How to Become a Counselor

Posted on June 14, 2021 by

Becoming a counselor typically requires a master’s degree and some supervised post-graduate experience in the field before earning a state license. There are many different types of counseling and the level of education and licensure required for each varies from state to state.

A career in counseling is a terrific way to achieve that magic combination of both job satisfaction while giving back to your community.

Figuring out how to become a licensed counselor isn’t always easy. Different states don’t define counseling requirements in the same way, and sometimes don’t even call identical types of jobs by the same title.

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On top of that, counseling is a very broad profession. Counselors have dozens of different areas they can practice in, but one thing they all have in common is that they are working to help people.

Counseling is the work that’s taking place in group sessions in jail cells as counselors help prisoners identify how their lives led them there and how to make amends with their victims… and at the end of a long, ragged crying session in a private office as a woman deals with the grief of her father’s passing… and when a school counselor helps the problem child in class figure out what to do with their life.

It’s all counseling. It’s all important.

So maybe the first thing you have to do to become a counselor is to look into yourself and find the kindness, compassion, understanding, and good will that it takes to dive into the most difficult moments in people’s lives and make a difference.

If those are the qualities and the kind of motivations you have in your heart, then read on to find out how to become a counselor.

Becoming A Counselor is a Dream Job In Human Services
What Are The Different Kinds of Counselors?
What Are The Six Requirements To Be a Counselor?

Becoming A Counselor is a Dream Job In Human Services

Counselors have some of the best jobs in the entire human services sector. In fact, they have some of the best jobs in the United States, period, according to U.S. News & World Report. For their 2021 list of the Best Jobs in the country, substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors come in at number 16… and number 1 for Best Social Services Job. Mental health counselors come in 7th on the Best Social Services Job list.

Counselors take two spots in the top ten list of the Best Social Services Jobs in the United States according to U.S. News & World Report.

Why is becoming a counselor such a great choice? There are a lot of reasons:

  • Job Satisfaction – Believe it or not, there are scientific studies that associate compassionate behavior with personal happiness. People who help people get a boost to their own well-being. When your entire job is about helping people out every day, you can imagine it brings in quite an attitude boost! On top of that, you’re getting paid to do it!
  • Independence – LPCs can work in clinics, hospitals, or for social services agencies like other human services workers, but they are more likely to hang out their own shingle and operate independently. Other than outpatient care centers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the top employing industry for counselors is individual and family services. It’s very common to run your own office in that industry. That brings the satisfaction of being your own boss and the flexibility to set your own hours, pick your own clients, choose your own vacations. Put it all together, and that is the freedom to be satisfied with your job!
  • Easier Educational Path – Make no mistake, getting a master’s degree isn’t a piece of cake. And you will need one in order to become an LPC. But it’s still not at the same level, either in terms of financial or time commitment, as earning the doctorate you would need in order to practice as a psychiatrist. Yet LPCs see many of the same types of patients and treat the same kinds of conditions as psychiatrists. That makes counseling a relatively inexpensive and rapid path into meaningful human services work.
  • The Right Specializations For Anyone – Counseling comes with a ton of specialization options. Everything from gambling addictions to autism treatment to couple’s therapy. That opens up the door for almost anyone to find exactly the niche they will love in counseling. Compare that to marriage and family therapy, where you had better enjoy working with couples and families. There’s no opportunity to shift your practice if you get bored or dissatisfied as an MFT. Counselors, on the other hand, can try out dozens of specialties until they find the right fit.
  • Less Bureaucracy – Don’t get us wrong, LPCs are definitely covered by laws and regulations. And you may decide to accept insurance as payments, which opens you up to a lot of red tape when it comes to billing and treatment. But still, it’s nothing close to what you would run into if you were, instead, a social worker. You can operate outside the bureaucracy, focusing on one-on-one interactions with your clients. You can pursue treatment plans without checking boxes or following some protocol coming out of the state capitol.

Becoming a counselor isn’t for everyone, despite all the benefits. You have to have the kind of skills, drive, and compassion to make it as an independent operator with some very trouble patients. But with the right attitude and training, you can go a long way as a counselor.

