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What is a Counselor?

We all need someone to talk to. Sometimes though, what we need to talk about is too much for friends or family to handle or we don’t want to involve them. When these situations occur, counselors are the ideal people to help. With their expertise and desire to listen and help find solutions, those who need a sounding board or someone to help navigate tricky feelings can have a safe space to express how they feel without worrying about being judged or worrying friends or family members. If you are the kind of person who likes to take to people and help them figure out issues causing them problems, then a career as a counselor might be ideal. The path to becoming a counselor is a long one but, in the end, when you’re helping people find solutions to their problems, the work will be worth it.

A counselor is someone who talks to others who are having problems or experiencing some sort of crisis. Using techniques learned during their education and natural personality traits, counselors help people work through their issues and find solutions to their problems. Whether it’s a couple trying to keep their marriage together, a teen trying to decide on a major, or a person who has just entered recovery, counselors are that objective group of people where those struggling can use as sounding boards. Even those who aren’t currently struggling with an issue can speak to a counselor just to figure out their options for a variety of issues and situations.

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Steps to Become a Licensed Counselor

The steps to become a counselor are pretty straightforward, but they do require some hard work and a dedication time-wise. On average, it takes 10 years to complete all the steps and become a counselor

  • Step 1: Earn an Accredited Bachelor’s Degree

  • Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling

  • Step 3: Take All Required Exams

  • Step 4: Submit Information for Required Background Checks

  • Step 5: Choose Either an Internship or Practicum

  • Step 6: Choose a Specialty and Take Additional Courses

  • Step 7: Complete Doctorate Degree


Step 1: Earn Your Degree

In order to complete the journey to become a counselor, you have to first earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. There is no one specific major that is required to become a counselor, but many students choose a major that is at least indirectly related to counseling. Examples of majors include social work, psychology, sociology, criminal justice, and education. With an education that teaches you how to deal with strangers, or understand human behavior, you have a step up on the type of courses you will be required to take in your master’s program.

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Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling

Once you have attained your four-year degree, continuing your education to earn a master’s degree is the next step. This program also needs to be accredited. If you have a particular school in mind, make sure you fulfill the requirements for admission or will have done so shortly after you apply. For example, if there are specific classes you were required to take as an undergraduate student, make you you’ve either already taken and passed those classes or are enrolled in them when you apply for admission. You might also need to take entrance exams to qualify for admittance, so you’ll want to determine which exams if any you need to take and take them. For example, many graduate programs require students to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and achieve a certain score to be admitted into their graduate program.

Graduate programs usually include about 60 credits and take up to two years to complete. Depending on how many credit hours you take, and whether or not you have access to an accelerated program, you could spend much longer or slightly less time earning this degree.

Step 3: Take All Required Exams

Once you’ve completed your Master’s degree in counseling, you’ll have to sit for exams to be licensed or certified. The National Counselor’s Exam is required for everyone who has completed their master’s degree. Additionally, each state has its own examination requirement, some of which include an additional exam so you can work in that state. Finally, if you plan to work in the mental health field, the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) is required.

Step 4: Submit Information for Required Background Checks

In order to work as a counselor, you’ll have to submit to background checks. The type and depth of each test vary by state and organization, but generally, include a criminal and financial background check. You should be sure to include any information about previous criminal charges or fines which have been taken care of through paying of fines or community service. Explaining these previous marks on your record can help you get through the screening without either being refused a license or needing to provide extra information later, extending the length of the process.

Step 5: Choose Either an Internship or Practicum

At this point, you will have finished your Master’s degree and will either be preparing to start or have just started your doctoral degree and you’ll probably have an idea of what direction you want to take. This is a good time to complete an internship or a practicum. In an internship, you’ll spend several weeks to several months working in a particular area of counseling under the umbrella of a licensed professional. You’ll work as an actual counselor and receive feedback and advice from your professional mentor. A practicum requires that you observe how others perform their job duties. Both can be beneficial in determining which specialization is right for you.

Step 6: Choose a Specialty and Take Additional Courses

Once you know what field you want to specialize in, it’s time to take the classes or earn certifications that will help you to successfully do your job. There are all kinds of available certifications depending on the focus you want. It’s important to research available options for certification or licensure within your state so that you can be sure you are doing everything required to provide you with the best entrance options into your chosen field.

Step 7: Complete Doctorate Degree

Once you’ve completed all the classes, passed the exams, and defended your thesis or research, you will receive a doctorate in counseling in the specialization you chose previously. At this point, you will be ready to strike out as a counselor for an agency or group, or even go into practice yourself.

What Does a Counselor Do?

Mental health counselors spend their time talking to their patients and helping them work through issues and find solutions. When they aren’t seeing patients, they are making sure files are complete and accurate, helping out with social service agencies, and finding other ways to raise awareness about their particular area of expertise. Some mental health counselors also teach classes at local colleges and universities, as well as provide content for textbooks and other academic materials. Finally, they serve as experts in their fields and provide interviews, perspectives, and clarification for articles, web posts, and news reports.

A few examples of types of counselors include:

  • Trauma Counselors
    these individuals help people who have recently experienced a traumatic event. such as physical or sexual assault or a catastrophic event such as a natural disaster.

  • Clinical Counselors
    These counselors are often found in treatment facilities and hospitals, assisting those who are dealing with major stressors including end-of-life decision making.

