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School Counseling Degrees

Learn about curriculum and degree programs for a career in school counseling.

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School counselors are found in every school and at every level.

Given the different roles they play, it’s normal for you to have questions before you start your studies.

Keep reading to learn what degree you’ll need depending upon your career goals.

You’ll also find examples of some of the courses you’ll take during your studies. Find out whether school counseling is the degree for you.

What degree levels are available?

Earning a four-year undergraduate degree is the first step in your education toward becoming a school counselor. A bachelor’s in education, psychology or sociology will best prepare you for your graduate school work, but if you’ve earned or are working toward a bachelor’s in another field, that’s OK.

In addition to a bachelor’s degree, most states require school counselors to have a master’s degree in school counseling or a related field. Earning a doctorate is not required for this specialty.

Bachelor’s Degree Programs

Most undergraduate degree programs require a blend of science and liberal arts courses. You’ll typically have chosen your track—whether that’s psychology, education, sociology or something else—and be ready to take electives by your junior year.

Junior year is also the best time to start making graduate school plans if you’re confident this is the field for you. As long as you complete the basic electives in psychology and/or education, you don’t necessarily need to have a bachelor’s in psychology to be accepted into a graduate program in counseling. Be sure to verify this with the graduate programs you plan on applying to.

To outline common classes on this page, we’ll use the example of a four-year psychology degree. University of Phoenix offers the following program of undergraduate lecture and lab courses for a Bachelor of Science in Psychology:

Examples of Core Courses

  • General Psychology: Learn the major topics in scientific psychology as applied to human behavior.
  • History and Systems of Psychology: Introduces the modern era of psychology and its use. Approaches include structuralism, functionalism, Gestalt, behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and phenomenological/existentialism.
  • Statistical Reasoning in Psychology: Introduction to applied statistics (descriptive and inferential), with a psychology emphasis.
  • Biological Foundations of Psychology: An exploration of the relationship between our biological systems and behavior.
  • Life Span Human Development: Personality, social, intellectual, and physical development and the major theories used to describe the changes people undergo during their life span.
  • Theories of Personality: Examines the general approaches to understanding personality.
  • Abnormal Psychology: The various types of abnormal behavior and frequency; how abnormal behaviors are classified into diagnostic categories; the causes of psychological disorders; and the variety of methods used in their treatment.
  • Psychological Tests and Measurements: Covers the basic principles, research, and theories on testing and measurement of psychological constructs.
  • Elements of Clinical Psychology: Provides an overview of the theory and practice of clinical and counseling psychology. Explores major theories of personality, assessment and psychotherapy.

You may also be required to conduct a thesis project on a selected topic in your senior year. Additionally, senior-year students may be required to take a Capstone Course, which creates an integrative project that combines the cumulative learning of their 4-year program into a “senior project.”

Master’s School Counseling Programs

Your Masters of Education in Counseling will take two to three years to complete. This degree offers a combination of learning and hands-on experience in classroom settings. Some schools, such as Argosy University, offer a specialized degree called an EdS in Education, with a focus on School Counseling.

A good example of a typical master’s degree experience in this field is outlined in The Counseling Program at Seattle University. Founded in the early 1950s, it includes two tracks: one in School Counseling and one in Community Counseling. Both aim to prepare “diverse, ethical, reflective, clinically skilled and multi-culturally competent counselors.”

Below are examples of courses in the Master of Arts in Education/School Counseling Program at Seattle University.

Examples of Prerequisite and Core Courses

  • Fundamental Counseling Skills
  • Counseling Theories
  • Introduction to Educational Research
  • Group Counseling
  • Diagnosis and Assessment
  • Family and Couples Counseling/Family School Collaboration
  • Counseling Children and Adolescents
  • Social Justice in Professional Practice
  • Law and Ethics for School Counselors
  • Career Guidance for K-12 Schools
  • Introduction to Special Education and Learning Disabilities
  • Introduction to Behavior Disorders and Intervention
  • Consultation, Leadership and Advocacy

You’ll also complete lab work and two courses in Internship and Graduate Project. Electives may be taken from the counseling program, Psychology Department or elsewhere in the College of Education. An independent study is offered for 1-3 credits, allowing you to explore a particular area of interest in depth.

