Your guide to getting started in a career as a school counselor


Are you interested in a career that enables you to help guide and support students during some of the most formative and influential years of their lives? Would you like to make a real and lasting difference to their academic careers and their personal well-being? If so, retraining to be a school counselor could be the ideal option for you.

These days it’s easier than ever to make a career change, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many people to consider switching to a job that enables them to dedicate themselves to helping others. Of course, many different roles fulfill these criteria, from becoming a doctor or nurse to working for a nonprofit organization. However, school counseling is a great choice for those who are specifically interested in working with young people or who enjoy being in an academic environment.

A career in this field can be both challenging and rewarding, plus has been shown to have an extremely positive impact on students. On top of all this, it’s also an accessible subject to retrain in. This article will examine the role of a school counselor in more detail, including the duties involved and the skills required to be successful. We’ll also talk about how you can become a school counselor, from the sort of topics you’ll study on a masters in school counseling to how to apply for the program.

The role of a school counselor

The job of a school counselor is an extremely varied and interesting one. They work in schools, colleges, and other educational institutions, where they provide support and guidance to all of the students who study there. The main purpose of the role is to work with young people to help ensure that they reach their full potential, both academically and personally, and get the most out of their educational experience.

The exact tasks, duties, and responsibilities that you have as a school counselor will vary depending on where you work and the age of the students in your care. After all, kids in elementary school will have very different needs from college students! A masters in school counseling program will go into this in much more depth, however as an overview, here are some of the primary functions of a school counselor:

Providing academic support

  • Using aptitude tests and other resources to help students work out their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their personal interests, in order to guide them in choosing which classes to take
  • Working with students to set realistic but challenging academic goals and then putting together a plan for how they can achieve them
  • Assisting students who are trying to decide what to major in at college and helping them with applications for courses and scholarships
  • Supporting those students who are struggling with their school work or who have specific learning difficulties, helping them to develop key study skills, and referring them to external professionals where required

Giving career guidance

  • Counseling older students on their future career options, helping them to figure out what they want to do and how they can achieve those goals
  • Assisting students with writing resumes and applying for jobs, internships, and other similar programs
  • Helping students to develop key life skills such as becoming more organized and managing their time better, either on a one-to-one basis or in group classes

Offering emotional support

  • Having an open-door policy so that students can come and talk to you at any time about any concerns they have
  • Helping students who are struggling with mental health concerns such as low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, depression, or eating disorders
  • Supporting students who are experiencing difficult social issues such as bullying, or having trouble with substance misuse or similar problems
  • Mediating conflicts between teachers and students, for example, in cases of truancy, class disruption, or other negative behaviors
  • Being alert for signs of neglect, abuse, or other concerns and reporting them where appropriate

Undertaking administrative work

  • Providing input on a number of relevant school policies, such as those regarding bullying
  • Maintaining student records and completing other paperwork
  • Liaising with families and teachers where necessary or referring students to other resources and external professionals

Necessary skills for school counseling

When you study for a masters in school counseling, you will cover a wide range of topics (as we’ll discuss below) in order to develop the specialist skills and knowledge required to be a great school counselor. However, in addition to this, you will need to have several personal traits and characteristics to truly excel in this position.

For example, empathy and compassion are absolutely critical. These will help you to get into the minds of the students you are working with and see the issues that they are dealing with from their perspective. This will, in turn, enable you to better relate to those in your care and provide them with the most effective support and guidance.

In line with this, you’ll also need plenty of patience. This is because young people may initially be reluctant to open up to you or find talking to a school counselor awkward or embarrassing. Whether it’s nerves, shyness, or hostility, it can take several sessions before students are willing to trust you and talk honestly about their difficulties. In fact, a large part of the role involves communication, whether it’s with students, families, or teachers. Therefore having both strong listening skills and observational skills is critical because it’s just as much about what people don’t say to you as what they do say to you.

Another key attribute you’ll need is adaptability. As a school counselor, you will sometimes have to deal with emergency situations or unexpected problems or simply be flexible enough to rearrange your schedule if a student needs to see you urgently.

Furthermore, you must always exhibit integrity, honesty, and professionalism in everything you do. Your masters in school counseling will go into this in more detail, but part of your job is to be a role model for the young people in your care. Therefore it’s important always to hold yourself to the highest standards and inspire similar attitudes and behavior in others.

