How to Become a School Counselor

Two women sit talking at a table in front of a window overlooking a city
School counselor (Image credit: Unsplash)

To become a school counselor in most states one must obtain an accredited master’s degree in school counseling, says Jill Cook, executive director of the American School Counselor Association. 

Getting this master’s isn’t easy, however, once entering the job market, school counselors are in demand. Cook shares insights into what the job is like. 

Who Becomes a School Counselor?  

In the past, most school counselors were teachers first because many states used to require teaching experience or a bachelor’s degree in education, says Cook, who was a music teacher before making the jump to counseling. 

Now, most of those requirements have gone by the wayside, opening up school counseling to those with many different career and educational backgrounds. “I know people in the profession today who were police officers, some business people, somebody who was a flight attendant, somebody who worked for the Campbell Soup Company,” Cook says. “We have several people who worked on the juvenile justice end, and they wanted to work on the other end of that line with kiddos.” 

Cook says school counseling programs are looking for applicants from diverse backgrounds who are enthusiastic about the work of school counseling. “They want to see people who have a passion for working with young people and in a K-12 setting,” she says.

What Do School Counselors Do?  

The role of a school counselor is not to be confused with the role of a guidance counselor, which some older adults may remember from their time in school. “It's not a reactive profession where maybe you're just helping students with the college application process or just working with disciplinary issues,” Cook says. “Today's school counselors work with all students in a school.” 

This work takes place in a variety of ways. “One is through classroom instruction,” Cook says. “They do small-group work based on student needs.” 

School counselors do short-term individual counseling, however, there are some misconceptions about this aspect of the job. “School counselors do not do therapy, do not prescribe medication, don't diagnose,” Cook says. “But they might do solution-focused, brief counseling. They work with the classroom teachers, they work with families, they work with all the school staff.” 

Data Plays An Important Role  

In addition to holding group and one-on-one sessions, school counselors are increasingly involved in looking at various metrics of wellness and education within a school or district. 

“Today's school counselors analyze school and student data to identify gaps,” Cook says. These might be gaps in enrollment, resources, or opportunities. When counselors identify these gaps, they set goals and develop programs to help overcome them. 

“We're impacting student outcomes,” Cook says. “It's not just random work. It's really specific based on student needs.”

School Counselors Are In Demand  

The mental health challenges of the pandemic have led to increased demand for school counselors. “I've been with this association for two decades, and we've never had a school counselor shortage before,” Cook says. “We are now starting to see that for the same reasons we're seeing it in education as a whole: burnout, exhaustion, people reaching retirement age.” 

Some states have implemented programs to incentivize school counselor training and overcome financial and time-commitment barriers to entering the profession. In Colorado, for example, there is a program to provide those pursuing school counseling master’s degrees with paid internships, Cook says. 

How to Decide on a School Counselor Program?  

Those interested in becoming school counselors should look at accredited master’s programs. They also may consider the state they want to work in and learn what the school counseling requirements for that state are and any states in which they might one day want to work. While Cook says most states offer reciprocity with school counseling licenses, some states have additional requirements. 

No matter where you go to school, it’s important that you enjoy working with students in an educational setting. “It’s all about making connections and you do get to see students holistically, but ultimately, also in more specific intimate work, depending on student needs,” Cook says. “Good school counselors in a good school counseling program really are at the heart of the school.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.