What Are The Different Kinds of Counselors?

The answer to that question is bigger and more complex than you might think. Counseling is a big tent, and there are all different kinds of counselors. Some fall clearly into the range of licensed professionals and others exist at the margins, depending on the role and the state where they practice.

The National Board for Certified Counselors lists more than 40 different areas of practice in the field of counseling, everything from sex therapy to school counseling.

You can definitely zoom in on any of those areas to become a respected expert in one specialty, or you can become a generalist, enjoying the variety that comes with whatever new patients walk in the door.

CACREP, the specialty accreditation agency that certifies master’s programs in the field, bundles all those different specializations into eight groups. Those serve as a useful way to think about the different kinds of counseling that you might want to pursue, even if you eventually drill down to an even more specific specialization.

  • Addiction Counseling – Addiction counseling deals with the diagnosis and treatment of both substance abuse and behavioral and process addictions, such as gambling and sex addiction. Their practice involves assessment and testing for addictions as well as the techniques required to intervene and treat addicts and abusers. This area of practice can be in both individual and group settings and often involves patients who are initially unwilling or resistant to treatment. It can also deal with the negative outcomes of addiction and assist families and friends of addicts.
  • Career Counseling – Career counselors deal with issues affecting the happiness and livelihood of clients in the workforce. They may work with groups or individuals, and can be independent or employed by corporations or government. They employ a deep understanding of the needs of modern employers and the psychology and skills of workers to come up with counseling and recommendations that assist people either getting into jobs they are better suited for, or adapting to their current positions.
  • Clinical Mental Health Counseling – Mental health counseling is the meat and potatoes work of psychological treatment in individuals. A wide variety of conditions can be treated, which means that clinical mental health counselors have to learn a broad set of diagnostic and evaluation procedures. They draw from the same toolbox as psychologists in many cases, with behavioral and psychosocial interventions they can use to treat different conditions. They also have a strong understanding of social and neurological bases of abnormal psychological conditions. Some pharmacological knowledge is also common for conditions that can be treated by medication.
  • Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling – Rehabilitation counselors work toward the medical end of the spectrum, with both very severe addiction cases and with patients who are recuperating from other traumas or diseases that also involve mental health care. That means they have a greater familiarity with the healthcare system and medical treatments along with clinical mental health counseling, and are adept at working in interdisciplinary care teams. They also provide support to patients going through difficult physical rehabilitation efforts, and in adapting to long-term disabilities.
  • College Counseling and Student Affairs – College counselors largely work with college kids. That means building a strong understanding of lifecycle psychology in early post-adolescence and specializing in the kinds of issues of addiction, attachment, and development that come along with the college experience. Student affairs counselors work closely with college administrators and students to create a safe, collaborative learning environment for all students.
  • Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling – Marriage and family counseling professionals handle the particularly difficult case of resolving problems within family groups or between couples. That means that on top of a good understanding of the usual clinical mental health issues that can pop up in any individual, they also need to be experts in the sociology and psychology of family groups. This means strong assessment and communication skills are needed. Lifecycle psychology is also important in this type of counseling, as well as understanding of career and socioeconomic influences that often put stress on relationships.
  • School Counseling – School counseling is all about the kids. School counselors have to master a range of developmental psychology stages in the lifecycle, working with children in preschool through 12th They are expected to be master detectives and analysts, able to sort through the complex influences on children and spot risk factors and developmental issues early on. They have important roles to play with students who have mandatory Individual Education Plans (IEPs), working with not only those students and their families to implement the interdisciplinary care plan, but also assisting teachers and school staff in meeting the requirements.
  • Rehabilitation Counseling – Rehabilitation counselors work primarily with patients who have severe or long-term disabilities. Those can be either medical or developmental, but in every case need assistance with mental adjustments, vocational rehabilitation, and independent living instruction. These counselors are experts in evaluating functional capacity and adapting living and working arrangements to the capabilities their clients can master.

