What You Need to Know If You Want to Become a Counselor

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 25, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

Becoming a counselor is a serious commitment that requires at least six years of study and thousands of hours of practical hands-on training. You can take various paths to become a counselor, many of which allow you to specialize in a particular domain. No matter what course you choose, all counselors in the U.S. are required to first earn a bachelor's degree, then at least a master's degree to practice psychotherapy.

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Overview of the counseling profession

The counseling profession encompasses a wide range of skill competencies and training requirements. Professional counselors have either a master's or doctoral degree and are trained to work with individuals, families, and groups. They diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders.

Counselors are trained in all major forms of psychotherapy and are required to undergo significant supervised training before they can work with clients alone. Counselors work wherever mental health services are needed, including schools, clinics, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and non-public practice.

The typical roles and responsibilities of a counselor include:

  • Encouraging open discussion of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

  • Helping clients define goals and develop strategies to meet those goals.

  • Listening and providing empathetic encouragement and support.

  • Creating individualized treatment plans based on the unique needs of each client.

  • Assessing the client's mental and emotional state, as well as barriers to change.

  • Educating clients on healthy coping mechanisms and techniques to manage mental health concerns.

  • Monitoring and updating treatment plans based on client progress.

Counseling specialties

Prospective counselors can choose from several areas of specialization. CACREP, an organization that provides accreditation for counseling programs at colleges and universities, recognizes the following specialties:

Clinical mental health counseling

Clinical mental health counselors support individuals with various mental and emotional challenges while promoting mental well-being. Clients can be seen individually, as couples, families, or in group settings. Clinical Mental Health Counselors know how to diagnose, treat, and prevent mental health disorders. They often collaborate with other healthcare professionals, such as psychiatrists and social workers, working together in interdisciplinary teams.

Rehabilitation counseling

Rehabilitation counselors are equipped to assist individuals with disabilities and their support networks to help them achieve their personal, social, psychological, and occupational objectives. Rehabilitation counselors are prepared to enhance the autonomy, integration, and involvement of all disabled individuals through counseling, technology, advocacy, support, and the development of services that eliminate barriers to their client's goals.


School counseling

School counselors work with students ranging from kindergarten through high school. They promote the academic, social and career development of all K-12 students. They are qualified to design and implement school counseling programs that include individual counseling, group counseling, classroom guidance, and family consultations. School counselors are only licensed to work in public or non-public school systems.

Student affairs and college counseling

College counselors work in various higher education settings. They might work in a university's housing and residential life office, offer student leadership services, or provide mental health counseling, career guidance, or multicultural support services. Student affairs and college counselors receive additional training in the culture of higher education and the organizational dynamics of colleges and universities.

Addiction counseling

Addiction counselors work with those affected by alcohol, drugs, gambling, sexual, and other addictive disorders. Addiction counselors are trained to treat those who experience addiction, prevent addiction from occurring, and help a substance user through relapses.

Marriage, couple, and family counseling

Marriage, couple, and family counselors work with individuals, couples, and entire families. They have additional training in family systems and family dynamics. They are trained to investigate and treat mental, emotional, relationship, and communication disorders from a family systems perspective.

Career counseling

Career counselors help those wanting to make career decisions and examine the relationship between education, skills, interests, and personality. They provide guidance and direction for those selecting a career or considering a career change. Career counselors use specific assessment tools and personality inventories to provide clients with information to aid them in achieving their vocational goals.

Want to be a counselor?

Educational requirements

Becoming a licensed counselor requires, at minimum, a master's degree in counseling or a related field. The degree is typically between 48 to 60 credits and is accompanied by a clinical practicum, where students practice their new counseling skills under the supervision of licensed counselors. The master's degree is followed by an internship or extended period where the new counselor is practicing under the guidance of a more experienced professional.

Degrees are commonly accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Many states require that counseling programs be based on the CACREP model, even if state law does not require full accreditation.

The Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC) also offers accreditation for master's-level counseling and psychology degrees.

Clinical experience and supervision

Those who have completed a master's degree in counseling or a related field are eligible for licensure after they complete a minimum amount of supervised experience. The number of hours required varies from state to state, but 2,000 to 3,000 hours are usually required. The hours must be completed within a specific timeframe, usually 2 – 3 years.

The new counselor must be supervised by a licensed professional who meets the requirements to supervise entry-level counselors. States differ in their approach to supervision; most require one-on-one supervision, but group supervision is often allowed. Some states require a signed supervision contract. The requirements for a professional to provide supervision, the number of supervision hours required, and limitations on how those hours can be acquired will vary from state to state.

Licensure exams

All states require that prospective counselors pass a comprehensive licensure examination that evaluates the test taker's knowledge of core competencies. States accept two exams for licensure. The first is the National Counselor Examination (NCE). The NCE is administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and is the most common exam states use in the credentialing process.

The National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE) is the second exam. The NCMHCE focuses more intently on mental health practice and is accepted by several states for licensure. To locate which exams each state accepts, visit the NBCC State Board Directory.

In addition to an exam assessing counseling skills, many states require licensees to pass a jurisprudence exam covering the applicant's knowledge of licensing rules, operating procedures, and state laws controlling practice.

Beyond licensure

Most states require professional counselors to earn continuing education (CE) credits. CE hours are usually earned annually or biennially and are required for license renewal. States generally have specific domains that must be addressed through CE hours, such as ethics. The exact number of CE hours varies from state to state, and states may differ in their restrictions on what constitutes appropriate continuing education. For example, some states may require a certain number of CE hours to be obtained through live instruction rather than online.

Once fully licensed, a counselor may also pursue specialty certifications, such as those offered by the National Board for Certified Counselors. NBCC offers three specialty certifications, which show that a counselor has met national standards for the specialty, including additional education and passing a specialty examination. The specialties offered by the NBCC include the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC), the Master Addictions Counselor (MAC), and the National Certified School Counselor (NCSC).

How can online counseling help?

Meeting with a counselor online can help you make decisions about your career path and help you achieve your goal of becoming a counselor. A counselor will work with you to help overcome barriers in your education, maintain your mental health, and solve problems affecting your overall well-being. They may also be willing to discuss personal experiences and offer practical advice and guidance for your educational journey.

Counselors who practice online use the same evidence-based techniques as traditional therapists. They have the same training and credentials described above, a master's degree at minimum, passage of a comprehensive exam, and thousands of hours of supervised clinical experience. The online counseling process is nearly identical to in-person counseling, and current research suggests that the techniques used are just as effective when administered online as in an office setting.


Becoming a counselor is a rewarding yet challenging career path. Counselors require a bachelor's degree and at least a master's degree in counseling or a related field, which usually amounts to six years of education. Following their degree, prospective counselors must pass a comprehensive examination and complete 2,000 to 3,000 hours of supervised practice before seeing clients independently. They can then specialize in several areas, including addiction counseling or clinical mental health counseling. After their initial training is complete, counselors must obtain additional annual training in the form of continuing education credits, which are required to renew their license.

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