Professional school counselors are certified educators with a minimum of a master’s degree in school counseling. These caring professionals are trained in child and adolescent psychology and work with students to help them excel in school and create a safe learning environment. Professional school counselors design, implement, evaluate and enhance comprehensive school counseling programs that promote student success, according to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA).
School counselors are employed in a variety of academic settings, from elementary through postsecondary schools. These counselors work with students to address a variety of topics ranging from behavioral issues and violence prevention to college and career readiness.
Our guide offers insights into the required education, salary and job outlook for professional school counselors. Browse through the content or use the following links to jump to your desired destination:
At-a-glance: professional school counselors
|Elementary/secondary school||College/postsecondary||Junior colleges|
|Education||Bachelor’s; master’s preferred||Bachelor’s; master’s preferred||Bachelor’s; master’s preferred|
|Typical study time||4-6 years||4-6 years||5-10 years|
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
A school counselor may work at any level of education, including elementary, middle and high school as well as college. They are employed for all grade levels at both private and public schools. In general, counselors work a full-time schedule, but some have summers off depending on the school’s operating calendar. A counselor usually reports to the school principal.
School counselor job description
School counselors mostly meet with students individually; however, they also regularly hold small group sessions, workshops and even present in school assemblies.
Typical duties include:
- Creating comprehensive school counseling programs that focus on student outcomes and are focused around three domains: academic, career and personal/social development.
- Using organizational assessments and tools to evaluate the school’s counseling needs.
- Using individual assessment tools to evaluate students’ abilities, interests, and personality characteristics.
- Delivering school counseling curriculum in partnership with other professional educators in classroom and group activities.
- Meeting with students to assist in goal setting and career planning.
- Counseling students individually and within small groups regarding educational issues and personal or behavioral problems.
- Providing crisis intervention to students when difficult situations occur at schools.
- Measuring and reporting the effectiveness of school counseling programs
Source: American School Counselor Association
“Becoming a school counselor was one of the best decisions I have made in my educational career. Fostering relationships with disengaged freshmen and seeing them walk across the stage at graduation is the best experience ever! Seeing the results of helping one student succeed is definitely worth all our efforts! ”
Cynthia Morton, Professional High School Counselor, Conyers, Georgia
The specific scope for the day-to-day activities of school counselors varies according to the grade level:
- Elementary school: Counselors who work at an elementary school are more involved with behavioral issues and overall student health and safety.
- Middle school: Middle school counselors typically work with students on social skills as they make the difficult transition from child to teenager.
- High school: For high school counselors, the most essential tasks are helping students choose the best strategies for formulating future goals and preparing for either further education, or entry into the workforce. They may administer and interpret career interest and aptitude tests and provide resources for applying to college.
- Postsecondary/college: Finally, college-level counselors assist students with making the most of their impending degrees through the development of career selections, job skills, resumes and essential interviewing techniques.
Who makes good school counselors?
Someone who is:
- A good listener.
- A clear communicator.
- Flexible; prepared to handle anything.
- Able to work with all types of personalities.
- Energized by working with young people.
- Emotionally stable and able to handle stress well.
Pros and cons of being a professional school counselor
- This profession ranks high in terms of meaningful work because you’re directly impacting the lives of young people.
- There’s a lot of variety, and every day is different.
- People who crave high social interaction find being a school counselor very rewarding.
- Competition to land jobs is intense, particularly in some school districts.
- Public school counselors may spend a lot of their time on nonessential tasks, such as substitute teaching, bus duty and disciplining students.
- The turnover rate is high, as 60 percent of new school counselors leave the field within two years.
“I would say one the best things about being a high school counselor is getting to see the culmination of 12 years of education and help students plan, execute, and start down the next major part of their lives. We don’t make a ton of money, but what we do make—the richest man in the world couldn’t buy.”
Jeff Ream, Professional High School Counselor, Tahoe City, California
Education requirements for school counselors
A master’s degree in school counseling or a related field is required by most states for school counselors in grades K-12. The degree should comprise coursework in developmental theory, learning theory, social justice theory, multiculturism, career development and group and individual counseling and include a supervised practicum and internship, according to the ASCA. Some states allow full-time teaching experience to be substituted in place of the internship requirement.
A master’s degree is not necessarily required for educational college counselors, although some employers prefer it. College counselors who provide psychological services are required to have an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree or PhD.
Public school counselors must have a state-issued credential (or license) to practice and are typically required to complete 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. Some states also require applicants to have one to two years of classroom teaching experience, or to hold a teaching license, in order to be certified. Most states require a criminal background check as part of the credentialing process.
Private school counselors and educational college counselors are not required to be licensed.
Both the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) offer school counseling certification. Information about licensing requirements for each state is available from the ASCA: http://www.schoolcounselor.org/school-counselors-members/careers-roles/state-certification-requirements
“I enjoy being a school counselor because of the relationships I’m able to build with my students. Building trust and having a good rapport with my students is very important to me. I enjoy working with them and helping them think through ways to cope with or solve their problems.”
Vanessa Allen, Professional School Counselor, Knightdale, North Carolina
School counselors at the various levels
Counseling duties vary greatly, depending on the work environment. The following section covers significant differences among school counseling at the various levels.
Elementary school counselor
Elementary school counselors are professional educators with mental health training who work with children from grades K-5, and can effectively respond to the challenges presented by a diverse student population.
Contrary to guidance counselors of the past, who worked in isolation, today’s professional school counselors provide leadership in creating a safe and supportive learning environment and play an integral role in the school’s educational program.