There is some overlap between these roles. Depending on the state where you work, some of them may operate as LPCs while others may not require a license or may have a separate license they work under with different requirements, such as licensed school counselors.

What Are The Six Requirements To Be a Counselor?

Since the job is so amazing, you might think the steps for how to be a counselor would be long and complicated. But actually, there are only about six different counseling requirements that you need to fulfill in between high school graduation and getting a full-fledged job in counseling.

They are not all easy. You don’t want counselors who just breeze through some kind of cakewalk on the way to dealing with major life traumas their clients have suffered. You’ll definitely work hard to get through the education and qualifications required for becoming a counselor. But it all starts with earning a degree in mental health counseling or a related area. The rest of the steps are all straightforward and you can accomplish them in a breakneck seven years or so with a little hustle.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling or a Related Field

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling

Step 3: Build Practical Experience Counseling Patients

Step 4: Earn Your Counseling License

Step 5: Get a Job as a Counselor

Step 6: Maintain Your License And Earn a Professional Certification

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Counseling or a Related Field

The path to becoming a counselor runs first through four years at a reputable college earning a bachelor’s degree.

You have a lot of leeway in the major you pick for that degree, though. According to ACA, any liberal arts degree will work as a prerequisite for a counseling career. Most counselors start off with something more focused, however. It’s perfectly fine to stick with a degree in counseling, but many excellent counselors also get started in the field with degrees in:

  • Psychology
  • Human Services
  • Social Work
  • Sociology
  • Behavioral Health

What is more important are the subjects you will study as part of earning that degree. You want to lay a solid foundation in knowledge and skills for the master’s degree that you will be pursuing next. That means coursework in subjects like:

  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Communications
  • Human physiology and lifespan development
  • Neurodevelopment and neuropsychology
  • Cultural studies

You have the opportunity to branch out and explore at the bachelor’s level so don’t be afraid to take advantage of it. While master’s programs that qualify you for an LPC license fall into a narrow range, you can use your bachelor’s experience to pick up more expertise in an area that interests you, whether that is geriatric studies or education. Electives can round out the type of preparation you will need to get into a master’s program in counseling.

Paying For an Education in Counseling

For both your four-year bachelor’s degree and the two-year master’s program that we’ll talk about in Step 2, you can expect to pay a hefty price for the education you’ll get.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a two-year master’s degree cost an average of almost $39,000, while a four-year bachelor’s degree averaged about $112,500 in 2019.

Even though that includes tuition, room & board, and other fees, it’s way more than most families can easily come up with out-of-pocket to pay for school.

That means looking for scholarships and loans for most students. Also according to NCES, the average first-time, full-time undergraduate student in 2018-2019 racked up an average of $7,300 in loans for each year of their program.

Scholarship Funding for Becoming a Counselor

Scholarships are a better source for tuition funding, since they do not have to be paid back. Federal Pell Grants and college-specific scholarship funds are a good bet for counseling students, but there are also some counseling-specific scholarships that you might apply for.

  • National Board for Certified Counselors Foundation – The foundation supported by the national-level certification board for counseling has a wide variety of scholarships open for future counselors, ranging from those aimed at military students to those in minorities or from rural areas.
  • American Addiction Centers – AAC awards $10,000 in scholarship grants each year to students in a wide variety of programs, including counseling, that engage in behavioral health treatment in addiction and co-occurring disorders.
  • American Psychological Foundation – Not everyone thinks of the APA, the American Psychological Association, when it comes to LPCs, since licensed psychologists are really in a different field. But scholarships offered by the APF, such as the Queen-Nellie Evans Scholarship, specify only that applicants be pursuing graduate studies for a career in academia or clinical service delivery. That particular scholarship is aimed at minority students with a demonstrated commitment to serving marginalized communities, worth $4,000 annually, but many others exist as well.

Scholarships like the Queen-Nellie Evans are common, in that the qualifications are often some combination of your personal background and your professional goals. That opens up an opportunity for support for almost any student if you play your cards right.

