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Education and Steps to Become a Counselor

Explore the education and licensing required to pursue different counseling roles.

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Counselors have a major impact on the lives of the patients they counsel. Because of the importance of their impact on client lives, and in order to provide the highest quality of care, it’s critical they get the right education. The first step is to determine what specialty you want to pursue as a counselor. Counselors typically work with specialized patient populations and provide specific types of treatment and therapy. The education you choose should be tailored to your career objectives and outcomes.

After you have an area of focus figured out, you’ll be ready to begin researching education programs. If you are just beginning to figure out how to become a counselor, your courses may include some liberal arts study besides general psychology and counseling classes. As you progress, your coursework will likely focus more on subjects that pinpoint your area of specialty.

There are lots of options to choose from, each with its own educational requirements and career outlook. This guide will show you everything you need to know about counseling degrees and training.

First, Find a Specialty

The most common types of counselors and programs include the following:

General Counselors help a wide range of people overcome issues of every sort. They work to determine the cause of persistent problems at work, in relationships, with substance abuse, or with mental health disorders. They devise treatment methods designed to help the person cope with or overcome the problems that have the most negative impact on their lives.

Mental Health Counselors work with people struggling from diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health issues including depression, anxiety, stress, obsessive behaviors, substance abuse and other addictions. Frequently, these counselors work with both the patient himself and the people close to him to find substantive, long-term treatment options. These counselors work in both inpatient and outpatient settings.

Rehabilitation Counselors work with people who have physical disabilities to help them cope with the physical, emotional, and vocational consequences of those disabilities. Unlike physical therapists, these counselors help people deal with psychological and logistical hurdles rather than issues related solely to pain or mobility.

School Counselors receive specific training to work with children and young adults in a school setting. They facilitate the student’s academic, personal and social, and career development. This field of counseling is unique in that practitioners help to resolve issues with students while maximizing their potential as they move into adulthood.

Marriage and Family Counselors help people overcome a wide range of personal and psychological issues, but focus specifically on how these issues affect the dynamics of families and married couples. Their goal is to restore harmony to the family unit while helping each member deal with the issues that compromise their relationships with the people closest to them.

Psychologist vs. Counselor

It’s important to understand the different between a psychologist and a counselor. There is a fair amount of overlap between what these two professionals do, who they work with and how they provide treatment. The biggest difference has to do with the level of education attained. Most psychologists will need to have a doctoral degree while most counselors will need to have a master’s degree to practice. Neither should be confused with a psychiatrist, who is a medical doctor who has attended medical school and is able to prescribe medication. Some psychologists and counselors may work in tandem with a psychiatrist is medication is needed for a patient’s stability.

Counselor Job Description


Much of your time as a counselor will be spent working directly with patients in a one-on-one or group setting. This work typically involves lengthy interviews and wide ranging conversations. The goal is to first understand the problems the person is dealing with, and then to pursue effective treatment options. The counselor must be supportive and sympathetic, but also forceful and assertive to help patients overcome self-imposed obstacles.

The rest of a counselor’s time is spent doing research into a patient’s background, various types of conditions, sources of support available from the family or the community, and insights from other counselors and therapists. In order to provide effective levels of care, counselors need to stay on the cutting edge of their field.

Soft Skills of Counselors

Before you decide to pursue a counseling degree, it’s important to determine if you have the soft skills —your innate personality and character traits—necessary to feel fulfilled by the work and to offer the greatest assistance to the people you serve. Here are some traits and skills that signal success as a counselor:

