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How to Become a Counselor: Step-By-Step Guide

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Have you ever wondered what it might be like to pursue a career related to helping people achieve their mental health goals?

Are you interested in offering guidance and advice to maintain overall well-being?

Well, becoming a counselor might be the career path for you! We know the journey might seem scary initially, but that’s where this article comes in.

This is a detailed guide on how to become a counselor. We’ll go over what this career path has to offer and all of the steps and requirements you’ll need along the way.

An Overview of Counseling: A Primer

Counselors are mental health professionals who help clients achieve goals and overcome challenges through constant support and guidance.

Specific services, treatment areas, and job descriptions vary depending on a counselor’s specialization. 

A school counselor, for example, may focus on helping students work toward their academic and career goals. Similarly, a rehabilitation counselor works with people with disabilities to achieve independent living goals.

One of the most common questions surrounding this career is, what’s the difference between a therapist and a counselor?

Both are licensed medical professionals with a shared goal of providing treatment for mental health goals.

Their primary difference lies in their training, licenses, and certifications. Most people use these terms interchangeably, but it’s important to know the difference. 

That said, both career paths champion mental health. Some job descriptions and roles may overlap since they’re generally dealing with similar challenges.

How Much Do Counselors Make?

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), counselors and advisors make an average annual salary of $60,510. This means they make around $29 per hour.

Most counselors work full-time, with the top industry being state, local, and private elementary and secondary schools.

The career outlook of counselors appears great, with an expected growth of 10% from 2021 to 2031. 

What You’ll Need to Become a Counselor & Associated Costs

Before you can start working toward your end goal of becoming a counselor, there are a few requirements you have to prepare.

Use the list below to help give you an idea of the most vital requisites.

  • Bachelor’s Degree: Most, if not all, job openings for counselors require a degree program in counseling or any other related educational program. The cost of online Bachelor’s programs varies depending on the University, but expect to spend at least $300 per credit.
  • Master’s Degree: This isn’t a strict requirement, but a Master’s degree opens up many opportunities in the field. This can cost around $2,000 per semester. 
  • Internship or Practicum: You may be required to finish a certain number of hours of supervised clinical experience as part of your coursework in either your Bachelor’s or Master’s program.
  • State-issued Certifications and Licenses: To apply for a license, you need to take the  National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMH) and pay $275. Other fees for state-issued licenses after passing the exam may vary from state to state. 
  • Empathic Communication: Clients can come from all walks of life, each with unique experiences and challenges. Counselors should empathize with clients and work with compassion.
A female counselor gestures while talking her client

How Much Does It Cost to Become a Counselor?

The total cost can reach as high as $10,000 or more. This is merely a rough estimate and your choice of degree programs and schools can greatly drive this number higher or lower.

Most of the expenses will go to your education, but this is a worthwhile and invaluable investment. You can apply for financial aid to reduce these educational expenses.

Is It Hard to Become a Counselor?

Like any other career path, being a counselor comes with many challenges. As fulfilling as it is to help people, the reality is that this career path isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.

There are also challenging tasks associated with the different specializations. For example, a mental health counselor can experience emotional exhaustion due to heavy sessions.

Community counselors working in the public health sector suffer from stress and burnout due to a lack of resources and support from governing bodies.

A counselor isn’t usually listed as a job with great work/life balance because they’re typically fully engaged with their work and clients.

That said, balance isn’t impossible to achieve, but it requires considerable effort.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Counselor?

This journey lasts three to six years or more, depending on how early you can finish your counseling degree program and supervised experience hours

Because of the length it takes to become a counselor, it’s an uncommon side hustle. It’s usually not anyone’s first choice as a side job since most do counseling full-time. 

How to Become a Counselor in 5 Simple Steps 

image for how-to schema on how to become a counselor post on gigworker.com

Below is a guide that will walk you through the chief steps you need to take to become a counselor. 

Step 1: Finish Your Bachelor’s Degree

A Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, Social Work, or any other related educational program is a great starting point for counselor education. 

This is the most basic requirement as your degree program will give you the foundational knowledge you need to practice.