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  • Private Practice Counselors
    These professionals are what most people think about when someone mentions they are going to therapy.

  • Mental Health Counselors
    These mental health counselors deal with those coming to grips and learning to live with a mental health disorder.

  • Grief Counselors
    These professionals help those who are working through the grief of losing a loved one.

  • Behavioral Health Counselors
    These professionals help their clients to modify unacceptable or unproductive behavioral issues.

Skills to Acquire

Professional counselors tend to have a certain set of skills that make them uniquely qualified to help others. Some of these skills can be learned, but some are also naturally inherent in the individual.

  • Genuine interest in others
    The best mental health counselors are those who take a genuine interest in the lives and well-being of their clients and patients, though you must be able to separate that interest from becoming too personal.

  • Ability to Listen and Hear
    The ability to listen to what a patient is telling you is important, but you also have to be able to “read between the lines” and comprehend what your patients aren’t telling you. That information is just as, if not even more important, than what they actually say.

  • Flexibility
    Not everyone is the same. Not everyone grew up believing the same things, and even if beliefs are different, this doesn’t necessarily mean one is right and the other wrong. A successful counselor keeps these things in mind as they interact with people from all walks of life.

  • Self-reflection
    A counselor who is self-reflective shows empathy for the people they counsel, keeping the person and society’s best interests in the forefront of their minds.

  • A sense of Humor
    Professional counselors are often tasked with hearing some less-than-positive things and dealing with people at their lowest points. Being able to keep a sense of humor about life, in general, can help a counselor keep things in perspective.

  • Accessibility
    a person needs to feel that they can trust and relate to their counselor. If you make your personality accessible to those you counsel, they are more likely to trust you and open up about how they’re feeling and what is really going on in their lives.

  • Sincerity
    No one likes an insincere person. A counselor has to truly want to talk to and help people. An insincere counselor will be seen as a phony and will be ineffective at helping people.

Alternative Paths

One thing about being a counselor is that there really aren’t any alternatives to earning a bachelor’s degree and then moving on to a master’s degree. You may be able to start off in a similar position without a doctorate, but you certainly won’t get far. You also may be able to speed up your education requirements by planning to attend somewhere that will allow you to combine your bachelor’s and master’s into a faster, more accelerated program, but you will still have to earn your master’s in order to be any sort of counselor.

Counselor Careers & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Where a counselor works will depend on the type of counseling being offered. For example, a rehabilitation counselor who works with people in drug or alcohol recovery might work with inpatients and out-patients at an treatment facility. Marriage and family counselors could have private practices or be located in another sort of office setting. School counselors work with kids and young adults. With school counseling, you will be working in a school setting or on a college campus. Marriage and family therapists are also found in hospitals, social service organizations, government entities such as police departments, rehab clinics and inpatient facilities, group homes and halfway houses, and even in companies.

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Potential Career Paths

Those who go into counseling can start working for an agency or educational institution. Once they have gained experience in their chosen specialty, they can become directors of social service agencies, clinics, and hospital department heads. For some, once they have the experience, they open their own practices and start seeing clients. Your career path can, essentially, be whatever you want it to be. Don’t want the responsibility of running your own practice? Find a counseling practice that needs more professional counselors to work with their growing list of clients. Want a little more freedom? Start a practice with a colleague who you met in school. Earn an education degree and a master’s in counseling and teach counseling at the college level. The options can be tailored to whatever form you want your career to take.

Annual Salary by Occupation

Occupation Entry-Level Salary Range Mid-Career Salary Range Late-Career Salary Range
Psychiatric Technician $24,000 $41,000 $69,000
Case Manager $31,000 $41,000 $73,000
Health Educator $34,000 $46,000 $64,000
Career Counselor $36,000 $49,000 $73,000
Psychologist $66,000 $82,000 $91,000
Psychology Program Manager $40,000 $59,000 $88,000

Career Outlook

The overall outlook for professional counselors in the United States is good. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for professional counselors is supposed to increase by 23%, which is much faster than many other professions. As with other professions, some states have bigger needs than others. The top states seeking professional counselors include Vermont, Alaska, Texas, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. If income is a motivator for you, the states that pay counselors the most include New Jersey, Alaska, New York Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Oregon, and Utah.

Salaries are expected to increase between 2016 and 2026. According to, the average salary of a counselor is $42,000, with the top 10% earning over $61,000.

Advancing From Here

Professional counselors can choose to remain employed by clinics or hospitals or choose to strike out on their own once they have achieved enough clinical hours and expertise to work independently. Many professional counselors also become instructors, authors, or leading experts in their communities.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the job outlook for counselors?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for counselors is supposed to increase by 23% from 2020 to 2030.

How long does it take to become a counselor?

All states require you to have a master's degree in counseling. After you have a master's degree, you will be required to pass all of the necessary exams in your state as well as complete an internship or practicum.

Where do counselors work?

Counselors work in private practices, clinics, schools, hospitals, community health centers, and in agencies.

How much do counselors make?

Counselors make on average $42,000 annually, with the top 10% earning over $61,000.

What skills should a counselor have?

Counselors need to be active listeners that question and take notes. They need to have strong interpersonal and communication skills. They need to be trustworthy and empathetic.

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