School Counselor Careers

Do you want to be a school counselor? This comprehensive guide walks you through job descriptions for all types of school counselors, from elementary to graduate levels, even including online school counselors!

What Is a School Counselor?

A school guidance counselor is a professional educator focused on ensuring that students achieve academic, social, and career success. If you are interested in a career in school counseling, read on to learn more about the different school counselor positions and their responsibilities with students at various points in their educational development, from elementary school to college.

Elementary School Counselor

If you enjoy working with younger children, a career as an elementary school counselor might be a great option for you. Elementary school counselors are trained in child development and provide consultation to parents and teachers regarding developmental issues. The role of a school counselor within an elementary setting is to lay the groundwork for the development of the attitudes and skills that students need to be successful in the social and academic realm. You might do this by:

  • Conducting in-class lessons about empathy or bullying
  • Running a small group for students with divorced parents
  • Providing individual counseling regarding friendship concerns
  • Helping a teacher develop a behavior management plan for a student

Elementary school counselors also support the early identification and support of students who are struggling learners.

Middle School Counselor

Middle school is a time of rapid developmental growth for adolescents, and the role of a school counselor in the middle school setting will vary based on the population and assessed needs at any particular school. Middle school counselors implement school counseling programs focused on educating students and provide prevention and intervention services. During the course of the day, you might:

  • Work with a class of students to develop study skills
  • Provide individual counseling regarding cyberbullying
  • Plan a career day
  • Intervene in a crisis situation with a student

High School Counselor

A high school guidance counselor plays a vital role in working with teenagers on the brink of adulthood. High school students face tremendous pressure both academically and socially, as they are faced with intense pressure from peer groups. The high school guidance counselor must work with students to navigate this difficult time.

The high school counselor job description varies based upon the needs of the student body and the time of the academic year. If you become a high school counselor, you would work closely with students to help them prepare for future education by guiding them through the college admission, testing, and financial aid processes. For students who are not seeking postsecondary education, you could assist them in the job search process. You also help students with course selection and developing school schedules. High school counselors also play a role in counseling students regarding social issues, including crisis situations like suicidal thoughts or drug use.

College Counselor

College is also a time of great transition for young adults, and some counselors choose to focus on working with this population. If you choose to work in college counseling, you would offer both individual therapy sessions and lead group counseling programs or workshops on topics such as stress reduction, eating disorders and other self-care topics.

Counselors in college counseling centers typically hold a state-issued license such as a licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed psychologist, or licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

You might have other options to work in counseling at the college level. Universities typically have a career counseling office. If you were to work in this setting, you could:

  • Assist students in taking career assessments
  • Review their resumes, prepare them for interviews
  • Assist in the search for employment or internships

Colleges also employ financial aid counselors, who work with students to complete financial aid applications and apply for scholarships, and admissions counselors who work with high school students, attend college fairs, and evaluate applications in order to recruit students for a university.

Graduate School Counseling

Graduate school can be a challenging time for students as they adjust to enhanced academic expectations. Your goals for a counseling career may include working with adults, and graduate school counseling would be a great option to do so. Graduate school counselors often work within in the college counseling offices to provide similar services.

At some universities, specific counselors are designated for various graduate schools, so they can gain expertise focus on the specific needs of one student population. For example, a counseling office might have a graduate school counselor who focuses on working with law students, business students, or engineering students. This counselor may hold a second graduate degree in the area of expertise; but this is not a requirement.

School and Career Counselors

In some schools, the counseling department designates specific counselors to work with students on college and career choices while other counselors focus on helping students with personal issues. These school and career counselors might:

  • Instruct students regarding career pathways
  • Organize college nights and career fairs
  • Provide support regarding the college application process

Beyond working in the school setting, there are opportunities for career counselors at universities and in private practice. These counselors work with individuals through the career search and career transition process. As a career counselor, you would focus on helping individuals determine career options through various forms of assessment, including the FOCUS2, MBTI, or Strong Interest Inventory. Additional duties could include:

  • Revising resumes
  • Helping clients practice for interviews
  • Working through problems clients face at employment settings

Online School Counseling

As online educational programs become more prevalent, the presence of online school counselors has to as well. If you became a school counselor at an online school, your duties would be similar to those of school counselors in brick and mortar schools. Some common tasks include:

  • Offering individual counseling sessions to plan for postsecondary education
  • Providing guidance on career direction
  • Counseling students on study habits

Counseling is offered through phone, chat, or video sessions.

