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Learn how to become a career counselor

smiling career counselor works with client on his resume

Whether you’re a high schooler trying to figure out what you want to do after graduation, or you’re burnt out from your job and want to make a change, a career counselor could be just what you need to set you on the right path. But what is career counseling, exactly? Career counselors provide vocational guidance to help people figure out what career is best for them and how to pursue it.

They support individuals’ career development and provide the necessary resources to help them achieve their professional potential. “My job is all about helping people make decisions. That in a nutshell is what I do as a career counselor,” said Luis Santiago, associate director of coaching operations at the University of Washington’s Career & Internship Center.

Despite having ‘counselor’ in its name, career counselors are not usually mental health professionals with robust educational backgrounds in psychology. In addition, they are not licensed the way that many mental health professionals are, such as school counselors, mental health counselors, or marriage and family therapists. However, being in a position that helps people figure out what motivates them and how to achieve their potential can absolutely benefit from a psychology education.

What does a career counselor do?

Career counselors help people identify and take necessary steps toward their individual career goals. They are often working with people individually and utilizing their coaching skills to help clients realize their aspirations.

Career counselors help people identify and take necessary steps toward their individual career goals.

Although this process looks a little different depending on where a career counselor works (which in turn may influence the types of people you’re working with), they can usually expect to have the following job duties:

  • Administer personality and career tests to help assess a client’s aptitudes and career interests
  • Educate clients on career possibilities that complement their interests, skills and strengths and help come up with actionable career goals
  • Assist clients in finding job, internship or volunteer opportunities that align with their goals
  • Educate clients on career skills such as searching for jobs, writing a resume or cover letter, or preparing for an interview
  • Give presentations or direct workshops on career development topics and skills
  • Connect clients with applicable resources and coordinate career fair events

A day in the life (according to expert career counselors)

Santiago said that he enjoys the variety that a career counseling job provides him.

“At a university like the University of Washington that has over 170 majors, we’re going to see maybe six students throughout the day, all from different majors. Some of them might be first-year students that are looking for an on-campus job, and then my second appointment is a senior who’s about to graduate and getting ready for an interview. Or maybe I’m going to work with a second-year student that is trying to get their resume ready for internships. Every single conversation can be extremely different, so it’s important to have a base knowledge on all the various aspects of career development.” 

Santiago said that on the same day, he may also have to conduct a workshop at a residence hall where he coaches students on how to search for an internship, for example. No matter what he’s doing, it all comes down to helping people make decisions in their lives that work for them and their goals.

“With the counseling realm, you can never quite predict what the student is going to come in with,” said Carissa Bane, a career counselor at Western Washington University. “There are definitely themes to those one-on-one appointments that include starting by just checking in with the student and understanding how we can best use our time together. And understanding what brought them there and what are some of their main goals. That usually impacts a lot and helps us determine what direction to go into.”

Where career counselors work

Because the people who are trying to figure out their careers are often high schoolers and college students at the beginning of their working life, career counselors are most often found working in high schools, colleges and universities.

Young adults aren’t the only ones that need career assistance, however, as there are plenty of adults who may wish to make a career change or need help starting a career later in life. Career counselors can also find work at workforce assistance programs or may offer their services as self-employed workers. No matter who you might work for, it may even be possible to do the job from home.

Working as a career guidance counselor in academia

Santiago said that four-year higher education institutions have a lot of opportunities for career counselors, and the job may differ a bit from a career counselor at a two-year institution. Two-year colleges often offer more trade-specific programs—a career counselor there may be more focused on how to help a student get placed into a job fitting their degree.

The same could be said for career counselors who work for workforce assistance programs.  At four-year institutions, on the other hand, Santiago said that they are more often educating people on how to think about career development and helping people decide what they want to do and how to get there.

How to become a career counselor in 5 steps

Earn a college degree.

college students at graduation from their point of view

Although there is no universal education requirement for career counselors, most career counseling jobs require some postsecondary education. A degree in any subject relevant to career counseling such as psychology, education, social work or others can be a great fit for someone who wishes to be a career counselor.

Consider advancing your education.

woman holding books stands in college library

If it’s within your means, a graduate-level counseling degree could make you qualified for even more career counseling positions and make you a highly competitive job candidate. The Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) has accredited several graduate-level degrees in career counseling which may be a fantastic foundation for your career. That said, a master’s degree in psychology, general counseling, education, or a related subject can also be beneficial. 