A counselor at this level wears many hats and deals with school-related problems, home concerns and the health and physical development of all of the students. School counselor curriculum may include subjects such as study skills, goal-setting, problem-solving and diversity awareness.
The work involves meeting with students individually and in small groups, communicating regularly with parents to address any concerns, creating behavioral management plans and identifying at-risk children and developing success plans.
View a video about an elementary school counselor: Andrea Rose, Pleasant Valley Elementary
Middle school counselor
Middle school counselors work with students in grades 6-8 to develop the skills and strategies necessary to succeed academically and socially. Middle school is an important time because students are transitioning from childhood to adolescence and are searching for their identity and relying on peers more for understanding and approval.
Successful middle school counselors have a strong understanding of adolescent psychology and are able to build trusting relationships with the students. As with elementary school counselors, middle school counselors also work closely with school administrators, teachers and parents. School counselor curriculum may include subjects such as social skills, substance abuse education, career exploration and academic skills support.
View a video about a middle school counselor: William Marchione, 2013 Maryland Middle School Counselor of the Year
High school counselor
High school counselors advise students in making academic and career plans, along with helping students with personal problems that may interfere with their education. During these adolescent years, students are evaluating their strengths, skills and abilities, and are strongly influenced by their peers. High school counselors provide information about choosing and applying for colleges and financial aid, provide guidance to help students make decisions about their future, and present career workshops.
The work involves meeting with students individually and in small groups, communicating regularly with parents to address any concerns and creating behavioral management plans. School counselor curriculum may include subjects such as career planning, college planning, substance abuse education and conflict resolution skills.
Some counselors may work in private high schools specifically to help students find the college that best fits their goals, provide help with college applications and financial aid, and support the students in making the transition to college.
View a video about a high school counselor: Paul Carlin, Michigan
College/postsecondary and junior college counselors
At the college level, counseling breaks into two distinct categories: psychological counselors and educational counselors (also known as academic advisors).
- Psychological college counselors are mental health professionals who help students resolve personal problems that may interfere with studies, manage stress and test anxieties, adjust to college life and homesickness, provide crisis counseling and help students make decisions about educational and career goals. According to the American College Counseling Association (ACCA), colleges and universities that employ college counselors benefit from increased student retention.Psychological college counselors have a master’s degree or PhD in psychology and may require licensing, depending on state laws. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychological school counselors earn a median salary of $67,760.
- Academic advisors help students choose classes, meet graduation prerequisites and provide information on placement testing and course transfer requirements. Educational requirements for academic advisors vary widely. A few institutions require only a bachelor’s degree, while most will not consider candidates who do not hold a master’s degree.
School counselor salary and employment projections
The median annual salary for a school counselor ranges from $45,094 to $53,610. Counselors who work in high schools typically earn more, as do counselors with a master’s degree or higher. An advanced degree can increase an annual salary by $10,000.
Here is a range of school counselor salaries reported by varying sources:
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: $53,610
- Salary.com: $45,094 – $51,315
- Glassdoor.com: $50,000
Education Careers: Salary and Employment Data
Quickly compare salary and job statistics in your area
Source: BLS Wage Data by Area and Occupation. * or ** indicate insignificant or unavailable data.
School counselor employment projections
Employment of school and career counselors is projected to grow 12 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. School counselors with a master’s degree will have the greatest job opportunities and security.
While overall employment growth is expected because of increasing school enrollments, hiring will vary by geographic location, depending on state and local government budgets. There have been some positive developments for school counselors, with executive legislation seeking to increase the number of school counselors nationally in an effort to increase college attendance among low- and middle-income students. The current national average is one counselor for every 471 students, but the ASCA recommends the ratio be adjusted to one counselor for every 250 students.
School counselors: professional development
Staying current on the latest developments in education reform and the challenges students face is an important aspect of being a school counselor. Continuing education is also a requirement for sustained licensure in many states. Professional organizations such as the ASCA offer professional development courses where school counselors may earn CEUs.
Continuing formal education for school counselors
Graduate programs in school counseling cover the topics of academic development and how to conduct group and individual counseling. These programs also require students to gain experience through an internship or practicum. Prospective graduate students are advised to do their homework first when selecting a graduate school. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educations Programs (CACREP) is a good place to research graduate programs in counseling and related degrees.
Professional associations for school counselors
- American School Counselor Association
- American College Counseling Association
- American Counseling Association
- National Academic Advising Association
Best of the web: our favorite school counselor blogs and Twitter handles
The web makes it easy for us to stay connected to prominent school counselors. Here is a list of our favorite blogs and Twitter handles, in no particular order.
Favorite school counselor blogs
- Savvy School Counselor
- The Middle School Counselor
- Elementary School Counseling: Marissa’s Blog
- Entirely Elementary… School Counseling
- Life on the Fly… A School Counselor Blog
- JYJ Counselor Blog
- The Counseling Geek
- For High School Counselors
- School Counselor Sara
- School Counseling from A to Z
Favorite school counselor Twitter handles
- American School Counselor Association: @ASCAtweets
- Julia V. Taylor: @juliavtaylor
- Spencer HS Counselor: @KatrinaEisfeldt
- STAHL: @CounselorStahl
- Carol Miller: @tmscounselor
- Brian Linhart: @MrLinhartTweets
- Nick Hughes: @LimestoneSC
- Jeff Ream: @CounselingGeek
- "Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013
- "Occupational Outlook for School and Career Counselors," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, School and Career Counselors
- "Careers/Roles," American School Counselor Association