Step 2: Obtain a Master’s Degree

While most places require a Bachelor’s degree, some might not require a Master’s. This can vary depending on the state, practice, or institution.

However, continuing education to obtain a master’s degree opens up many opportunities for aspiring counselors.

Great options for Master’s programs are counseling or psychology. These further solidify your foundational knowledge of essential counseling frameworks. 

Step 3: Complete Your Internship

On top of your coursework, you may be required to complete an internship program or a specified number of hours of supervised clinical experience. This is a great way to rack up work experience and get a feel for what the practice is like.

In addition, you get to work alongside professional counselors and learn from them. You also get to apply what you’ve learned in your degree program and carry out professional counseling.

Step 4: Get State-issued Credential to Practice

Most states will require aspiring counselors to apply for a license or certification before practicing. A licensed professional counselor means they meet the standards set by the state and are qualified to counsel clients.

Licensing requirements may differ from state to state, but generally, the National Board for Certified Counselors facilitates the licensure exams for counselors.

First, you need to take state-administered exams, such as the NCMH or any other recognized national counselor examination. After getting a passing score, you’re eligible to apply for a license to practice and become a nationally certified counselor.

Note that there are additional requirements and credentials for counseling specializations. 

For example, you can check the American School Counselor Association if you want to pursue school counseling. For those who want to work with people with disabilities, they need to pass the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination (CRC) first.

A certified counselor gets access to more job opportunities, clients, and cases.

Step 5: Choose an Area of Specialization

One of the great things about counseling is there’s a ton of variety when it comes to areas of specialization. As long as you have the license or certification to practice, you can go to any field of counseling you’re interested in.

Some examples include becoming a substance abuse counselor or a mental health counselor. These work environments can differ wildly from one another, which means treatment frameworks will also differ.

If you’re unsure about the path you want to take, you can choose to practice as a licensed professional clinical counselor initially. As you spend more time in the practice, you’ll know what areas you’d like to specialize in.

Reasons to Consider Becoming a Counselor

If this career path is hard and takes a long time, why pursue it? 

A female counselor Taking notes while talking to her client

Here are four reasons why we think it’s 100% worth it to consider becoming a counselor! 

  • Fulfilling: Counselors work in the health sector.  It’s fulfilling to see clients working toward their best selves and achieving their goals for overall health. 
  • Variety: There’s never a boring day for counselors because there are many specializations you can try, from school counseling to couples and family therapy.
  • Financial Security: The current job outlook is looking great and the demand for counselors doesn’t look like it’s dropping any time soon.
  • Flexibility: Counseling is flexible in a way that you’re welcome to use any counseling program or treatment framework as long as the client consents.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Best Degree for Counseling?

An aspiring counselor’s best bet is a degree in counseling, psychology, or social work. These programs will help you build a strong foundation before you pursue further studies or state-issued credentials.

Is a Counselor Better Than a Therapist?

Generally, counseling has a more specific focus. A career counselor, for example, zeroes in on challenges in an individual’s career development.

Therapists tend to dive deeper into the roots of issues, but counselors can also do this depending on the framework they follow in their practice. Ultimately, it’s down to preference.

Similar Gigs to Check Out

What if counseling isn’t for you? What other career paths can you check out? We compiled a short list of similar gigs for you!

  • How to Become a Life Coach: Life coaches help people work toward their personal goals.
  • How to Become a Child Life Specialist: A child life specialist focuses on helping children and families work through the challenges associated with hospitalization and disability, among others.
  • How to Become a Caregiver: Caregivers have a wider scope of practice and provide more than just mental health guidance. They can help give medicine, meals, and even everyday chores and activities. 

Wrapping Up

To sum up this guide on how to become a counselor, let’s circle back and briefly review the primary requirements: a degree, supervised hours, and a license or certification.

We know it sounds simple when you put it like that, but we want to double down on the fact that while this career is challenging, it’s also rewarding!

There’s a strong sense of fulfillment when you get to help people work toward becoming holistically healthier.

We hope this guide has helped and we’re looking forward to hearing from you! Share your thoughts in the comments below and forward this guide to aspiring counselors who might need it too.

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