Student Loans Can Come With Forgiveness For Counselors

Although scholarships are a great way to pay for your tuition and expenses, it is very rare to cover all your costs with grants. Almost every counseling student will end up with some amount of loans to get through college.

Even though these are usually low-interest loans with very lenient repayment schedules, they can put a real damper on your income level for decades after graduation. But you have an ace up your sleeve as a future counseling professional. You may be eligible for some state and national loan forgiveness programs designed to boost participation in healthcare services.

The federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is one of the biggest of these. You can qualify for this after making at least 120 payments against your outstanding federal loans, if you also work for a qualifying federal, state, local, or tribal government, or a non-profit organization full-time.

There is also the National Health Service Corps. This program has a number of different areas of eligibility, and at least two of them are right in line with roles that professional counselors might take on:

  • Substance Use Disorder Workforce – If you work at a SUD treatment facility in areas that qualify for Health Professional Shortages, you can apply for loan forgiveness.
  • Rural Community – If you work in NHSC-approved outpatient service programs in rural communities, you can qualify to have outstanding loan balances forgiven.

Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling

That master’s degree is your next step on the path to becoming a counselor, and it’s probably the most important step of all. This is where your professional skills will be fully shaped and developed. You’ll get all the core knowledge you need to practice and treat patients. And it serves as an important part of your qualifications for licensure.

The American Counseling Association (ACA) lists 8 different subjects that a master’s degree in counseling may be offered in to qualify you as a professional counselor:

  1. Addiction Counseling
  2. Career Counseling
  3. Clinical Mental Health or Community Agency Counseling
  4. Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling
  5. School Counseling
  6. Student Affairs and College Counseling
  7. Gerontological Counseling
  8. Counselor Education & Supervision

For the purpose of getting a license, though, all that is necessary is that the program be CACREP-accredited.

But you aren’t just checking a box to get a license at this phase. Instead, you want to look for the program that best fits your professional goals and career plans. That means looking for programs that offer concentrations that build out your knowledge in those areas, and where professors and research programs are breaking new ground in your chosen field.

Although the concentration you choose can add special training, experience, and electives to your master’s studies, for any CACREP-accredited program, you’ll also cover a specific set of eight common core areas of instruction:

  • Professional Counseling Orientation and Ethical Practice – You get an overview of the history and theory of counseling as well as the legislation and regulations that have been put in place for the profession. The scope of practice and code of ethics are laid out. Courses also cover the professional credentialing process for licensed professional counselors.
  • Social and Cultural Diversity – These classes present the social, economic, and environmental forces that form barriers in rehabilitation. Instructors discuss cultural competency and offering counseling services in multicultural environments. The latest developments in cultural and individual diversity, including gender, sexual orientation, and aging issues are covered.
  • Human Growth and Development – Students study psychosocial development at all ages of the lifespan, together with its impact on mental health and well-bing. You’ll also learn about theories of personality development and human sexuality.
  • Career Development – Important to rehabilitation counseling, these classes will teach career development and decision making models for career planning. The relationship between work and family life, including multicultural issues, is explored, and you learn career counseling techniques and planning and assessment models.
  • Counseling and Helping Relationships – This coursework gets into the core of clinical mental health counseling. Everything from suicide prevention strategies to crisis intervention and trauma counseling are covered. You’ll look at counseling processes and theory for both in-person and remote counseling work.
  • Group Counseling and Group Work – Not all counselors will work in group settings, but all counselors in CACREP programs are taught the theory and dynamics of group counseling and group process development. You’ll learn how to lead group therapy and how to take into consideration cultural and other factors in group formation and discussion.
  • Assessment and Testing – These courses cover methods for preparing for and conducting both initial assessments and measuring progress over the course of therapy. You’ll study the statistical concepts behind standardized testing and learn subjective assessment models. Environmental, career, social, and personal factors that impact client health and well-being are all important takeaways from these classes.
  • Research and Program Evaluation – Although counseling is not as research-heavy as psychology, every CACREP-accredited program does include coursework that teaches you how to identify evidence-based practices, and the methods that are behind them. You’ll get a basic overview of research design and the quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods that go into the studies that power counseling concepts today.

