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What Are Counseling Certifications?
There are many different types of credentials that can be sought by counselors. In many cases, counseling certification refers to board certification, which proves to the public and potential employers that the individual meets certain professional standards. Counselors can also obtain specialty certificates that demonstrate expertise in working with specific patient populations and/or the knowledge and skills necessary to address particular conditions or issues. Certifications like these are managed by national and state organizations and associations.
It's important to realize that certifications are different from licensure. Most states require counselors to be licensed, but expectations and the specifics of the process vary by state and licensure type. In general, licensure is issued by state regulatory boards and signifies that a professional has permission from the state government to practice in the profession.
Additionally, professionals in the field can pursue academic certificates. Counseling certificates may be offered by colleges and universities. While they are similar to degrees, the programs typically stand alone and take less time to complete. They can be appropriate for both aspiring counselors and licensed professionals. Students can expect to gain skills and knowledge related to a particular aspect of the profession.
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Who Needs Counseling Certifications?
Certifications are necessary and/or preferred for counseling professionals in a variety of circumstances. Professionals in the field also need certifications in order to demonstrate mastery of the knowledge, skills, and frameworks needed to provide services to patients. Every state is different, with some necessitating certain credentials in order to offer specialized assistance or practice independently outside of a supervised work experience.
Those seeking state licensure, for example, often utilize academic certificate programs at the graduate level to fulfill licensing requirements. Many states require professionals in this field to have master’s degrees, which generally consist of approximately 60 credit hours of coursework. While these credits are enough to satisfy institutional graduation expectations, additional classes are sometimes needed in order to qualify for licensure. Enrolling in master’s counseling certificate programs can help meet coursework deficiencies. This is also applicable for individuals who already possess graduate degrees in subjects unrelated to counseling but who want to become professionals in the field.
In addition to education requirements, states require licensure candidates to pass examinations that are often administered by certifying bodies, such as the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Some states also require certification prior to being considered for licensure, making it essential for candidates to become familiar with regulations prior to applying.
Professionals who are already licensed, or are seeking dual licensure in another counseling specialty, can also benefit from gaining additional certifications. This shows proficiency in particular areas of the counseling field and may help satisfy continuing education requirements required by the licensing state.
Why You Might Want Counseling Certifications
Earning certifications can be extremely beneficial for counselors. As certificates signify mastery over topics in the field, they often lead to more varied employment opportunities and promotions into advanced positions. This is especially relevant to professionals seeking to expand upon the types of services offered or patients they serve.
Counselors with multiple credentials will also be more competitive when applying to jobs in specialized fields. Additionally, those who are licensed, have certifications, and/or have graduated from counseling certificate programs are likely to earn higher salaries than professionals who lack these credentials.
Furthermore, continuing education is often an important part of maintaining state licensure. Attending classes offered as part of graduate certificate programs and earning certifications can often help fulfill these requirements.
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Where to Find Counseling Certifications
Counseling certifications can be offered by national boards and counseling organizations and associations. One of the primary certifying bodies is the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), which offers both general certifications and specialty certifications. Being board certified demonstrates mastery over the knowledge, skills, frameworks, and practices deemed necessary by the certifying body. NBCC certification is voluntary, but those who choose to obtain credentials through it are known to have met national standards in the counseling profession.
As counseling certificates are academic in nature, these programs are generally offered by colleges and universities. Institutions may be public or private, with funding sources at the state, local, and federal levels. While many certificate programs require in-person instruction, some remote options are available. Online enrollment makes it possible for students to complete coursework from anywhere with consistent internet access, which often enhances options and grants greater scheduling flexibility.
While state licensure is technically separate from certifications, they often go hand-in-hand. Every state has its own professional counselor licensure board responsible for overseeing the process. In many cases, becoming licensed requires obtaining board certification. It’s worth noting that all states utilize at least one of the NBCC’s counseling examinations as part of their licensing standards; some states also require candidates pass both of the board’s offered counseling tests. Specific titles for licensed professionals vary due to legal differences between states, but licensure designates individuals as capable of providing counseling services to patients.
Top Counseling Certifications
As previously mentioned, choosing to obtain counseling certifications offers many potential benefits for current and prospective professionals. Not only do these credentials often lead to more varied employment opportunities, but they make candidates more competitive in the job market. Employers are more likely to select those who are certified over those who are not. Once the necessary state licensure requirements are met, these professionals are also frequently capable of establishing and managing their own practices.
Earning certifications, academic certificates, and licensure also leads to higher-level positions in the field. Certified counselors tend to be qualified to provide specialized services and, as a result, often make more money than their uncertified counterparts.
Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accredits master’s and doctoral degree programs related in counseling and its specialties. This type of accreditation demonstrates that the content and quality of the program meets or exceeds the standards set by the counseling profession.
