselors appraise students’ needs, prepare individual lesson or program plans, advocate for and mediate between students, and advise students in goal setting and forming positive daily habits.

Beginning in elementary school and continuing throughout postsecondary education, the needs, concerns and goals of students change as they get older. However, systemic inequities are found throughout education, and strong counseling programs have been shown to improve student outcomes. With the right preparation, counselors can provide guidance and resources to help students cope with the challenges they face and inspire students to embrace a bright future.

Manage, Deliver and Assess

As defined by the ASCA, counselors must be able to manage, deliver and assess school counseling programs. This involves not only planning programs, but also delivering them to students and evaluating their effectiveness to achieve the best possible results. By collaborating with a student’s support system and providing needed resources, counselors help students develop core interpersonal skills, set achievable goals and plan for life after graduation.

The Steps to Become a School Counselor

To become a school counselor, candidates must fulfill a variety of educational, professional, licensure and ethical standards, varying by state. In most cases, this means dedicating a minimum of six years to postsecondary education to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. This focus on higher education gives counselors the knowledge, skills and personal experience required to meet ASCA professional and ethical standards.


While educational requirements vary by state, most states require a master’s degree from an accredited institution of higher education that fulfills the advanced degree course requirements for counseling. In some states, these requirements include the completion of specific courses such as approved human relations courses, individual or group counseling, research and program evaluation, or career development, along with the completion of a supervised practicum or internship.

Licensure and Certification

Depending on a counselor’s specialization, most states require licensure and certification to be eligible for employment as a counselor. Whether an individual is pursuing a career in pre-K counseling, K-12 school counseling, addiction counseling, community mental health counseling or rehabilitation counseling, they may be required to obtain certain certifications to prove their competency. Counselors may also need to be licensed with the department of education in their state and must be able to pass a background check.

Professional Experience

Often candidates look to internships or teaching experience to gain an understanding of real-world scenarios and a more well-rounded perspective. State experience requirements vary, with some mandating a minimum number of hours in a supervised internship or counseling practicum, two to three years of verified experience as a school counselor or teacher, a minimum number of hours of clinical experience or the completion of a Praxis examination.

The Skills of a School Counselor

As those researching how to become a school counselor will discover, the process involves not only learning program strategies, but also developing core competencies, including:

  • Strong Analytical Skills: Through understanding patterns, details or habits, counselors can make decisions and recommend strategies based on each student’s unique situation.
  • Interpersonal and Communication Skills: To connect with students, counselors must be able to listen and empathize, allowing students to feel heard. This also provides counselors with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions and deliver them effectively.
  • Time Management and Organization: With an ideal ratio of 1 counselor to 250 students, according to the ASCA (and a national average of 1 counselor to 424 students, as of the 2019-2020 school year), counselors have a very high caseload and must be both efficient and well-organized, preparing resources ahead of time and scheduling effectively.
  • Cultural Competence: To promote equity and diversity in education, counselors must be aware of their own culture and make an effort to educate themselves on the dynamic differences in their students’ cultures and how to both recognize and celebrate those differences.

With the aid of a school counselor, students learn to develop crucial skills and positive mental health practices. A counselor’s ability to recognize the diversity of strengths and experiences within their school community is essential to building strong connections with students. By continuing their education and research and remaining informed of current social, socioeconomic and behavioral trends, an effective counselor can adapt and optimize the effectiveness of their programs to best suit students’ individual needs.

Shape the Next Generation of Students

Whether they are working at the elementary, middle, high or postsecondary school level, counselors are highly educated and professionally certified individuals tasked with promoting access and equity for all students. Individuals who are passionate about advocating for students and positively influencing the future of education, personal development and mental health, pursuing a career in counseling may be the right choice.

With the flexibility of online education, three start dates per year and a diverse, highly educated and experienced faculty, the University of North Dakota is dedicated to preparing you for success. Learn about the positive change you can make in a fulfilling counseling career with the University of North Dakota’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program and its K-12 School Counseling specialization.

Individuals who have already completed a master’s degree in mental health counseling or community agency counseling and are interested in re-specializing in school counseling can explore the University of North Dakota’s online post-graduate certificate in K-12 School Counseling and the doors it can open. Discover how UND can prepare you to pursue your professional goals as a leader in school counseling.


Recommended Readings

Webinar: Online Graduate Counseling Programs Overview


American School Counselor Association, “ASCA Research Report: State of the Profession 2020”

American School Counselor Association, “Empirical Research Studies Supporting the Value of School Counseling”

American School Counselor Association, “The Role of the School Counselor”

American School Counselor Association, School Counselor Roles & Ratios

American School Counselor Association, School-to-School-Counselor Ratio 2019-2020

American School Counselor Association, State Certification Requirements

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, “Fixing the Communication Gaps Between High School and Higher Ed”

National Board for Certified Counselors, State Licensure

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, School and Career Counselors and Advisors