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How to Become a Counselor: Education and Training Requirements

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

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Requirements for Becoming a Counselor

Counselors can work with children, adolescents and adults. They may work in clinics, mental health facilities, schools or in private practice. Typical work of a counselor may include offering support to families or couples facing difficulties or guiding adolescents and young adults who are making decisions about their education and career options.

Several types of programs prepare individuals for the different kinds of counseling. All fields of counseling require practitioners to complete master's degrees and become licensed in the state in which they work.

The following table presents the core requirements for becoming a licensed therapist, as stated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree
Degree Field Marriage and family therapy, clinical social work, mental health counseling, school counseling
Licensure Licensure is required in every state.
Experience Supervised clinical practice is often required before a counselor can become fully licensed.
Key Skills Good listening and communication skills, ability to develop relationships with many different types of people, organizational skills for keeping detailed client records

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A prospective counselor will begin his or her education with a bachelor's degree. A student may choose a related major, such as psychology, education or social work, or he or she may choose an unrelated major. If choosing an unrelated major, the student will need to take some electives in psychology. Coursework in general psychology, abnormal psychology, psychology of adolescence, personality psychology and statistics may be useful for preparing for graduate school.

Success Tip:

  • Complete work or volunteer experience in a counseling setting. Students may choose to gain work experience as volunteers or interns in settings that will expose them to the counseling profession. Having hands-on experience and witnessing the daily demands of a counselor may better prepare students for graduate school. Completing such experience also demonstrates commitment to the profession and puts students in touch with professionals who may be able to write letters of recommendation for graduate school applications.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree

Earning a license in any field of counseling requires a master's degree. The degree program that a student pursues will depend on his or her career objectives, the population he or she wants to work with and any theoretical leanings he or she may have. Each type of degree leads to a different professional title, and every type of program requires a period of fieldwork or clinical practice supervised by an approved counselor.

Social work programs with a focus in counseling prepare students to become Licensed Clinical Social Workers, while programs for school counselors focus specifically on counseling in the school environment. Master of Arts in Counseling programs tend to have individual-centered theoretical leanings and prepare graduates to become Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs). LMHCs can work with individuals or groups and may specialize in a certain population or mental health disorder. Programs that prepare students to become Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists focus on techniques for improving the relationships of family members and couples.

Step 3: Apply for Provisional Licensure

In many states, graduates of master's programs must first complete a certain period of supervised clinical experience before they may become fully licensed. However, many states offer provisional licenses for graduates who meet all other requirements for licensure. A provisional license allows a counselor to conduct clinical work under the supervision of a qualified licensed counselor. A contract with an approved supervisor may be a requirement for gaining provisional licensure. Provisional licensure often expires after a certain time period. Upon expiration of the license, counselors usually must apply for full licensure.

Step 4: Complete Work Experience

Supervised work experience after graduation usually lasts for two years and requires 1,500-4,000 hours. Requirements vary depending on the profession and a state's requirements. Oftentimes, school counselors are not required to complete this step and can be awarded licensure immediately upon graduation from a master's degree program.

Counselors completing work experience should check with their state's requirements for structuring and documenting the experience. There are often rules about how much time must be directly observed by the supervising counselor and what types of tasks a provisional counselor can count towards the hourly requirement. Failure to comply with the state's standards can cause a delay in obtaining full licensure.

Step 5: Obtain State Licensure

Professionals using titles such as Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Marriage and Family Therapist, School Counselor and Licensed Clinical Social Worker must hold current state licensure. Initial licensure is usually obtained by submitting evidence of completing an approved graduate program, fulfilling work experience requirements and passing an appropriate examination.

Passing a state or national examination is a common requirement for entering any of the counseling fields. Some states provide their own exams; however, many rely on industry regulative boards to provide exams, such as the Association of Social Work Boards Clinical Examination, the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination or the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards Exam.

Step 6: Meet Continuing Education Requirements

States require licensees to periodically renew their licenses. Renewal procedures may require paying a fee and completing continuing education units. States usually stipulate what types of courses are applicable for meeting the continuing education requirements.

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