How to Become a School Counselor (Duties, Salary & Steps)

How’s this for a rewarding career?

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

school counsellor career path

School counselors fulfill a critical role in educational systems. They support students and coach them to be the best they can be. It’s a rewarding job, and it can be extremely varied in what it entails, so it’s no surprise it’s a popular career.

This article takes you through everything you need to know about being a school counselor, including what the role involves, its working environment, salary information, and what you need to prepare in order to become one.

What is a school counselor?

School counselors work in educational institutions to provide a wide range of support to students. They are ultimately there to focus on students’ development and help them navigate educational life, beginning to focus on their longer-term future. School counselors often assist students on a one-to-one basis but can teach classes if required.

What do school counselors do?

There is really no limit to the level of support and guidance school counselors offer. Duties can be grouped into five main responsibilities:

  • Academic counseling: Ensuring students successfully navigate their studies and helping them address challenges such as poor grades.
  • Career guidance: Advising students on potential career avenues and entry paths post-study.
  • Faculty liaison: Collaborating with other educational staff or support staff like HR on how to create a supportive environment.
  • Higher education guidance: Coaching students on the best college options, and how to apply successfully.
  • Personal support: Supporting students in navigating challenges related to money, stress, mental health, relationships, or other crises.

What is their workplace like?

School counselors will be offering mainly onsite support in a certain type of institution such as elementary schools. They will have an office, and most of the work will be based there.

They are required to spend time on administrative duties, but also open plenty of time for student meetings as well as catch-ups with employees such as teachers.

Effective school counselors will also find time to maintain a visible presence in the educational institution, walking the corridors and talking to staff and students around the building. Some classroom work (for example, to deliver career lectures) might be needed.

What kind of hours do they work?

School counselors typically work during the normal academic day, which is from the morning until mid- to late-afternoon. The majority of their responsibilities and tasks take place during the day.

At some times (for example, during exams, term start and term end, and other stressful or academically demanding periods), school counselors might need to be present for longer, taking on meetings before or after the educational day.

They might have to meet with educators after they have finished their lessons or participate in school activities on the weekends or evenings, such as seminars or parent-teacher evenings.

How much do school counselors earn?

What school counselors earn varies based on their experience, the level of education they support, and the performance (and reputation) of their academic institution. They might also earn overtime.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2022, the mean annual salary for school counselor is $64,200. Salaries at the 10th percentile average $38,280, while those at the 90th percentile average $98,530.

Salaries across educational industries vary as well. The mean wage is $72,190 in elementary schools, $64,410 in junior colleges or middle schools, $62,330 in educational support services, $54,430 in universities and colleges, $51,460 in technical and trade schools, and $42,480 in vocational rehabilitation services.

The top-paying state for school counselors, meanwhile, is California ($81,100), followed by Washington ($79,180), Massachusetts ($76,860), New Jersey ($76,580) and Connecticut ($71,920).

At a glance:

School Counselors Salary

What’s the job market like?

Becoming a school counselor is not only a rewarding role, but it’s also very secure.

There has — and remains — a strong need for school counselors in a variety of settings, and counselors enjoy strong career growth as well as plenty of opportunities nationwide. This need is driven by requirements for high school counselors in new schools, as well as new demographics transitioning from education to the workforce, lik  veterans.

The BLS estimates suggest that from 2022 to 2032, 26,600 new school counselor jobs will be created each year, an annual growth rate of 5%, which is faster than the national average.

How satisfied are school counselors?

School counselors are ranked as average in terms of job satisfaction.

The role has a lot of opportunities for career growth and can be very rewarding, as well as impactful on students’ wellbeing, and is therefore a popular career choice. The career also ranks well in terms of work–life balance and the working environment in general.

Nevertheless, school counselors rate their profession lower in terms of compensation and, critically, job stress. The role can be mentally demanding, especially at busier times of the academic year. Some school counselors experience burnout but do report being offered coping mechanisms from their employer on managing this risk.

What are the entry requirements?

Becoming a school counselor is an academic career path and, therefore, if you are looking to go into this profession, a bachelor’s degree is essential. Most states require that school counselors have a master’s degree in either counseling or psychology.