What Does a School Counselor Do?

School counselors serve the students in their school by delivering a comprehensive school counseling program. Throughout this program, counselors offer a range of direct and indirect services to the students in their school. All services offered should assist with student's social, emotional, and academic development. Within schools that follow a model school counseling program, the types of services offered should include delivering:

  • A counseling core curriculum
  • Individual student planning
  • Responsive services
  • Indirect student services

The design of programs should be driven by data on student needs. Examples of each of these program areas is presented in the table below.

Type of Service Offered Example of the Service
Counseling Curriculum Teaching a lesson about friendship
Counseling Curriculum Teaching about financial aid at a FAFSA night
Student Planning Working with a group of students on goal setting
Student Planning Advising a student as to which courses to select for the next academic year
Responsive Services Offering a small group for students with divorced parents
Responsive Services Supporting a student who is stating she may commit suicide
Indirect Services/Referrals Providing information to a parent for a therapist focused on ADHD
Indirect Services/Consultation Helping a teacher set up a behavior plan for her classroom
Indirect Services/Accountability Analyzing attendance data

School Counselor Requirements

Specific school guidance counselor requirements vary slightly by state, but they typically include:

  • Having a master's degree in school counseling or a related field.
  • Completing mandatory hours of practicum and internship as part of the degree program
  • Passing a state certification or licensure exam such as the Praxis Professional School Counselor exam, ISBE School Counselor test or TExES School Counselor Exam
  • Passing background checks regarding criminal and child abuse history
  • Completing teaching experience (required in some states)

High school counselor requirements and elementary school counselor requirements are similar in terms of the background described; however, it may be necessary to focus the practicum and internship hours at the school level where you wish to work.

School Counselor Certification

In order to work as a certified counselor in a public school, you will need to meet specific requirements for certification. Once you have met the requirements described above, you will be permitted to apply for certification in your state. Most states certify counselors from grades PK-12, however some maintain separate certification status for elementary and secondary counselors.

You will first receive provisional certification, which can be promoted to permanent certification after you complete additional educational requirements, such as an induction program, and secure several years of experience as a school counselor. After achieving permanent certification, you will need to continue to complete continuing education to maintain it.

A further, optional credential that is beneficial for school counselors to seek, in order to help advance their career, is the national counselor certification (NCC) awarded through the National Board for Certified Counselors. Earning this credential may enable you to apply for licensed professional counselor status in your state. To apply for the NCC credential, you must:

  • Have earned a master's degree with courses in specific content areas
  • Document 100 hours of counseling supervision in at least a 24 month period
  • Obtain endorsement from a colleague with a master's degree
  • Complete 3,000 hours of counseling work experience over at least a 24 month period
  • Receive a passing score on the national counselor examination (NCE)

After receiving the NCC, you can also apply for specialty certification as a National Certified School Counselor after you have completed:

  • School specific coursework content area requirements
  • Supervised school fieldwork experience
  • 100 hours of post-graduate supervision
  • Two academic years of work as a full-time school counselor
  • Endorsement by a qualified professional

How Long Does It Take to Become a School Counselor?

School counselor education requirements include a 4-year undergraduate degree and a master's degree in school counseling - all of which can typically be completed in six years of full-time study. Part-time programs are available and will take longer to complete depending on how many courses you take each semester. If you are not able to take classes on campus, there are online options available to complete your school counselor degree.

During the course of the master's degree program, you should expect to complete hands-on training of at least 100 hours of practicum and 600 hours of internship, where you will obtain supervised experience working with children in a school counseling setting. If studying full-time, these practical experiences could occur in the second half of the first year and throughout the second year of the program.

School Counselor Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a bright outlook for employment as a school counselor, with a growth of 13% expected from 2016-2026 (for all educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors). As more states mandate school counselors and lower student to counselor ratios, more positions for counselors may become available.