CACREP also requires a specific combination of practicum and internship hours to give you genuine field experience as part of your master’s education. Every student has to complete 100 clock hours of practicum, with at least 40 hours of direct patient contact, all while supervised by experienced faculty. Following that, they are required to go through 500 hours of supervised counseling internship in areas relevant to their specialization, with 240 hours of direct service experience.

As noted earlier, CACREP also lays down specific curriculum markers for eight specializations within counseling master’s programs. These make sure that concentrations in those areas come with the right kind of specialized coursework to qualify you for practice in those areas right out of school.

What is CACREP and Why is it So Important For Becoming a Counselor?

CACREP is the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs, a non-profit organization established in 1981 to develop national standards for counseling education programs.

You might have already figured this out by reading the name, but CACREP is a specialty accreditor. That means they only and entirely deal with evaluating counseling programs. Through close ties to the community and a focus on practical standards, that makes the organization a go-to resource for both counseling education programs and for state licensing boards to rely on. Even NBCC, the National Board for Certified Counselors, leans heavily on CACREP’s core standards.

CACREP only accredits master’s and above level programs. There are 883 accredited programs as of 2021, although that includes multiple programs for some schools… for example, a school counseling degree and a clinical counseling degree, or a master’s and a doctoral program.

What is MPCAC and Does It Meet Counseling Requirements?

A newer specialty accreditor came onto the scene in the counseling world in the early 2000s. That’s MPCAC, the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council.

Like CACREP, it only accredits master’s and higher level programs, and it has a similar set of program standards in play. But MPCAC was created to cover what was viewed as a gap in accreditation coverage in the field of counseling psychology. Because CACREP only accredits counseling programs, and psychology programs are covered by a different specialty accreditor, the American Psychological Association (APA), counseling psychology programs fell into a kind of a gap.

MPCAC intends to fill that gap, and offer the kind of accreditation required by state licensing boards even for future counselors who feel that a master’s in psychology would better prepare them for their career path.

MPCAC doesn’t have the widespread recognition among state licensing boards that CACREP has, however. That can make earning a license with a MPCAC-accredited degree involve a lot more hoop-jumping. Most states do have alternate routes to licensure for non-CACREP-accredited programs, but the burden of proof shifts on to you for demonstrating that you got an adequate education. Until MPCAC becomes more widely recognized, that makes it a more complicated choice than CACREP for picking your master’s program.

Should You Earn a Doctorate in Counseling?

Counseling degrees don’t stop at the master’s level. Like other mental healthcare professions, you can go on to earn a doctorate, or PhD, in counseling. In fact, as you study for your master’s degree in the field, you are probably being taught by professors who hold doctoral qualifications in counseling or related fields.

Unlike psychology, where a doctorate is a requirement for licensure to practice in clinical therapy, in counseling there’s no clear career benefit to such a high-level degree. With an additional six or seven years of study (and tuition payments!) it’s a real commitment if you decide to pursue it.

The kind of PhDs that you will find offered in counseling tend to reflect that reality. They are aimed primarily at research and academic counseling positions. You won’t learn a great deal more about clinical counseling by earning one. On the other hand, you will position yourself for work in counseling education or in high-level research if that’s your goal.

Step 3: Build Practical Experience Counseling Patients

Counseling is an intensively face-to-face profession. Your success in the field will be determined by your ability to take all that book learning you got in school and to apply it in person with real people, with all the ups and downs that come with real-world counseling environments.

That’s not a skill you can learn in a classroom. To meet both professional standards and state licensure counseling requirements, you’re going to need to get some hands-on experience delivering legit counseling services to actual clients.

Practicum and Internship Placements Offer a First Taste of Becoming a Counselor

Some of that will come as a part of your master’s degree program. CACREP requires over 700 hours of supervised field experience including both practicum and internship placements; many schools build more than that into their own curriculum requirements.

A practicum is an actual college course that includes on-site, supervised experience and observation as a part of the curriculum. You’ll be overseen by an instructor or qualified clinician at the practicum site.