Doctoral Programs

A doctoral degree isn’t necessary to work as a school counselor, although you may pursue it to increase your opportunities in academia or specific work environments. For instance, you may choose to further your career after a few years of working in the field.

What certification will I need to practice school counseling?

After earning your master’s, two years of practical experience is typically necessary in order to become licensed as a counselor by the state. Some states also require a teaching certificate. In Washington State, School Counseling graduates qualify for the WA State ESA (Educational Staff Associate) certificate in School Counseling and can practice as school counselors in K-12 schools immediately after graduation.

School counselors must have a state-issued credential to practice. This will be called a certification, license or endorsement, depending on the state. Most states require a criminal background check as part of the credentialing process. Information about requirements for each state is available from the American School Counselors Association.

In addition to state boards, two different national boards provide licensure for school counselors:

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) grants national board certification to eligible candidates. To apply, you must meet both education and experience requirements. Completing the certification process involves a demonstration of your counseling practice through portfolio entries and written assessment exercises.

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) offers the National Certified School Counselor (NCSC) credential. To earn this certification, candidates must have a master’s degree from an accredited school, hold a school counseling credential from their state, have three years of supervised experience in the field and pass a certification exam.

What will I learn in my courses?

Seattle University’s Master of Arts in Education/School Counseling Program prepares students for Residency level Educational Staff Associate (ESA) Certification in public and private K-12 settings. Objectives include preparing school counselors to:

  • Be reflective, show technological competence, professionalism, ethical decision-making and maintain legal knowledge.
  • Practice advocacy, value diversity and promote social justice.
  • Use in-depth knowledge of human growth and development to improve student learning, well-being and enhance resiliency.
  • Help students make informed career decisions and engage in planning that maximizes their potential.
  • Work with diverse populations, individually and in groups, through an understanding and application of established and emerging counseling theories.
  • Use their understanding of assessment to assess student abilities, aptitudes, achievements and interests.
  • Utilize research services and make research based professional judgments.
  • Plan, implement and evaluate student centered, data-driven counseling program that advances the mission of the school.
  • Work collaboratively with school staff, families and community members to achieve common goals for the education of students, improvement of schools and advancement of the larger community.
  • Integrate academic, career and personal/social competencies into the school counseling program.

Are online programs available?

Online programs for earning your master’s in school counseling are available. For example, Capella University offers a Master of Science in School Counseling, and Lamar University offers a Master of Education in School Counseling. The course outlines differ for each school, so check for information on the differences and how they pertain to your goals in earning your degree.

Are there prerequisites?

Undergraduate: A strong college preparatory high school education is a good start for your psychology or counseling degree program. Courses in science, math, English, history, social studies, and a foreign language are important. Science and math are especially critical because they provide the necessary skills for research and analysis in college psychology and education courses.

Graduate: A completed, four-year bachelor’s degree in psychology, education or another field will prepare you for graduate school. Any electives you’ve taken in psychology and/or education will be valuable in your graduate work.

GRE: Check with the institution and program you plan to apply to, to find out whether the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is not required for admission. If it’s not, but you’ve taken the test and have good scores, you may submit them for review with your admission materials.

What accreditation is there for my program?

Many master’s programs in school counseling, like the one outlined at Seattle University, are fully accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).

Accreditation shows that an institution or program meets standards of quality set forth by an accrediting agency, and that it is committed not only to meet those standards but to continuously seek ways in which to improve the quality of education and training provided. Also, attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or online program.

There are two types of educational accreditation: institutional and specialized. The Higher Learning Commission conducts institutional accreditation. Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges. There are six regional associations, each named after the region in which it operates (Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern, Western).