How to Become a Certified Counselor in the U.S.

Find out how to become a certified counselor. Research the education and training requirements and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in counseling.

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Do I Want to Be a Certified Counselor?

Certified counselors work with children and adults in a variety of settings, such as college counseling centers, elementary or secondary schools, community-based mental health facilities and private practices. They might assist clients in understanding and overcoming various types of problems or give them guidance in personal situations. These professionals may also diagnose and treat more serious mental conditions. Depending on the setting, counselors might work weekends and evenings to meet clients' scheduling needs. Work can be stressful, with large caseloads and possibly dealing with demanding or disoriented clients.

Job Requirements

They typically must hold a master's degree to earn state licensure. Private-practice substance abuse and behavior disorder counselors, as well as all mental health counselors, need licensure to practice. Depending on the state's term for the credential, school counselors will need a license, certification or endorsement to work. Before starting as a professional counselor, individuals complete internships to get supervised clinical experience. Certification for substance abuse and behavior disorder, school, and mental health counselors is available through the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). The following table includes typical requirements to become a counselor.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree is standard*
Degree Field Counseling*
Licensure and Certification Licensure is required for particular types of counselors; voluntary certification is available*
Experience Supervised clinical experience*
Key Skills Good listening and organizational skills, compassion, and ability to work with diverse clientele*
Computer Skills Microsoft Office, spreadsheet and medical software**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and **O*Net Online

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree

Most graduate programs in counseling require prior completion of a bachelor's degree. Applicants usually need a grade point average of at least 3.0 in any major. However, because many master's programs seek applicants with at least some educational background in psychology, choosing an undergraduate program in the field, or completing a psychology minor, could prove beneficial.

Step 2: Pursue a Master's Degree

In most states, a minimum of a master's degree is needed to become a licensed counselor. Core courses in master's-level counseling or counseling psychology programs typically explore individual and group counseling theories and practices, cultural diversity and counseling, family counseling and counseling ethics. Most programs allow students to choose a specialty, such as school counseling or marriage and family therapy.

Success Tips

  • Complete an internship. A counseling internship might be completed in the final semesters of a master's program or after graduation. Students could have the option to complete a full-time internship or undertake part-time internships. Through internships, an individual's interview and observation skills can be boosted while refining overall counseling techniques. It may also qualify as the clinical experience required for licensure.
  • Develop active-listening skills. While working with clients, counselors need to be attentive to what they're trying to say. Counselors have to understand the points that they make, as well as ask questions when necessary. This can be acquired through communication courses or during an internship.

Step 3: Obtain a License to Practice

In addition to earning a master's degree, most states require the passing of an exam and meeting experience requirements to earn licensure as a counselor. Many states use the NBCC to administer their exams. In order to get licensure, applicants need between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of clinical experience under supervision.

Step 4: Get Certified in Counseling

The NBCC offers its own voluntary National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential. This can give professional counselors accountability and provide visibility within the community and among peers. Along with having a master's degree, applicants must have 3,000 hours of post-graduate experience of counseling with at least 100 hours of them supervised. They also need to pass the National Counselor Exam (NCE), a 200-question multiple-choice test, to earn certification. If they do not pass the first time, they may be able retake the exam. Some states use the NCE for their own credentialing.

Success Tip

  • Earn annual continuing education credits. National certified counselors need 100 hours of continuing education credit for every certification cycle, which is five years, in order to maintain their certification.
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