School Counselor Career Guide

A school counselor, also commonly known as a guidance counselor, provides students with academic, career, and college advice, as well as personal and social guidance. This can be accomplished through group counseling or individual counseling. Counselors also assist with annual academic planning for each student. This guide provides further information on what school counselors do, how to become one, and the occupation’s salary and job outlook.

School Counselor Job Description

While historically counselors working in educational settings have been known as “guidance counselors,” the term “school counselor” is now generally preferred. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) has been active in promoting this change in terminology, as school counselor may better reflect today’s “whole person” approach to student success, which focuses on much more than vocational assessment and placement. School counselors play an important role in the lives of students at both public and private schools. Their primary job is to help students make positive decisions that lead to academic and personal success. To accomplish this, counselors work closely with students, teachers, and school administrators. Counselors may work in elementary, middle, or high schools as well as in colleges and universities. Counselors mainly work in an office setting, but they may also spend time in classrooms observing students, helping to identify and define needs. They also guide troubled students and work with differently-abled students. The number of students that a school counselor works with can vary widely by district, but according to the ASCA, the ideal caseload is 250 students per school counselor.1

School Counselor Requirements and Common Tasks

In addition to assisting with personal or emotional problems, counselors also help students in their academic lives, helping them develop better study habits and test-taking skills. They may also help students to identify their interests and natural abilities, set achievable goals for the future, and work with them to create plans to reach those goals. In elementary schools, counselors may help teachers identify students who need extra help, have special needs, or have behavioral issues. In the same vein, they might also help in identifying gifted students who require a greater challenge or more advanced content than they can get in the regular classroom.

Counselors teach elementary students how to make sound decisions, which will hopefully set them up for later success. In middle schools and high schools, the school counselor plays an important role in advising students about possible colleges and scholarships and grants that may be available to them. They also might counsel students on choosing classes that will support their longer-term goals. In high school, their job might include helping students write resumes, apply for jobs, and learn interviewing skills. School counselors may also help students deal with tragedies that affect the student body as a whole: the death of a teacher or fellow student or incidents such as a school shooting. Strong communication skills and compassion for others are essential in the career of counseling since a genuine desire to help students succeed is at the heart of the profession.

How to Become a School Counselor

For those seeking information on how to become a school counselor, the first step is to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Some topics that will help prospective counselors gain the skills needed to enter the profession are child psychology and communication. All states require a master’s degree in school counseling to become fully licensed as a school counselor. The program you select should be approved by your state’s board of education and may need to include specific courses and/or hold specific accreditations – be sure to check with your state’s board for detailed requirements. All master’s in school counseling programs also include a period of fieldwork, allowing students to gain real-life experience in the field. The typical steps to become a school counselor are:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in counseling, psychology, or a related subject.
  2. Earn a master’s degree in school counseling or a closely related subject with adequate coursework in school counseling to fulfill state requirements.
  3. Complete a school counseling internship or other qualifying clinical experience as part of your program, depending on your state’s requirements.
  4. Pass your state’s required exams for school counselors.
  5. Apply for your school counselor’s license.
  6. Begin applying for open school counselor jobs.

Some schools also prefer candidates to have a teaching certificate and a few years of teaching experience before becoming a school counselor. The rules for school counseling certification vary from state to state; we recommend checking with your state’s board of education to verify the requirements.

School Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

The salary of a school counselor varies depending on such things as the level of the school (primary or secondary), whether the school is public or private, the school’s location, and the candidate’s education and experience. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for education, guidance, and career counselors in 2022 was $60,140.2 Through 2031, employment for school counselors is expected to grow by 10%, which is faster than average for all occupations.3

Helpful Skills and Experience

Since school counseling requires working with students, parents, teachers, and administrators, people in this role should be excellent communicators. Counselors should be keen listeners, able to easily relate to people of different ages and backgrounds, and compassionate. Since school counselors will likely mentor students with emotional or behavioral issues, they should possess kindness and a natural ability to empathize. It is helpful if the prospective counselor has prior experience in counseling children, either through an internship or previous employment.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Career Counselor
  • College Counselor
  • Elementary School Counselor
  • Guidance Counselor
  • High School Counselor
  • School Counselor

Additional Resources

  • The American School Counselor Association: The American School Counselor Association (ASCA), supports counselors at schools with professional development opportunities, publications, research and advocacy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What types of courses do I take to become a school counselor?

Answer: The courses required will vary depending on the school, but most school counseling programs will require coursework in fostering academic development, group and individual counseling, as well as sociology and psychology.

Question: Do school counselors get summers off?

Answer: Depending on the school, some counselors might get their summers off. Check with the individual school to find out more.

Question: How much do school counselors make?

Answer: The salary for school counselors depends on a variety of factors, but according to the BLS, the median salary for a school counselor in the US was $60,140 as of 2022.2 Those working in elementary and secondary schools earned the highest, on average, while those working in vocational rehabilitation services earned the least.2

Question: What degree do you need to be a school counselor?

Answer: In most states, a master’s degree in school counseling is required to become a school counselor. There may be exceptions where a provisional license with a lesser degree may be issued, with the expectation that a master’s in school counseling be pursued within a specified time period in order to reach full licensure.

1. American School Counseling Association, “The Role of the School Counselor”: https://www.schoolcounselor.org/getmedia/ee8b2e1b-d021-4575-982c-c84402cb2cd2/Role-Statement.pdf
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211012.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, School and Career Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/school-and-career-counselors.htm