Find a job and gain experience.

career counselor works with small group of people on job interview skills

Once you’ve completed your education, it’s time to start building up your resume. If you’re having trouble finding career counseling jobs that don’t already require years of experience, it may be worthwhile to take other people-facing positions in the types of places you want to work at (for example, a high school or college) to get your foot in the door.

Consider earning a certification.

young man in suit holds clipboard

A professional certification could be a boon to your resume and help you qualify for more jobs. There are numerous certifications out there for career counselors through the National Career Development Association (NCDA) and the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC).

Move up the career ladder.

woman checks clients resume and job skills

As you gain experience in the field and hone your guidance counseling skills, you may become qualified for higher-level leadership roles in a broader selection of work settings. Moving up the career ladder could lead to more responsibilities or different roles (training and supervising career counselors, for example) and may eventually lead to a higher salary.

Education requirements for career counselors

Unlike mental health counselors, psychologists and other highly regulated counseling roles, career counseling is not a position that requires a license. Therefore, the educational requirements to become a career counselor really depend on the employer and are not universal. Even so, there are some best practices when it comes to setting yourself up for a successful career as a career counselor.

What to study (Is there a degree in career counseling?)

The Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), which accredits all kinds of counseling programs, has accredited several graduate-level career counseling degrees. These can be a fantastic way to gain exactly the skills you need to become a successful career counselor, but it’s not your only option. Any subject relevant to career counseling can set you up for a successful career, such as:

“I’ve seen people with a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a bachelor’s degree in education or social work,” Santiago said. “Any of the ‘helping’ kind of degrees where you’re working with people and teaching, training or helping them in some way—that can be a good starting point.”

“From an educational standpoint, having some coursework in or knowledge of the social sciences can be really helpful for understanding humans and social structures and how things like that impact folks in their career development process,” said Abby Senuty, another career counselor at Western Washington University.

Choosing a degree level for career counseling

As for what level of degree you should get (associate, bachelor’s, master’s, etc.), that’s going to depend on a few different factors: 

Time commitment:
An associate degree can typically be completed in about two years of full-time study and a bachelor’s typically takes four. Master’s degrees are usually an additional two to three years on top of a bachelor’s degree. If you want to get into the workforce quicker, an associate degree may be your best option. Some people choose to get their associate or bachelor’s degree, find a job, and then take online or evening classes to complete their next degree while they still work. 
Longer, more advanced degrees are usually going to cost more than shorter ones like an associate degree which may be more affordable. You’ll have to figure out what is financially feasible for you when selecting which degree type to pursue.
Qualifications for the job(s) you want:
Having a higher-level degree such as a master’s will probably increase the number of jobs you are qualified for and prepare you to work just about anywhere. However, if the types of jobs you want only ask for a bachelor’s degree, for example, then going for a master’s may not be necessary or worth it for you.
Professional goals:
If you eventually want to earn a counseling certification through a professional organization such as the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), you may want to consider earning a graduate-level degree. Some certifications such as the National Certified Counselor (NCC) requires having a degree from a graduate-level counseling program.

What degree do I need to be a career counselor?

“I tell this to any aspiring career coach or career counselor: if they have the opportunity to be able to get that particular type of training, getting that master’s degree, that really sets you up with a great foundation for any setting that they want to work in,” Santiago said. “Any CACREP accredited career counseling program would really set yourself up for success. But once again, it’s not required to get your foot in the door.”

“The profession, I would say, has trended in the past as being a master’s degree required, and I think you’ll still find that at certain institutions, but there are plenty of institutions that are opening access a bit more to having it be bachelor’s required, master’s preferred. A master’s degree isn’t required to do this job, so think about how you can pair a bachelor’s degree and the knowledge that you learn there with experiences that can provide you with what you would need to be a career counselor,” Bane said.

Professional certifications

There are several voluntary certifications that career counselors have the opportunity to obtain. Earning any one of these credentials is not required to become a career counselor, but getting one or more could be incredibly beneficial to your career. After all, individual employers may require their counselors to have a certification or they may simply be a boon to your resume that could make you a more competitive job candidate and perhaps lead to a higher salary.

