How to Become a Counselor: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Become a Counselor: A Step-by-Step Guide
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Each year, 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience mental illness (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2021). So, it comes as no surprise that there were around 41.7 million adults in the United States who received counseling or treatment for their mental health in 2021 alone (Statista, 2023). These numbers only go to show the importance of counselors in today’s society.

If you are emphatic, have a knack for listening and an innate desire to help and support others, perhaps a career in counseling is the option for you. With the best colleges online or on-campus, you may take a meaningful educational route to counsel people and guide them in navigating life challenges.

In this guide, our team of professionals at compiled data on the requirements of how to become a counselor, its career opportunities, and the prospective salary you can expect.

How to Become a Counselor Table of Contents

  1. What is a counselor?
  2. What does a counselor do?
  3. How to become a counselor?
  4. What are the career prospects of a counselor?
  5. How much does a counselor make?
  6. What do healthcare industry employers prefer in a counselor?

What is a counselor?

A counselor is a professional who provides nonjudgmental and compassionate care to clients. He or she works with individuals, couples, families, or groups to deliver support, guidance, and resources to work toward wellness, mental health, career goals, and education. A counselor uses established mental health principles, procedures, methods, and ethics (, n.d.).

A counselor is more than just a professional that people resort to for input. As published in the Journal of Education and Health Promotion titled “The effect of group cognitive-behavioral counseling on optimism and self-esteem of women during the 1st month of marriage that referring to marriage counseling center,” Dafei et al. (2021) found that “Cognitive‑behavioral counseling enhances women’s optimism by emphasizing the training of communication and conflict resolution skills, which leads to positive attitude and life satisfaction. Therefore, using cognitive‑behavioral counseling in marriage counseling sessions can improve couples’ relationships.”

Beyond mending relationships, the role of a counselor is also to help clients struggling with alcohol or drug addiction and those going through the complex and challenging grieving process.

What does a counselor do?

A counselor can take on a wide range of work opportunities to specialize in. These may include social work, psychology, marriage and family, addiction recovery, and many other areas of expertise. A counselor’s professional work setting may include private practicum community settings, advocacy roles, education systems, group homes, the legal system, and long-term or short-term care facilities.

Some of the responsibilities of a counselor are:

  1. Offer psychological assessment, therapeutic, diagnostic, and or case management services for individuals, couples, families, or groups as appropriate.
  2. Collect patient data through interviews, testing and assessment, case history, or observational techniques.
  3. Evaluate gathered data to identify the cause of the problem and to determine the ideal therapeutic approach of referral to other specialists.
  4. Makes a follow-up on the patient to see the reliability and validity of the used treatment and makes necessary recommendations or modifications to services and service delivery.
  5. Consult with other legal and treatment agencies and individuals concerning patient and client records, responsibilities, and rights.
  6. Take part in the review of clinical issues and program policies and procedures.
  7. Join, lead, or coordinate training sessions and workshops to improve treatment skills.

Source: CACREP, 2022

How to become a counselor?

A bachelor’s degree may help one find work as a counselor but only those with a graduate degree can deliver unsupervised, one-on-one counseling. Becoming a licensed counselor requires one to earn a master’s degree and pass state-specific examinations. Here is a general overview of becoming a counselor:

Education Options

The first step in pursuing a counseling career starts with a bachelor’s degree. You may earn a bachelor’s degree from a regionally or nationally accredited college for a smooth transition into a master’s program. A solid foundation for furthering the study is to take a psychology or a human services degree.

Once you finish your bachelor’s degree, you can already enroll in a master’s degree program in counseling. Like the bachelor’s degree program, the university for your master’s degree must also be accredited. The licensing board prefers students who completed programs certified by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), or a regional graduate education accrediting body.

Of the different types of institutions offering CACREP-accredited programs, 60.24% are from public schools, 36.18% from private not-for-profit, and 3.58% from private for-profit (CACREP, 2022).