An internship is a little more intensive and a little more flexible. Your involvement will be more independent, treating patients directly at a working clinic. It’s more like a job placement with a longer term and more responsibilities. You’ll continue to be overseen by a qualified supervisor, often part of the regular staff at the clinic. You’re expected to start to develop your own clinical assessment skills and lead off with treatment plans, subject to review.

Your counseling practicum will probably be your first direct experience working with patients. Although you will have plenty of book learning about counseling processes by the time you start your practicum, you’ll quickly find that the world looks a lot different from inside the counselor’s office than it does from the classroom. Building an emotional rapport with clients is something a textbook may talk about, but you won’t understand it until you actually have to do it.

Because you are working with real clients, not everything will go according to plan. And although you will be supervised by expert counselors and instructors, you are responsible for delivering real services. You may need to acquire liability coverage prior to starting. It’s a serious business.

But it is part of the process of learning your business, the business of counseling. Most schools rotate you through different types of practicum placements, so you will get a taste of group counseling, clinical therapy, career counseling, and possibly even student counseling. It both builds your experience and helps you decide where you want to focus your future studies.

Post-Graduate Experience Builds Expertise in Counseling Requirements

After you earn your master’s degree is when the field experience really starts. Most states require 3,000 hours or more of supervised post-graduate experience as a counselor before they will give you a full license. You may be required to get a provisional license while you are obtaining this experience, depending on the state.

These hours are still considered supervised hours, and you will have to have a qualified supervisor who is already licensed to oversee you. Some states have a minimum number of hours that you are required to spend with your supervisor as well as client contact hours. There may also be time limits involved—for example, NBCC requires your post-graduate experience to have been earned in the past 24 months in order to apply it to their counselor certification.

Step 4: Earn Your Counseling License

A license may or may not be required for the kind of counseling practice you plan to work in. It’s going to depend entirely on the state where you are located.

One thing that is just about universally true is that all states license school counselors, and all states require a license for counselors who are engaged in offering clinical services. That means if you want to engage in mental health care counseling, you’re going to need a license.

What’s in A Name? When It Comes To How to Become a Licensed Counselor, A Lot!

We’ve been using the shorthand of LPC, or Licensed Professional Counselor, throughout this page to talk about licensed counseling jobs in every state. But not every state actually calls their licensed counselors LPCs!

Counseling requirements for licensure are very similar in all 50 states, but the actual titles that are used are not. Depending on the state where you plan on becoming a counselor, you might find yourself called:

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor – LMHC
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor – LCPC
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor – LPCC
  • Licensed Clinical Health Mental Counselor – LCMHC
  • Licensed Professional Counselor – Mental Health – LPC-MH

Don’t worry too much about the label. Although there are a handful of states that offer both an LPC and one of these other licenses, the differences are usually self-explanatory. For example, in states that offer only an LPC, the LPC almost always covers clinical counseling. But in states that have an LPC and an LPCC, the LPC will cover non-clinical counseling roles and you’ll need to step up to the LPCC in order to practice clinical counseling

In every case, it always pays to check closely with your state licensing board before you start off on your education and training to make sure the steps you plan to follow will qualify you for the license that you want to earn.

Although they have a lot of different things that they call their licenses, most states have a pretty similar process for earning them. If you made it through steps one to three, you’ve already checked most of those boxes:

  • Earn a master’s degree in counseling from an accredited counseling program
  • Fulfill around 3,000 hours of supervised post-master’s clinical experience
  • Be trained and experienced in the professional code of ethics for counselors

What’s left in meeting counseling requirements for a state license? Passing the test!

Passing the Required Counselor Licensing Examination For Your Field

There are four tests that most states accept for licensed professional counselor applications. Even states that don’t use these tests specifically usually offer a state-specific variant that is closely based on one or the other.