The National Career Development Association (NCDA) currently offers five different certifications for career counselors, each with their own eligibility requirements:

NCDA credentialWho it’s for
Certified Career Services Provider (CCSP)Career and workforce development professionals. There is no educational requirement or minimum years of experience.
Certified Master of Career Services (CMCS)Practitioners in advising, coaching and/or consulting. A minimum of a bachelor’s degree in any major and five to seven years of experience in the field is required.
Certified Career Counselor (CCC)People who hold a master’s degree in counseling or a related field, who have specialized in career development and who provide career counselling services.
Certified Clinical Supervisor of Career Counseling (CCSCC)Individuals who train and supervise other career counselors.
Certified School Career Development Advisor (CSCDA)K-12 career educators who work with students or who help coordinate school and community-based career development efforts.

In addition to the credentials offered by the NCDA, the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) has a few credentials that are applicable to career counselors. Although the focus of the NBCC is on counseling in general, the National Certified Counselor (NCC) and National Certified School Counselor (NCSC) certifications can be beneficial for career counselors if they meet the qualifications.

What to expect as a career counselor

If providing vocational guidance sounds intriguing enough, you may still wonder whether career counseling is a profession that not only aligns with your strengths and skills but is something that you could truly enjoy.

Santiago, Senuty and Bane all said that one of their favorite aspects of the job is helping people brainstorm career possibilities and create a roadmap to lead them towards their goals.

“For me, one of the things that I love doing is helping people in the exploration phase, people that are very early on [in their search], they don’t know what they want to do. They have a hard time articulating what they want in their own career path,” Santiago said.

“It’s really an honor to be able to sit down and hear what [students are] thinking, what their strengths are, what’s exciting to them, and then start to map out some ideas on next steps and how they might work towards the goals that they’re determining for themselves,” Senuty said.

Part of the fun—and at times, part of the challenge—of being a career counselor stems from taking the time to learn about the plethora of occupations that are out there.

“As someone who loves learning, this is a job where there is always more to learn because the job market is always evolving. We work with students from so many different academic departments and career interests that it’s really dynamic and there’s a lot of variety and that can be a lot of fun,” Senuty said.

Unfortunately, sometimes clients have certain expectations about your role that go beyond what you actually do. Senuty said that it’s important to convey the limits of your job to the people that you serve. “We’re not a placement agency. We can help you identify opportunities, but we can’t guarantee a job in a certain field, and we also cannot tell you the one precise right thing that you can do for yourself, whether that be the right major or the right career.”

Important skills for career counselors

If you want to increase your chance of success in the field of career counseling, consider whether you have some of these important skills and qualities:

  • Communication and active listening: Verbal and written communication skills are essential, but Bane said that even nonverbal communication skills are a must if you want to truly understand and have fruitful interactions with your clients. “You are noticing how someone is saying something and then what’s showing up on their face or in their body language, so really thinking holistically about how that person is communicating. Listening skills weave into that: are you asking open-ended questions that allow someone to share and then are you really listening to what they’re saying?”
  • People skills: At the end of the day, you have to enjoy working with people if you want to succeed as a career counselor. “When I’m hiring for a new coach, I’m looking to see is this person interested in social relationships? Are they interested in helping and teaching people?” Santiago said that the hard skills like how to coach someone on how to write a resume can be taught, but innate people skills often matter more to him when hiring.
  • Resourcefulness: Helping people zero in on a seemingly endless list of career possibilities demands that you do some self-directed learning to discover and understand the multitude of occupations out there and how to connect clients with the proper resources.
  • Creative thinking: “We have to be creative in our roles. And in turn, we also have to think creatively about how to serve the most amount of students that we can, thinking about different ways that we can provide information that’s not just one-on-one appointments,” Bane said.
  • Second language: Although it’s not usually a requirement, having knowledge of a second language could be immensely valuable to a career counselor by allowing them to communicate and assist a wider range of people.

Job outlook for career counselors

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that the employment of school and career counselors and advisers will grow 9.6% through 2031, faster than the average across all occupations. The BLS hypothesizes that demand for career counselors will increase as more colleges and universities open career centers that help students prepare to enter the workforce.

Job growth through 2031:


Faster than average for all jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career counselor salary (annual median)

The BLS reports that educational, guidance, and career counselors and advisors have a nationwide median annual wage of $60,140. The states in which this group of professionals make the most are concentrated on the coasts, including California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Washington and Maryland. Nine out of the top ten paying metropolitan areas in the country are in California, with the tenth being in Washington state.