The coursework for a master’s degree in counseling focuses on psychology, statistics, sociology, research and counseling techniques, and training in the particular counseling type you wish to pursue. A master’s degree in counseling requires 60 credits with at least 600 hours of supervised practicums or clinical internships. It will take two years of full-time study to complete a master’s degree in counseling or 18 months if taken from online accelerated programs.

Source: Center for Credentialing and Education, n.d.

Training and Specializations

Counseling is a diverse field. Though a master’s degree is not a requirement for becoming a counselor, many students prefer to specialize in specific counseling areas. These can be the following:

  1. Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC). As a CCMHC, one will be trained to provide evidence-based treatment to clients. The common therapy types a CCMHC uses is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. But many CCMHCs also diagnose and treat mental illnesses and provide other client services (The Chicago School, 2021).
  2. Master Addictions Counselor (MAC). As a MAC, one offers treatment and therapy to people struggling with alcoholism, substance abuse, and gambling. A MAC assesses a patient and helps them form a management and treatment plan.
  3. Forensic Health Evaluators (FHE). Forensic services are the intersection between psychology and law. As an FHE, one will deliver competency evaluations, forensic navigator services, care and treatment for competency restorations, diverse work, and others.
  4. Global Career Development Facilitator (GCDF). 19% of career facilitators majored in business, 10% in education, and almost 7% in psychology and human resource management (Center for Credentialing and Education, n.d.). As a GCDF, one helps others with career guidance and coaching to meet their goals. A GCDF assists college students in seeking insight into a career path. He can also help professionals who are ready to change or advance their career goals.
  5. Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). An MFT is trained in psychotherapy and family systems. He or she diagnoses and treats mental and emotional disorders in the context of couples, marriage, and family systems. Almost 90% of MFT clients report a significant improvement in their emotional health while two-thirds of them attributed it to developing their overall physical health (American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, n.d.).

In addition to choosing a specialization, a prospective counselor must also obtain work experience. Since getting firsthand experience is the best way to learn, one must work in a supervised clinical setting before earning a license as a counselor. The typical hours to complete this training range from 2,000 to 3,000.

emotional health improvement


Part of how to become a counselor is obtaining a license or certification. Once you meet all the licensure requirements, pass your paperwork to your state’s licensing board, pay the licensing fee, and wait for the final approval.

The next step is to take the counseling exam. You have to note that licensing requirements are different per state. But generally, all states require counselors to have a master’s degree and have completed the specified number of hours of supervised clinical experience. Contact information for the regulating board of states is available at National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC).

A prospective counselor must pass one or more counseling exams before advancing toward a license. You may take an exam before your master’s degree graduation or shortly after. The common test used is the National Counselor Exam (NCE).

Continuing Education

Even after obtaining a license as a counselor, one must keep learning. A counselor should earn continuing education hours to maintain his/her license. In addition to this, one may pursue specialized credentials or a doctorate. He can also join seminars or workshops, do a home study, and be a part of publications and presentations about the discipline.

mental health counselor employment

What are the career prospects of a counselor?

Learning what are the different types of counselors helps one navigate the pool of opportunities waiting. Careers in counseling include being a mental health counselor, school counselor, career counselor, child counselor, college counselor, grief counselor, military counselor, pastoral counselor, rehabilitation counselor, and substance abuse counselor.

Counseling is growing acceptance and gaining recognition as an effective treatment method. Thus, there is an increasing demand for counselors in different fields. The employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is expected to grow by 22% from 2021 to 2031, which is faster than the average for all occupations (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022).

In the next decade, there are about 43,600 projected job openings per year for counselors. Many of these openings are from worker replacement due to transfer to a different occupation or exit from the labor force like retirement (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022).

Employment Projections Data for Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors from 2021 to 2031

OccupationEmployment, 2021Projected Employment, 2031Percentage Change, 2021-31
Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors351,000428,50022

How much does a counselor make?