  • Curiosity – As a counselor you must have a strong desire to learn about other people in depth. If you do not have a genuine interest in other people you will struggle to connect with them on the deepest levels.
  • Self-Reflection – The way you think, act and present yourself as a counselor has a big impact on the quality of care you are able to provide. A good counselor must be able to honestly and accurately evaluate themselves to find better ways to engage with others.
  • Listening – The goal of all counselors it to understand the person they’re working with in very intimate and personal ways. This is only possible if the counselor is an excellent listener and able to hear not just the words, but the deeper meaning of what is being communicated.
  • Accessibility – All counselors must strike a delicate balance between being accessible and emotionally available to the people they serve without crossing personal or professional boundaries. Treatment is only possible if a counselor is able to develop an empathetic connection but respecting boundaries.
  • Flexibility – A one-size-fits-all approach to counseling is rarely effective. Good counselors are able to customize their approach for each and every person they work with based upon that person’s background, personality and struggle.
  • Humor – Counseling is an intense and often uncomfortable process for everyone involved. The counselor must be able to apply humor effectively and appropriately in order to lighten the mood and take some of the focus off of depressing or frustrating circumstances without trivializing the patient’s concerns, fears and issues.

Different Types of Therapists

  • Clinical psychologists (PhD, EdD, or PsyD): Trained in psychological theories and methods.
  • Psychiatrist (MD): A medical doctor with a specialty in psychiatry. Emphasis on the biological causes of mental disorders. Treats patients with medication.
  • Psychoanalyst (MD or PhD): Trained in psychoanalysis.
  • Licensed Social Worker (LSW/MSW- MS, MA, PhD): LSWs have supervised internship requirements similar to psychologists.
  • School Psychologist (MA, MS, EdS): Trained in psychology with an education and child development emphasis.
  • Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor (MFT, MFCC- MA, MS): Training in psychology or social work.

Job Outlook for Counselors

The projected demand for counselors is strong across the board according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but there are some differences between specialties. The demand for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors for example, is expected to grow by 18.4% through 2032. Similarly, the demand for marriage and family counselors is expected to grow by 14.9% as well over the same period. Both of those figures are much faster than the national average for all careers.

Less robust is the demand for school and career counselors which is expected to grow by 5.4% through 2032, while the demand for rehabilitation counselors is expected to grow by 1.9%.

Expected Job Growth for Counselors through 2032


Substance Abuse & Behavioral Disorder Counselors


Marriage & Family Counselors


School & Career Counselors


Rehabilitation Counselors

Education for Counselors

The first step to becoming a counselor is to obtain a bachelor’s degree. You are free to study any subject you like before moving on to a master’s program. However, a degree in psychology or human services lays a solid foundation for further study.

The next step is to enroll in a Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accredited program to obtain your master’s degree. These programs have been certified to meet the standards of quality established by a consensus of counseling professionals. The major benefit for students like you is that these programs meet requirements set by the state licensing board, thereby streamlining the process of getting a professional license. There are CACREP available across the country and in both classroom and online settings.

Most master’s degree programs will take two years to complete if you attend full time. Coursework will focus on psychology, sociology, statistics, research and counseling techniques, and training specific to the type of counseling you hope to pursue.

After earning a master’s degree counselors, will need to obtain supervised clinical experience. How much and what type of experience you are required to get varies by state. Afterwards, you are eligible to sit for most state licensing exams, but some students elect to delay this step and pursue a doctorate.

Counselor Licensing

As with many specialized and sensitive professions, counselors will need to earn a license before they are legally allowed to practice. Typically, counselors are required to have a prescribed level of education and experience, and to pass a comprehensive exam administered by the licensing body. The specific requirements vary depending on the state you want to practice in and the type of counseling you are pursuing.


The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) awards a National Certified Counselor (NCC) license that has a number of professional benefits but does not eliminate the need for a state license. In some states a counselor with a NCC license can take advantage of an abbreviated licensing process and may even be able to forgo the licensing exam.

After becoming licensed to practice, counselors bolster their training and credentials by earning additional licenses relevant to specialized patient populations, clinical settings and treatment methods. Examples of advanced credentials include the following:

  • Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC)
  • Master Addictions Counselor (MAC)
  • Forensic Health Evaluators (FHE)
  • Global Career Development Facilitator (GCDF)
  • Certified Family Therapist (CFT)

No matter what type of counseling you hope to pursue, the most important preparation is to pick an accredited program of study that offer rigorous and specialized education, clinical experience opportunities, and expedited access to licensing procedures. The right program can prepare you to become a better counselor faster so you can begin serving your community and helping people.