Your salary as a career counselor is determined by numerous factors including your location, education level, experience and type of workplace. For example, large metropolitan areas usually have higher salaries for workers across the board to compensate for their higher cost of living. Moving up the career ladder may be the most reliable way to increase your earning potential by aiming for leadership positions such as a director of a career center where you manage a team of career counselors.

Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors

National data

Median Salary: $60,140

Projected job growth: 9.6%

10th Percentile: $38,280

25th Percentile: $47,380

75th Percentile: $76,590

90th Percentile: $98,530

Projected job growth: 9.6%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $59,580 $35,820 $75,520
Alaska $64,240 $48,040 $97,610
Arizona $50,030 $38,980 $72,570
Arkansas $55,190 $37,970 $73,570
California $72,240 $47,420 $130,020
Colorado $59,740 $44,280 $81,210
Connecticut $67,870 $37,290 $102,820
Delaware $66,280 $40,270 $92,230
District of Columbia $62,340 $36,630 $102,370
Florida $48,850 $35,730 $79,000
Georgia $59,450 $36,940 $96,700
Hawaii $58,980 $36,270 $80,420
Idaho $50,690 $39,420 $76,840
Illinois $52,340 $37,770 $96,980
Indiana $49,420 $36,330 $74,860
Iowa $54,610 $38,100 $77,030
Kansas $51,100 $38,000 $76,310
Kentucky $60,750 $35,960 $81,540
Louisiana $61,020 $45,560 $72,840
Maine $55,140 $38,850 $78,670
Maryland $64,570 $46,410 $103,540
Massachusetts $76,500 $46,450 $104,400
Michigan $51,340 $38,160 $84,780
Minnesota $59,400 $45,790 $85,370
Mississippi $49,180 $35,000 $67,120
Missouri $48,700 $35,890 $76,180
Montana $53,530 $35,220 $77,820
Nebraska $63,230 $44,430 $87,880
Nevada $57,560 $38,480 $83,830
New Hampshire $57,030 $38,940 $81,530
New Jersey $74,960 $51,570 $105,150
New Mexico $62,180 $36,910 $99,390
New York $63,100 $37,430 $124,540
North Carolina $50,820 $35,070 $65,670
North Dakota $56,680 $40,390 $79,050
Ohio $65,760 $38,810 $100,850
Oklahoma $50,020 $32,180 $75,470
Oregon $63,320 $43,450 $112,430
Pennsylvania $61,760 $40,460 $99,150
Rhode Island $64,010 $42,370 $95,250
South Carolina $49,050 $33,310 $77,640
South Dakota $47,800 $36,610 $62,840
Tennessee $51,220 $36,020 $76,160
Texas $62,250 $38,280 $80,720
Utah $50,180 $35,350 $92,160
Vermont $62,630 $46,990 $82,130
Virginia $62,440 $43,310 $106,460
Washington $77,770 $50,360 $109,690
West Virginia $49,850 $34,390 $68,950
Wisconsin $55,630 $39,310 $78,280
Wyoming $60,180 $40,680 $78,870

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Here are the median annual career counselor salaries in the highest-paying cities and metro areas.

Metro Area Median Annual Salary
Hanford-Corcoran, CA $98,920
Bremerton-Silverdale, WA $95,840
Napa, CA $95,280
Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA $91,100
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA $91,090
Madera, CA $88,620
Grand Island, NE $83,900
Modesto, CA $83,540
Ocean City, NJ $82,350
Yakima, WA $82,050

Getting started as a career advisor

The first step in pursuing a career as a career counselor is to get some postsecondary education. Although the amount of education you may need depends on employers’ requirements as well as your own professional goals, a bachelor’s degree is a good starting point. If you already have a degree, maybe it’s time to go back to school and get a master’s—this could pave the way for numerous career counseling jobs at a variety of educational institutions.

Published: March 21, 2023


Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

luis santiago

With professional insight from:

Luis Santiago, NCC, M.S./Ed.S, Associate Director of Coaching Operations

University of Washington Career & Internship Center

Abby Senuty, Career Counselor

Western Washington University

Carissa Bane, Career Counselor

Western Washington University