In 2021, the counselors—substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors, in particular—yielded an average annual salary of $48,520. The lowest 10% of these counselors earned less than $30,870 while the highest 10% of them earned over $77,980 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022). These numbers are often dependent on factors such as educational attainment, location, as well as industry.

For instance, the government sector offers an average annual salary of $60,450 for counselors. Meanwhile, counselors working in hospitals often yield an average of $49,630 per year. Other sectors that offer competitive median annual wages for counselors are outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers with an average annual salary of $47,550 and residential mental health and substance abuse facilities with a median annual wage of $42,900 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022).

These aside, there are also counselors who prefer to work on a part-time setup, which can definitely affect one’s annual salary.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022

What do healthcare industry employers prefer in a counselor?

When we think of counselors, we envision professionals who are non-judgemental, empathic, and caring. While this is true, there is more to being a counselor than these traits. Employers in the healthcare industry prefer counselors with the below-mentioned common skills and qualifications to be efficient in their field of work.

Must-Have Skills

  1. Communication skills. A counselor must be an excellent communicator. Communication, a widely sought-after soft skill, will help one to be effective in conveying information and ideas to a range of different people. A counselor must also be concise in writing but detailed in terms of reporting the progress of a client.
  2. Active listening. It is not enough that a counselor just listens to a client. Listening should be treated with full attention while understanding the problems and values of the client.
  3. Crisis intervention. Every day is a different scenario in the healthcare department. With new patient problems and challenges to solve, a counselor must be able to think and deal with the situation as calmly and rationally as possible to come up with a solution everyone will be happy with. A counselor must intervene to de-escalate moments of increased stress and agitation. However, with only 11.8% of industry professionals mentioning this skill on their resumes (Zippia, n.d.), it is important to develop this to gain an edge in the job landscape.
  4. Empathic. A counselor will work with clients dealing with difficult and stressful situations. One should be able to view the situation from the perspective of the patient to help him/her overcome obstacles.
  5. Flexibility. A counselor will have clients from different backgrounds, engagements, and experiences. One must be open-minded, non-judgmental, and has a flexible view and understanding of multicultural issues in the clinical practice. Additionally, a counselor should be able to recognize when he and a patient are not a match and refer the latter to another professional for better aid.

Source: Zippia, n.d.

Must-Have Qualifications

  1. College degree. To lead group sessions, conduct assessments, and maintain confidentiality, a master’s or a doctorate in counseling is necessary. Based on 108,261 counselor resumes, 59% of these counselors hold a bachelor’s degree while 18% hold a master’s degree (Zippia, n.d.).
  2. Passing the national exam. States require counseling hopefuls to get passing marks on comprehensive examinations on counseling practice such as the National Counselor Examination or a similar licensure exam your state requires.
  3. Professional experience. You have to acquire practice hours in a supervised setting. Part of the experience entails listening to clients. One should also fill out needed paperwork and partner with other industry professionals.
  4. State license. Each state establishes licensure or certification standards for health and human services professionals to protect the safety of the public. Once you meet all the requirements, you can apply and pass your state’s counseling board licensure.

educational attainment of counselors

Change Lives by Working as a Counselor

The world is evolving day by day and we see more and more people dealing with personal issues such as anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and many other mental health conditions. Counselors are the professionals people lean on to help in these situations. Though a counseling career may be hectic and demanding, is an ideal choice if you want a job where you can make a difference, gain continuous education, and get lucrative pay at the same time.

As you can see, the steps on how to become a counselor are not as complicated as one might believe. Like many disciplines, it requires a student to first attain a bachelor’s degree as well as certifications in order to practice. However, should you want to take your career further, you can also pursue a counseling master’s degree or a doctorate degree in psychology to become a therapist or a psychiatrist.


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Get personalized degree recommendations that will help you find a program that will match your goals and dreams.

The website is funded by advertising. All school search, finder, and match results, as well as featured or trusted partner programs, are for schools who pay us. Our school rankings, resource guides, or any other editorially impartial content on our website are unaffected by the compensation we receive.