  • National Counselor Examination (NCE) – Offered by NBCC, this is a 200 question, multiple choice exam covering nine content areas that roughly correspond to the CACREP common core requirements. The questions are built around a national job analysis reflecting real-world requirements in counseling practice.
  • National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) – Also offered by NBCC, this test is aimed more toward validating clinical practice experience, with additional emphasis on assessment, intervention skills, and treatment planning. The format is also quite different, consisting of between 12 and 14 case studies designed to replicate the real work of a clinical mental health counselor.
  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRCE) – The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) fills a similar role to the NBCC, but with respect to rehabilitation counseling. The CRCE tests 12 knowledge domains over 175 multiple-choice questions to be completed in three and a half hours. The test also closely mirrors CACREP requirements, but with a focus on rehabilitation counseling applications.
  • Professional School Counselor – This Praxis exam, offered by the Educational Testing Service, is the primary test used for school counselor licenses. You’ll find many state or region-specific variants, however. The Praxis version is 120 selected response questions given over 2 hours, designed to follow the American School Counselor Association’s National Model, with four primary components focused on the foundations of the profession, delivery of service, management, and accountability.

The tests are all computer-based, and delivered nationally through either Prometric or Pearson VUE testing centers. You’ll have to pay a fee to take the tests themselves, whether you pass or fail. The cost is also separate from the actual cost of licensing that you will pay to the state.

File Your Application and Take Care of Paperwork

Of course, any time you are dealing with a licensing board, you’re going to be dealing with paperwork. Although you have gotten all the hard requirements to be a counselor out of the way by this stage, you still have to get the forms filled out and jump through a few more hoops before the job is done.

That usually means filling out a formal application and filing it, with associated fees. In most cases, you will also have to submit to and pass a criminal background check, which will also cost you some money.

Some states will require that you submit three or more professional references as a part of your application. In some cases, you may be required to demonstrate English language proficiency, provide proof of citizenship, or pass another short test on state-level regulations for counselors. In at least one state, you’ll have to swear you’ve never killed anyone.

These little bureaucratic details vary from state to state, but all states have them, so it pays to check with guides published by your state licensing board before you get started.

Step 5: Get a Job as a Counselor

This might be the easiest step in the whole list. You’re going to have no problem at all finding a job as a counselor just about anywhere in the country.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells the story: the job outlook for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors is estimated to grow by a skyrocketing 25 percent between 2019 and 2029, much faster than the average rate of growth. Rehabilitation counselors will jump by 10 percent over the same period, while school and career counselors will increase by about 8 percent.

The top industries hiring for these positions are:

  • Outpatient Care Centers
  • Individual and Family Services
  • Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities
  • Vocational Rehabilitation Services
  • State and Local Governments

Of course, that individual and family services sector includes a lot of jobs that aren’t actually being hired out. It includes many sole proprietorships, individual counselors who have decided to open up their own shop and run their own show. That’s an option for you, too, even if you are a newly minted LPC.

Salary Expectations for Counselors

Counselors can earn a very solid living, but the salary levels depend a lot on your specialization. BLS has the run-down:

  • Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health – $47,660
  • Rehabilitation Counselors – $37,530
  • School and Career Counselors – $58,120

Those are median values, however. In the top ten percent of counselors, the salary can reach nearly $80,000 per year, or almost $100,000 in school and career counseling.

Pay varies by industry, too. The median salaries in the highest paying industries for most counselors are:

  • Insurance carriers – $66,140
  • Day care services – $65,620
  • State government – $55,800
  • Medical and surgical hospitals – $54,540

There’s one area of employment where the sky is the limit for counselors, but the risks can also be big: self-employment.

For many licensed professional counselors, owning your own practice is living the dream. You are the boss, you make all the decisions about what clients to take on, what to charge them, and how to treat them. You go on vacation when you want and set your own hours. There’s a kind of job satisfaction that comes with that freedom, and there’s also a real benefit to pocketing all the profits. Work hard enough and long enough, and you can hit the big time.

But being your own boss isn’t for the meek. You also run all the risks that any business owner runs. You will negotiate your office lease; you will file the state and city licensing paperwork; you’re on the hook for business taxes at every level of government. That free vacation you decided to take? It’s not actually free… you don’t get paid if you’re not working.

