What Education Do You Need to Be a Counselor?

A guidance counselor helps young people make career choices.
A guidance counselor helps young people make career choices. (Image: Andrea Morini/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

A counselor may deal with multiple issues as he works with his clients. For example, a school guidance counselor may have to deal with students needing help with classes or who have parents dealing with addictions. A vocational or job counselor often helps individuals find jobs, as well as helping them cope with stressors caused by unemployment. The education a counselor receives varies by the nature of the counseling job.

Undergraduate Education

While very few colleges offer a bachelor’s degree in counseling, most offer undergraduate coursework that prepares the counselor for the graduate courses they need. There is no hard and fast rule as to specific majors allowed to enter graduate programs, but quite often courses in psychology provide the fundamental knowledge needed for the advanced degree. If a person plans on becoming a school counselor, the state may require a bachelor’s degree in education as part of the prerequisites for entry in to a master’s in school counseling program. In addition to psychology and education courses, guidance majors should expect to have a firm foundation in mathematics and statistics.

Graduate Education

Graduate courses in counseling often fall within the department of education, human services or psychology. Within the graduate program, the student may choose to focus on school counseling, job counseling, marriage and family therapy, mental health counseling, rehabilitation counseling, community counseling and gerontological counseling. Coursework involves the study of cultural diversity, human development, relationships, career development, testing and assessment, research, counseling styles and ethics. As part of the graduate coursework, most colleges require a period of time in a clinical situation as well as time in the regular classroom.


Each of the 50 states establishes its own licensure requirements for counselors. Some states require school counselors to teach in a regular classroom for a number of years before granting their counseling license. All marriage and family therapists must have a license to practice. Some states require extra hours of clinical experience beyond the master’s degree plus successful completion of a standardized exam before issuing licenses to marriage and family therapists.


Certification as a national certified counselor requires additional education on the part of the counselor. At the end of the training, the prospective counselor takes a standardized exam. National certification may substitute for state licensure in some states. Certificates are available in specialized areas of counseling as well. After the successful training and testing, the counselor who holds these certificates must take continuing education or re-take the exam every five years to maintain certification. Holding a certificate typically enhances the counselor’s chance at job advancement.

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