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What is a College Counselor?

There are many different professionals who might consider themselves college counselors. Some conduct psychotherapy with students in the hopes of helping them overcome various mental health issues and thrive on campuses and beyond. Others may work in the college's career counseling office and thus help students determine the best college major for them and then the best career options for a lifetime. To become any sort of college counselor, a bachelor's degree in psychology is a terrific place to start. To then land a job on a college campus, a master’s degree is imperative. Those who pursue psychotherapy need a state license, but career college counseling professionals needn't pursue a license.

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Steps to Becoming a College Counselor

A college counselor is a mental health professional who works exclusively with college students. Often, they work as part of a campus healthcare team. Professionals in this position are often salaried by the college or university and may perform other duties on campus such as mental health education. However, there are other sorts of counselors who operate under this or similar job titles.


Step 1:

The first step on the road to becoming a college counselor is to discover a passion for helping others in a one-on-one manner. Many future counselors discover the field by undergoing therapeutic work with a counselor themselves. Once they've completed or spent significant time in psychotherapy, they are motivated to help others in a similar fashion.

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Thus, the first step on the road to become a college counselor is to discover a passion for the field. After all, this work can be painstaking and emotionally draining. It requires that professionals be dedicated to it on a deep level so that they are able to provide help to clients for the long haul. Once a person has made the decision to become a college counselor, they should start looking for a bachelor’s degree or even a master’s-level counseling program. It's vital that college counselors who wish to conduct psychotherapy complete a master’s degree. Those who would rather have a non-psychological career would need to begin their career with a bachelor's degree.

Step 2:

The second big step on the road to become a therapeutic college counselor is to earn a bachelor's degree. At this stage, it is advised that they pursue a psychology degree that will lead to a master’s in counseling psychology or perhaps social work. There are also bachelor’s degree programs for adjacent careers, such as addictions counseling. Students might start with a degree in a related field, such as sociology or anthropology, but their master’s degree program is likely to have specific course requirements, such as developmental psychology, though these requirements vary between various colleges and universities. That said, most graduate programs should accept transcripts that reveal an undergraduate degree in psychology.

Students who hold degrees in other fields should find a suitable master’s degree program for counseling psychology and assess the admission criteria. In some cases, aspiring counselors may only need to take a few courses to meet the admissions requirements. However, if they have found work in a related field, such as that of a psychiatric technician or as a psychiatric nurse, they may be able to use their resume to satisfy admissions criteria.

Step 3:

Once students have completed their bachelor's degrees and can satisfy admissions criteria for a master’s degree program, they should apply to a graduate degree program for counseling psychology. There are many programs out there and each has its own focus and will attract specific sorts of students. Some have a strong spiritual focus that students will want to be aware of to ensure that their values align with that of the school and graduate department.

Graduate students should seek out programs that provide ample opportunity to engage in real-world practical experiences. After all, counseling is an interpersonal endeavor and students need to be exposed to the realities of that working environment. Many decide that the emotional costs are too high for them and decide to pursue research psychology or another field altogether.

Those hours of practice and real-world experience may also help students satisfy their state board's requirements for licensure. In fact, prior to applying, all prospective graduate students should ask their admissions counselors about the program's licensure support. Most accredited, reputable programs will have supports in place that help students experience an easy transition to becoming licensed therapists.

Step 4:

Once students have graduated from their master’s degree program in counseling, they will need to satisfy their state's licensure requirements. This often entails a year or more of practical experience under a licensed counselor. For those who wish to become college counselors, this might be accomplished by securing a position in a college health clinic and working under one of the licensed therapists there. Licensure also entails such requirements as a background check, letters of reference, and complete academic transcripts.

Keep in mind that every state licensing agency will have their own requirements for continuing education. That is, every licensed counselor must complete a set number of qualifying continuing education units (CEUs) in order to maintain their license.

What Does a College Counselor Do?

Those college counselors who work with students in one-on-one psychotherapy conduct their careers much in the same way as other non-campus therapists. They see students who come to the student health center in search of counseling for problems such as depression, anxiety, and to overcome trauma. Counselors may spend about an hour a week with each student, depending on the severity of their case and the number of cases assigned to them.

Most college counselors work in an office on campus. Since they are employees of the college or university, they likely keep regular hours and adhere to any other employment requirements, including a dress code. However, these days counselors might find that they are seeing more and more students/clients via streaming video such as Skype, Zoom, or other platforms.

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There are also professionals who may be called college counselor but provide different services. These professionals can be found interviewing and assessing future students as admissions counselors. They might also travel around to deliver recruitment presentations to high school seniors. Finally, there are other college counselors who work with high school students and their parents to help them find the best schools to apply to and then counsel them through the application process. Make sure you understand what type of career you are hoping for before you sign up for any classes or begin your academic career.

College Counselor Skills to Acquire

  • Listening Skills:
    This may seem obvious, but listening is a skill which needs to be cultivated and practiced. Counselors should be able to listen intently rather than waiting to speak.
  • Analytical Skills:
    It's vital for counselors to apply their reasoning skills to the emotions their patients present. This is also a huge part of the initial assessment and diagnostic periods.
  • Empathy:
    When patients are in deep pain, counselors must be able to connect on an emotional level.
  • Organizational Skills:
    Counselors need to take detailed notes of their client sessions and be very attentive to their schedules.
  • Patience:
    Some patients will progress at a faster pace than others and some may not make much headway at all. Counselors should be patient and accept this feature of the process.
  • Strong Personal Boundaries:
    Counselors need to be able to establish firm boundaries so that their work doesn't interfere with their own lives. This may be all the more imperative when working with manipulative clients.
  • Intuition:
    This will likely build over time, but counselors will develop a sort of sixth sense in regard to their clients. Many will start their careers with a strong intuitive sense, but it's vital to develop it over time.