Thinking more personally, you will also need to develop the ability to set clear boundaries between your work life and your home life. As you’ll learn on your masters in school counseling, sometimes you will have to deal with troubling cases that weigh on your mind. Therefore in order to protect your own mental health, you will need to prevent these from affecting you too deeply while at the same time not becoming desensitized to the needs of those you are helping.

Finally, there are a number of practical, transferable skills that will make your job as a school counselor much easier. These include attention to detail, time management, organization, decision making, problem-solving, critical thinking, mediation, conflict resolution, teamwork, and leadership. Again you’ll have plenty of time to work on these during your masters in school counseling, so don’t worry if you feel like you don’t quite tick all the boxes yet!

How to become a school counselor

In order to get started on the path to becoming a school counselor, you will firstly need a bachelor’s degree. This can be in any subject, although areas such as psychology, education, and counseling will be particularly useful. After this, you will need to study for a masters in school counseling, as this qualification is a requirement for employment in most states. See below for more detail about the program.

Once you’ve qualified with a masters in school counseling, you will have to complete a certain number of supervised internship hours in a relevant setting. This will be done under the guidance of a professional school counselor and is a fantastic chance to gain experience and build up your skills and confidence. The exact details will vary from state to state, but generally, you will also be required to have a background check and pass an exam in order to become licensed as a school counselor. After that, you’ll be ready to start applying for jobs!

The curriculum of a masters in school counseling

A masters in school counseling normally lasts two or three years for those who study full-time and three or four years for those who study part-time. Both online and campus programs are available, so you can choose the exact mode of study that best suits your personal preferences and life circumstances.

During the program, you will complete a series of academic modules on a wide variety of relevant topics. Some of these will be mandatory for all students, whereas for others, you’ll be able to choose those that are most interesting to you from a longer list of electives. The exact titles available will depend on the college you study with, but you can expect a list similar to the following:

  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Biological Bases of Behavior
  • Child and Adolescent Counseling
  • Clinical Skills
  • Counseling for College and Career Readiness
  • Counseling Families
  • Counseling Techniques
  • Crisis Intervention, Trauma Response, and Emergency Management
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Educational Assessment and Intervention
  • Educational Research
  • Ethical and Legal Issues in School Counseling
  • Foundations of Education
  • Group Counseling
  • Issues and Standards in Professional Counseling
  • Management of School Counseling Programs
  • Mental Health and Substance Use
  • Multicultural Counseling
  • Principles of School Counseling
  • Psychological Testing
  • Roles and Responsibilities of a School Counselor
  • School Counseling Program Development and Evaluation
  • Special Education and Learning Disabilities
  • Theories of Counseling
  • Theories of Personality

Each module on your masters in school counseling will involve a variety of learning and teaching methods, including lectures, seminars, tutorials, group work, reading, and written assignments. You will also take part in mock counseling sessions with your fellow students, where you can put the theories and techniques you’ve learned into practice in a supportive environment.

As the program progresses, you will take this to the next level and gain hands-on experience in the real world by completing practical internships. These are valuable opportunities to hone your skills and receive constructive feedback from experienced experts in the field, and many students find these placements to be the most rewarding and helpful parts of a masters in school counseling degree. Therefore it’s important to get the most out of them by putting in the hard work and being open to the guidance you receive!

Applying for a masters in school counseling

If reading this article has inspired you to take a masters in school counseling, the next step is to start researching the programs that are available. In order to narrow it down to the most suitable programs, you should consider the following factors:

  • Do you want to study on a part-time or full-time basis?
  • Do you want to study online or on a college campus?
  • If you want to study on campus, where would you be willing to commute or move to?
  • What specific modules do you want to take?
  • Do you meet the entry requirements?
  • What is the reputation of both the course and the college?
  • Is the program accredited?
  • What percentage of graduates pass the licensed professional counselor exam and go on to work in the field?
  • What assistance does the college offer in terms of finding placements?
  • How many internship hours will you complete?

Once you’ve found your favorites, you can begin the application process itself. This usually involves completing a form and submitting materials such as your resume, academic or professional references, certificates and transcripts from your previous qualifications, and GRE or GMAT scores. This is also a good time to start looking into funding options, such as financial aid and scholarships.

You may also need to write a personal essay about why you want to do a masters in school counseling. If so, make sure you show the admissions tutors that you are passionate about both the program and the career it will lead you to. They want to see that you genuinely care about supporting students and that you are well suited to the academic challenges of the course. Don’t forget to proofread it before you hit send!