Over 422 colleges and universities are accredited by CACREP in the United States, with more than 915 qualifying programs available to students. Those interested in the field can be assured that these institutions and the degrees they offer will provide the appropriate knowledge and skills needed to be successful. CACREP accreditation also signifies that the programs are professionally and financially stable.
- National Certified Counselor (NCC)
The National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential is administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Those seeking to become NCCs must complete specific education and training requirements, as well as demonstrating an ongoing professional commitment to the field by adhering to various continuing education standards.
In order to obtain NCC certification, candidates must hold a master’s, education/educational specialist certificate of advanced study, or doctoral degree in counseling. Only CACREP-accredited and institutionally accredited education institutions are acceptable. The graduate-level coursework completed must cover nine key content areas including human growth and development theories in counseling, helping relationships in counseling, career counseling and lifestyle development, assessment in counseling, and professional orientation to counseling. A total of at least 100 hours of postgraduate counseling supervision is also required, as is endorsement from a professional colleague who holds a graduate degree in the mental health field. Additionally, candidates must complete at least 3,000 hours of postgraduate counseling work experience and adhere to NBCC’s Code of Ethics. Finally, certification-seekers are required to obtain a passing score on the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).
- Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC)
The Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) credential is administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Those seeking to become CCMHCs must have already earned their board certifications and have met the stringent education, examination, supervision, experience, and ethical requirements necessary. These professionals offer the highest standards of practice in clinical mental health counseling.
In addition to completing the NCC certification requirements and obtaining this credential, CCMHC candidates must complete at least 60 semester hours of graduate-level academic credit in counseling from an institutionally accredited program.
Requirements include a class covering Clinical Diagnosis and Treatment, as well as at least three of the following six content areas:
- Advanced Clinical Skills
- Family or Couples Counseling
- Addictions or Substance Abuse Counseling
- Human Sexuality Counseling
- Counseling for Trauma, Violence or Abuse
- Clinical Counseling for Special Populations
Nine semester hours of a clinical training in supervised field experience is also necessary, though alternatives are available.
- National Certified School Counselor (NCSC)
The National Certified School Counselor (NCSC) credential is administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). These professionals offer high-standard services to schools and students at various academic levels. Those seeking to become NCSC must meet stringent education, examination, supervision, experience, and ethical requirements related to school counseling. Only current NCCs can become NCSCs.
In addition to the NCC certification requirements mentioned above, NCSC candidates must pass graduate-level courses in specific content areas.
Requirements include a class in the Foundations of School Counseling, as well as at least three of the following five content areas:
- Counseling Consultation and Program Development
- Family Counseling
- Counseling Children, Adolescents, and/or At-Rick Youth
- Addictions Counseling
- Counseling for Trauma, Violence, or Abuse
Six semester hours of supervised school field experience is also necessary, though alternatives are available.
- Master Addictions Counselor (MAC)
The Master Addiction Counselor (MAC) credential is administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) but was co-created with the International Association of Addiction and Offenders Counseling (IAAOC) division of the American Counseling Association (ACA). MACs have already earned their board certification and are qualified to offer high-standard services in addictions counseling. Those with this credential are eligible to seek Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) status through the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT). Candidates must meet stringent education, examination, supervision, experience, and ethical requirements.
In addition to the NCC certification requirements mentioned above, MAC candidates must have documentation of a minimum of 12 semester hours of graduate coursework in addictions counseling and a passing score on the Examination for Master Addictions Counselors (EMAC).
- Substance Abuse Professional (SAP)
The Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) credential is administered by the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT). These professionals are qualified to evaluate government employees who have violated the DOT drug and alcohol program regulations. They are responsible for making recommendations concerning violators’ education, treatment, follow-up testing, and aftercare.
SAP candidates must be certified by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) or the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC). It’s important to note that state alcohol and drug abuse counselor credentials and licenses are not sufficient to earn this credential.
- Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC)
The Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ADC) credential is administered by the International Certification and Reciprocity Consortium (IC&RC). This is an entry-level certification that covers the basics of addiction counseling. It is not available in all jurisdictions and requirements, application processes, and fees vary as they are set by local boards.
ADC candidates will need to take and pass the ADC examination, which consists of 150 questions answered over a three-hour period. Items in the exam include screening, assessment, engagement, treatment planning, referrals, counseling, and professional and ethical responsibilities.
- Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC)
The Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) credential is administered by the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC). This is the only certification for professionals with graduate degrees who possess the knowledge and skills necessary to serve individuals with disabilities across a wide range of disabling conditions. These professionals offer highly specialized services that evaluate, determine, coordinate, and manage the rehabilitation process.
CRC candidates must be enrolled in or graduates from master’s-level CACREP-accredited academic programs. Evidence of the completion of a 600-hour supervised internships is also required. Notably, there are alternatives for those working on or graduated from programs not accredited by CACREP. Applicants with master’s or doctoral degrees in related fields of study may also be considered.
- Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES)
The Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) credential is administered by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC). This certification signifies the meeting of required academic preparation qualifications, as well as the successful passing of a competency-based examination. These professionals practice within varied settings and serve as valuable assets to the career field.
CHES candidates must take and pass the CHES Examination. This competency-based tool is used to measure the possession, application, and interpretation of knowledge in eight key areas. It consists of 165 multiple-choice questions. Applicants must have at least 25 semester hours of relevant coursework prior to taking the exam. Once certified, continuing education requirements must be maintained.
- Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES)
The Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES) credential is administered by the National Commission for Health Education Credentialing (NCHEC). This certification signifies the meeting of required academic eligibility with courses in health education, experience requirements, and the successful passing of a comprehensive written examination. These professionals also maintain an ongoing commitment to advanced-level continuing education and professional development.
MCHES candidates must take and pass the MCHES Examination. This competency-based tool is used to measure the possession, application, and interpretation of knowledge in eight key areas. It consists of 165 multiple-choice questions. Applicants must have a minimum of five continuous years in active status as a certified health education specialist or a master’s degree or higher in health education, public health education, school health education, or a related major.
- Certified Forensic Social Work (CFSW)
The Certified Forensic Social Work (CFSW) credential is administered by the National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC). This certification is available at both the clinical and non-clinical levels. CFSWs are mental/behavioral health and/or addictions professionals who work with adults and/or juvenile criminal offenders.
CFSW candidates must meet all NAFC requirements before becoming certified. While no online or on-site courses and trainings are included in the application process, certification training courses are available. Passing the NAFC certification examination is also necessary. Membership applications should be submitted with a non-refundable $40.00 fee. Prospective CFSWs will provide information regarding their current employment, previous work experience, education, and state licensure and/or certification status.
- Certified Domestic Violence Counselor (CDVC)
The Certified Domestic Violence Counselor (CDVC) credential is administered by the National Association of Forensic Counselors (NAFC). This certification is available at the clinical level only. CDVCs are professionals who work with adults and/or juvenile criminal offenders in the domestic violence field.
CDVC candidates must meet all NAFC requirements before becoming certified. While no online or on-site courses or trainings are included in the application process, certification training courses are available. Passing the NAFC certification examination is also necessary. Membership applications should be submitted with a non-refundable $40.00 fee. Prospective CDVCs will provide information regarding their current employment, previous work experience, education, and state licensure and/or certification status.
- Board Certified Behavioral Analyst (BCBA)
The Board Certified Behavioral Analyst (BCBA) credential is administered by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). A graduate-level certification, it is the leading credential for independent practitioners who provide behavior-analytic services to patients. Those with doctoral training may be referred to as Board Certified Behavior Analyst – Doctoral (BCBA-Ds).
There are four pathways to apply for BCBA certification. All pathways require candidates possess an applicable degree, supervised fieldwork, and passing scores on the BCBA certification examination. Applicants need either 2,000 Supervised Fieldwork hours or 1,500 Concentrated Supervised Fieldwork hours to meet the fieldwork requirement. Once all applicable eligibility requirements are met and the application approved, candidates must take and pass the BCBA certification examination, which assess knowledge consistent with that of an entry-level behavior analyst.
- Certified Case Manager (CCM)
The Certified Case Manager (CCM) credential is administered by the Commission for Case Manager Certification (CCMC). CCMs have the knowledge, expertise, and professional experience needed to serve patients in emerging models of care. The certification ensures the competency to practice independently, as well as promote quality and safety.
The certification process consists of a rigorous review of candidates’ case management knowledge and case management experience. Applicants must have current, active, and unrestricted licenses or certifications in a health or human services discipline that allows independent assessment. Alternatively, baccalaureate or graduate degrees in health or human services fields that promote the physical, psychosocial, and/or vocational wellbeing of the persons being served may suffice.
- Graduate Certificate in Community Mental Health Administration
Graduate certificate programs in community mental health administration are available to those with bachelor’s degrees. The purpose of these programs is to help students become more effective and impactful leaders within the mental health field. Those enrolled can expect to examine key facets of motivation, supervisory skills, and communication that are necessary to succeed as a professional.
Graduates are prepared to pursue meaningful work in hospitals, non-profit groups, wellness facilities, and social service agencies. They may also qualify for employment related to research or public policy advocacy. It’s important to realize that not all of these programs will lead to clinical licensure, which is required by some employers.
- Graduate Certificate in Greif and Bereavement
Graduate certificate programs in grief and bereavement are available to those with bachelor’s degrees. The purpose of these programs is to help students expand their career by gaining knowledge and an in-depth understanding of dying, death, loss, and bereavement within the context of mental health and wellness. Those enrolled can generally expect to study concepts of human nature, as well as best practices with working with the bereaved and those impacted by loss.