Alternative Paths

Though the college counseling profession is state regulated, with set requirements for those wishing to practice psychotherapy, there are many avenues to this end. For instance, some may pursue the field as a result of their own experience with counseling. For these students, the practice of counseling and psychotherapy has paid enormous dividends in their lives and they wish to pass that along to others. Others may have seen the impact that psychotherapy made on their friends or relatives. Others come to the profession from a purely intellectual standpoint and find the process intriguing and worth pursuing.

It is also possible to start a school counseling career with as little as an associate degree. These degrees typically are geared specifically to addictions counselors. While someone with a two-year degree will not be able to conduct one-on-one psychotherapy, they can work in a rehab and help others recover. From this launching point, future counselors can use their experience to transition into work as a college counselor. An associate degree will also enable an entry-level position in social work, which will be an excellent background for any college counseling career.

Another option is to launch a career with a Master's degree in Divinity that leads to work as a Pastoral Counselor. Professionals can then find a college or university that aligns with their religious affiliation and perhaps work for them as a college counselor.

College Counselor Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


College counselors will find work within a college or university. Typically, their working lives will involve regular office hours in their institution's health center where they will see students for one-on-one counseling sessions. However, they may also form group counseling sessions for students who have a similar struggle. College counselors may also utilize technology and work remotely via a video chat platform such as Zoom or Skype. Given the rise in online education and students' busy schedules, this is increasingly likely. Thus, counselors might conduct these video counseling sessions from their homes or from the office, or some mix, depending on their employer’s restrictions or other factors.

Counselors might also decide to go into private practice and thus branch off from their college or university. In this case, they can see clients in whatever fashion they see fit and may even end up seeing clients in their own homes, provided that they have a suitable office space. It could also be that they continue to work through their old university employer and perhaps offer remote counseling sessions to students who can't make it to campus.

Career Outlook

The outlook for college counselors is quite good. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the field is slated to grow by as much as 8% through 2029. The BLS characterizes this growth as much faster than average. This figure is geared towards those counselors who provide academic and career counseling for students in need. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports their median salaries at $57,000 and their typical entry-level education at a master’s degree level.

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On the other hand, psychologists are seeing a slower growth rate. The BLS shows their field expanding by only 3% through 2029, which is considered average by the agency. Their salaries are notably larger, as their reported median salary is over $80,000. Though many psychologists work with a doctoral degree, many still conduct therapy with a master’s degree as their highest level of education.

Finally, addictions counselors who are working with a bachelor's degree are reported to earn a median salary of just over $46,000. Their field is expanding faster than many other comparable fields. The BLS shows that the substance abuse counseling field is slated to grow by 25% through 2029. Across the board, counseling professions are gaining ground. Whether you're a career counselors, a school and career counselor, or a family therapist, your career is in demand. Not only that, but it is likely to stay in demand for years to come.

Advancing From Here

College counselors have many avenues available to them. Those who specialize in psychotherapy might become a supervisor for the other counselors in their clinic. College career counselors can rise to become the supervisor of their department or they might split off and become independent contractors who work with individual high school students to help them craft the best application for optimal schools.

Some college counselors return to graduate school and pursue a different degree in counseling, a doctoral counseling degree, or perhaps a PhD in research psychology that might focus on education. With a doctoral degree, a career counselor can consult with educators and help develop teaching methods and improve outcomes for colleges nationwide.


The demand for this field continues to rise. College counselors who focus on career counseling are increasingly in demand since every college and university wants to see its graduates succeed in their careers. There are also other options in the counseling realm which students might also want to consider. For instance, those who venture into psychotherapy are able to work as independent entrepreneurs or as college counselors who help students cope with deeper personal issues that might spill over to their career aspirations.

  • School Counselor:
    This position involves helping high school students find the best college or post-secondary education for them. They also help students arrange campus visits, discover the best career options for them, and create individual plans for their academic and professional lives.
  • Admissions Counselor:
    This educational professional works with aspiring college students to determine whether they are a good fit for the school. They use information from each student's transcripts, letters of recommendation, and interviews to decide the terms of each student's admission. They also coordinate recruitment events such as college fairs, school visits, and more.
  • Career Counselor:
    This position is located on a college campus and is designed to help students find the optimal career path for them. This begins with determining the best major field of study, arranging internships, and more. Career counselors might also help coordinate job fairs that may focus on specific industries or general areas of interest.
  • College Admissions Consultant:
    This position is for those who have experience working in a college admissions office as an admissions counselor or application reader. These consultants work with students on an individual basis to help them find the best possible college that will result in an optimal career path. This work is on a contract basis and might be ideal for someone who is considering returning to school themselves.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How much do school and career counselors make?

School and career counselors make around $58,000 per year.

What is the National Counselor exam?

The National Counselor exam is a multiple choice exam that tests the knowledge, abilities, and skills that are required for providing counseling services. The National Counselor exam is required for national board licensure in most states.

What do career counselors do?

Career counselors use aptitude and achievement assessments to evaluate students skills, interests, and abilities and help them with the college application process.

How much do college admissions counselors?

College admissions counselors make around $61,000 per year.

Where do career counselors work?

Career counselors work in professional schools, high schools, colleges, social services offices, employment and staffing agencies, and private practices.

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