A degree in school counseling will be more focused on the technical soft skills required for the career. This can include practical classes on how to counsel in different contexts, and elective modules focusing on areas such as mental health or career development.

Should you become a school counselor?

Being a school counselor is a hard job and requires a lot of time and energy invested in it. Only those who feel they have the right skills as well as the inherent interest to be a school counselor should seriously consider moving into the role. People who love working with students or children, as well as having an aptitude for change and professional development, would excel as school counselors.

Good skills to possess to become a school counselor include interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, patience, empathy and listening skills, as well as tact or diplomacy. It’s a rich mix of abilities and interests, but this is what makes the role so interesting and rewarding.

If you’re wondering what career is best for you, then consider taking CareerHunter’s professionally developed six-stage assessment, a personal career planning tool that assesses the best jobs for you based on your career interests, passions and skills.

How to become a school counselor

So, if you have read this far and are excited about what a career as a school counselor can look like, then read on for five steps to becoming a school counselor:

Step 1: Focus on higher education

As mentioned, school counselors often need to earn a master’s degree to be considered by employers, focusing on counseling or psychology. This will mean that you will need to have excellent grades in high school, focusing on core subjects like mathematics and sciences.

Higher education for school counselors might often be vocational, with work experience or internships built into the curriculum.

Step 2: Find an internship

Master’s degree programs in school counseling will include at least one period of supervised experience such as an internship. This is an invaluable stage of the qualification process, as it immerses school counselors into the working environment in a controlled way. This enables you to see if the role is really for you and also allows educators to assess your suitability for this demanding role.

Internships are often graded and will not only require you to work in the role but also to complete assessments or assignments based on what you are learning. Successful internships with employers can lead you to be headhunted for permanent roles at the same institution once you are qualified.

As is the case in many other industries, the best school counselor internships are in high demand as places are limited. Therefore, you need to ensure your cover letter and résumé are prepared in advance and that your application ticks all the boxes.

Step 3: Acquire teaching experience

Many academic institutions require their school counselors to have teaching experience, which is invaluable and actually comes highly recommended. This is because counselors who can relate to the challenges experienced by both students and the institutions that teach them are better equipped to support people when they need it.

Many school counselors also naturally transition from standard teaching work experience to school counseling, as their own career evolves.

Some employers don’t necessarily need teaching experience, but a teaching license is essential. These requirements are often outlined as part of the individual state’s licensure requirements. A substantial criminal background check will be mandated as part of the teaching license process.

Step 4: Become licensed

School counselors will need a state-required license in order to work. This needs to be obtained before employment. School counseling licensure depends on the state, and can be called an endorsement, a certification or a license.

Gaining the license will require the master’s degree, internship experience and, in some cases, examinations via school counseling programs. The American School Counselors Association can advise on the individual requirements for each state.

Additionally, some states will require separate counseling certifications. These also vary by state, and the requirements can be found via the National Board for Certified Counselors.

Step 5: Gain work experience

Once you are qualified and licensed, you can begin your rewarding work as a school counselor!

Entry-level roles might see you working as part of a team of counselors or simply performing administrative work for senior employees in your department.

You will gain responsibility and remit as you become more experienced. You can use the early years of your career to discover what groups of students or what kinds of academic institutions you are best equipped to support.

Whereas you can move through different types of counseling early in your career, it’s best to focus and specialize in a specific kind of school counseling as you become more senior and your responsibilities and team size increase.

Final thoughts

Being a school counselor is a challenging job. It requires you to wear lots of different hats all at once: supporting students, helping them improve grades, working with faculty staff, and everything in between.

The role is stressful and demanding but is rewarding as well. Being a school counselor can, therefore, be a great career choice if you’re academically minded and enjoy coaching people and developing them as well.

If one of your career goals is to become a school counselor, then you need to prepare a long-term plan to get there. Becoming a school counselor requires good grades, higher education and a structured path of internships, certification and work experience. But, once you make it, there are very few careers as life-changing as this one. Good luck!

Got a question? Let us know in the comments section below.

Originally published on December 7, 2018.