Graduates working as therapists, counselors, psychologists, social workers, and health professionals will be prepared to help individuals cope with the personal loss of loved ones in healthier ways. These professionals often serve as highly skilled support systems, guiding patients through the grieving process.
- Graduate Certificate of Completion in Mental Health and Wellness: Concentrations Below
Graduate certificate programs in mental health and wellness are available to those with bachelor’s degrees. The purpose of these programs is to help students gain the knowledge and skills needed to work with individuals, families, and/or groups with mental or behavioral health conditions. Those enrolled should expect instruction related to principles in behavioral analysis, psychotherapy, and crisis intervention.
Graduates are generally prepared to apply for jobs within social and human services agencies. It’s important to know that students can choose from a wide variety of related sub-fields in mental health and wellness.
Some of the most common options available include:
- Community Mental Health Administration
- Emphasis in Christian Ministry
- Family Dynamics Studies
- Grief and Bereavement
- Integrated Health
- Post-Master of Science in Counseling: Concentrations Below
Post-master certificate programs in counseling are available to those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The purpose of these programs is to prepare candidates for specialized areas of practice in the field. Students should anticipate coursework to be based on scientific learning, with research-based content meant to provide an evidence-based overview of the profession.
Graduates are generally prepared to apply for clinical counselor licenses and students can choose from a wide variety of related sub-fields in counseling.
Some of the most common options available include:
- Addiction Counseling Certificate
- Childhood and Adolescence Disorders Certificate
- Marriage and Family Therapy Certificate
- Trauma Certificate
- Licensed Drug Abuse Counselor (LDAC)
A Licensed Drug Abuse Counselor (LDAC) is a professional who has been credentialed by the state to provide counseling and therapy services to those struggling with drug abuse issues. The LDAC credential requires successful completion of an accredited substance abuse counseling program and passage of a state exam. To maintain licensure, LDACs must complete continuing education requirements.
The role of the LDAC is to help individuals achieve and maintain sobriety by providing individual and group counseling, as well as educational programs on drug abuse prevention. LDACs also work with families affected by drug abuse and provide referrals to other community resources as needed.
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- Master Therapist
The Master Therapist credential is administered by the American Psychotherapy Association. It demonstrates significant and enduring career contributions to the field and profession of psychotherapy. Master Therapists are known to provide exceptional services to their patients. They also apply helping principles, theories, and concepts to humanitarian efforts, charitable works, and the overall betterment of society.
Master Therapist candidates must hold Diplomate status within the American Psychotherapy Association and have a minimum of 10 years of experience working in the mental health field. Additionally, they must present a workshop at the American Psychotherapy Association National Conference, write an approved continuing education article, or submit an approved continuing education course. Applicants are also required to submit a portfolio for review.
- Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS)
The Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS) credential is administered by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). This certification allows professionals to work with individuals, groups, and families. They may provide a wide array of services including case management, conflict mediation, conflict resolution, crisis intervention, consultation, advocacy, and community organizing.
C-SSWS candidates must possess master’s degrees in social work from graduate programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. They must also have documentation of at least two years of paid and supervised social work experience as school social workers in school settings after graduation. Additionally, applicants are required to be licensed or certified by their state.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is specialty certification better than just licensure?
The type of certification and/or licensure necessary will depend on the kind of counseling positions pursued. States have different licensing requirements and, in some cases, specialty certifications are required in order to practice in certain sub-fields. Ultimately, the decision to pursue specialty certifications and/or licensure will depend on candidates’ individual personal and professional goals.
What qualifications do I need to be a counselor?
Those planning to pursue careers as counselors will need to meet several qualifications. In most cases, professionals in this field must obtain master’s degrees in counseling, although some positions require doctorates. Prospective counselors will also need to complete supervised practicums and/or internships prior to applying for relevant certifications and/or licensures. Additionally, continued education is often necessary to maintain any credentials earned.
Which type of counselors get paid the most?
Salary potential for counselors depends greatly upon the type of services provided. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologists earn the highest salaries in the field, with median annual pay of $81,040 in 2021. Genetic counselors were a close second, earning a median annual salary of $80,150. Social and community service managers also had a reported median wage of $74,000 in 2021.
- Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
- Board Certification. National Board for Certified Counselors, Inc. (NBCC)
- Why CCM Certification Matters. Commission for Case Manager Certification (CCMC)
- Specialty Certifications. National Board for Certified Counselors, Inc. (NBCC)
- Substance Abuse Professionals (SAP). U.S. Department of Transportation
- What is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor? Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification
- Why CCM Certification Matters. Commission for Case Manager Certification (CCMC)
- Master Therapist Program. American Psychotherapy Association