So there are trade-offs involved in being a self-employed counselor, but many independent counselors would never go back to a regular 9 to 5!

Step 6: Maintain Your License And Earn a Professional Certification

Every year or two, you’ll be required to cough up another couple hundred dollars and renew your license in order to keep it current. Most states are moving to online renewal systems, which makes this process a lot more painless than it used to be.

But you still have to plan ahead to maintain your license, because it takes more than just filling out some forms and cutting a check.

Psychotherapy and other counseling fields aren’t set in stone. Every day, new research is being conducted that leads to new diagnostic ideas and new treatments. You can’t just earn your license and rest on your laurels. You’re going to have to keep up-to-date to keep up your license.

Keeping your counseling license means putting in the hours to meet continuing education requirements established by state licensing boards.

Continuing Education Hours Keep Counselors Current

Each state has its own requirements for continuing education (CE) in order to maintain a counselor’s license. Those may cover:

  • Approved sources for continuing education hours
  • Types of activities that may be counted as continuing education
  • Specific topics that must be covered during each CE period
  • Whether or not, or how many hours of, CE can be completed online
  • Whether or not CE hours can be carried over into the next period, if you have more than are required

Most states require around twenty total hours of CE per year to renew an LPC. Some areas of education that are commonly required are ethics or social or cultural competency.

States also often have a list of approved vendors whose courses will count. The American Counseling Association is on most of those lists, and if you happen to be a member, you can take up to 12 free courses per year online.

It’s also worth checking the NBCC list of approved CE providers, since if you hold one of their Board certifications, you’ll need to fulfill their requirements as well as those of your state licensing board.

Earning Professional Certification in Counseling

So what exactly is a professional certification in counseling? It’s another way to up your game after you become a licensed counselor. A Board certification looks pretty nice hanging on the wall and is also a good thing to have on your resume when you are applying for high-paying, high-prestige counseling positions.

A certification is basically a way to stand out from the crowd. They are awarded by independent non-profit organizations that have strict standards that go over and above the usual licensing requirements to be a counselor. They let potential employers or clients know that you aren’t just any old counselor; you’re among the best in the field.

There are two major certifications you might pursue in counseling, depending on your particular area of practice:

  • National Certified Counselor
    • Offered by NBCC
    • Requires a master’s or above program with completion of at least 48 semester hours in a CACREP-accredited program or meeting specific content in 9 areas of counseling
    • Must have a professional endorsement from a colleague in the field
    • Have at least 3000 hours of documented post-graduate clinical experience with the previous 24 months
    • Pass the NCE or NCMHCE
    • Comply with NBCC ethical standards
  • Certified Rehabilitation Counselor
    • Offered by CRCC
    • Requires a master’s or above program accredited by CACREP or meeting certain educational content requirements
    • Complete at least 600 clock hours in a rehabilitation counseling internship OR 12 months of supervised experience OR 24 months of other experience
    • Pass the CRC examination

Once you have your NCC, you may also be able to obtain a specialty certification depending on your area of practice. NBCC offers three of these:

  • CCMHC – Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor
  • MAC – Masters Addictions Counselor
  • NCSC – National Certified School Counselor

Similarly, CRCs are eligible to apply for the CVE (Certified Vocational Evaluation) specialist certification from CRCC.

Whether you decide to pursue a professional certification or not, at this point your career in counseling is entirely on track. Over time, you’ll continue to develop expertise and experience. You’ll get the highs that come from watching damaged and depressed patients walk out the door with smiles and their heads held high. You will change lives every day.

That’s what becoming a counselor is really about. And it’s no wonder that people who pursue that career are some of the happiest in human services.


May 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and job growth figures for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors, Rehabilitation Counselors, and School and Career Counselors and Advisors represents national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary.

Tuition data provided by College Scorecard and the National Center for Education Statistics, services of the U.S. Department of Education, using data collected for the 2019 school year. NCES loan and scholarship data comes from an April 2017 report published by the Department of Education.

Data Accessed June 2021.

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