School counselors play a pivotal role in helping students with school success. Counselors work in a variety of settings: elementary, middle and high schools. Although they may work in both private and public schools, school counselors in public institutions must adhere to state guidelines and initiatives. There are other differences between private and public school settings. In private schools, counselors tend to be more specialized. For example, private school counselors may be highly specialized around college guidance.

What do School Counselors Do?

In a majority of schools, school counselors wear many hats. They provide classroom support, participate in policy and planning at the administrative level, implement rules, run peer mentor programs, help students with academic planning and provide career and college advice. They also guide instruction around learning disabilities and help teachers and students define problem areas for students.

But school counselors do more than just support students in their journey through the educational system. They also play a vital role in providing personal and social guidance. A counselor may help a student with curriculum choices, but then also support them through bullying or peer issues. School counselors help students with high stress psychological and emotional problems such as substance abuse, home conflict, eating disorders, cutting, mental illness, somatic illness and other related problems. Depending on the severity or nature of the issue, school counselors may provide students one-on-one counseling or invite them to group counseling on school premises to work through common problems.

However, school counselors are not therapists. They do not provide traditional, ongoing psychotherapy counseling in the school setting. School counselors can identify those students in need of more professional help and provide recommendations.

How Do I Become a School Counselor?

The majority of school counselors must hold a master’s degree in counseling, or in a related field such as social work or psychology. Some states mandate that all counselors hold a masters. Depending on local state requirements, counselors may also have to pass a state exam and become licensed. As a part of that process, they must complete an internship or field experience. Because requirements vary by state, anyone interested in becoming a counselor will need to check with their state board of education for the requirements in becoming a counselor.

Becoming a Licensed School Counselor through a Masters of Social Work or Masters in Counseling Program

Both Masters in Counseling and Masters in Social Work (MSW) students develop skills through coursework and field experiences in how to advocate for, support and evaluate students in a school setting.

The Masters in Counseling degree offers a narrower course of study around developing competencies in counseling skills. Masters in Counseling students should contact the: National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and/or Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educations Programs (CACREP) in addition to their state Department of Education for further information on counselor requirements.

The Social Work degree allows students to specialize in school social work, but still receive more broad training. This may make the social work degree more versatile and applicable to different fields as well.

Although MSW’s do not become trained in just counseling, they are strongly positioned to become school counselors. First, social workers are licensed and regulated professionals. Those credentials tend to meet state requirements for becoming a school counselor. Second, many MSW programs offer a concentration in school social work, or a stand-alone certificate in school social work. Further, as a part of their training, masters of social work candidates must compete 900 – 1200 hours of fieldwork. For those interested in becoming a school counselor, those fieldwork hours offer an ideal way to get on the job training.

Again, depending on the state in which a school counselor intends to practice, there may be specialization requirements for this position. To get the most up to date information on counseling requirements, contact your local state department of education.

Interested in exploring related social work careers?

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.