How To Pursue a School Counseling Program (Plus Coursework)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published August 4, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Being a school counselor can be a rewarding career. These professionals work with students to provide a diverse range of services to students and school employees, such as offering mental health support services, developing advocacy and awareness programs and providing career and continuing education counseling. Learning about school counseling programs is a good step toward earning the needed degree to start a career in this role.

In this article, we define what school counseling degree programs are, how to get a school counseling degree, what courses counseling students typically take and what types of school counselor degrees are available.

What are school counseling degree programs?

School counseling degree programs are higher education programs designed to educate students on the skills they need to work as counselors in the school system. Those who work as school counselors need special training, which they typically earn through pursuing a master's or doctorate degree in school counseling.

While some schools may offer counseling degrees at the undergraduate level, most school counselors need an advanced degree to practice. Since school counselors perform some similar duties to licensed therapists, this high-level education helps them gain the skills they need to provide therapeutic care for their students.

Related: 10 Reasons To Become a School Counselor

How to obtain a school counselor degree

Here are the steps for pursuing a degree in school counseling:

1. Consider what type of school counselor you wish to be

The first step toward earning a school counselor degree is to decide what kind of counselor you wish to become. School counselors have the option to pursue an education in a subspecialty based on their skills, interests and career goals. Knowing what kind of school counselor you want to be is important for choosing the right educational program.

For example, a general school counselor can perform a variety of duties in the school system. They may meet with students to support them in making decisions about their post-graduation plans and counsel them through challenges in their personal and academic lives.

School counselors can also pursue specialty roles that may require different training from general counselors. For example, an elementary school counselor may have additional education in early child development and behavioral intervention, while a high school counselor may focus on college and career counseling.

Counselors working for schools that provide special education, such as for students with disabilities or those involved in the juvenile justice system, may also need specialized educational credentials. By knowing whether your area of interest requires a specialized course of study, you can choose the best program for you.

2. Outline your education and career goals

After reflecting on what type of counselor you want to become, take time to outline your career and education goals. To become a school counselor, you're likely to need a master's degree or higher. Consider your educational needs and goals.

Before pursuing an advanced degree, you may need a bachelor's degree in a related subject. For example, many school counselors study topics like psychology or education at the undergraduate level to prepare for more specialized coursework in graduate school. Have a plan to complete your bachelor's degree before pursuing higher education.

In addition to planning your educational goals, also consider your short-term and long-term career goals. Gaining some relevant experience in the field of education can help you plan your career path and stand out to hiring managers during the job search process. Additionally, experience can make your application more competitive when applying for graduate programs.

To gain experience, you can pursue internships, volunteer or find another job in the school system while you work on your educational requirements. For example, working as a teacher's assistant, assistant administrator or tutor can help you gain experience working with students.

3. Account for your time and financial resources

Pursuing a degree program takes time and financial investment, so it's important to have a plan for how to manage your resources throughout your education. Different programs may cater to different types of students. For example, if you work full time or have other obligations like family responsibilities, you may prefer to enroll in a part-time program.

You may also consider pursuing your degree online, since remote programs may offer greater flexibility. Many counseling programs also require students to complete an internship, so research program requirements and plan for how to meet this requirement.

Besides having a plan to manage your time while in school, also consider the financial investment of your education. A typical bachelor's degree program takes four years on average to complete, and a master's program takes an additional two years on average.

To pay for your education, you may need to take on student loans or pursue scholarships. Having a plan for managing your finances while in school and paying back any loans you owe after can help you feel more secure in your financial goals. Preparing a budget with your school expenses in mind can help you track finances.

Related: How Much Do School Counselors Make? (Salaries Plus How to Become One)

4. Research school counselor programs

Once you've considered your career goals and your resources, start researching school counselor programs. It's important to choose a program that fits your career goals, values and lifestyle balance needs. Some programs may offer more flexibility because they cater to working professionals or those with families, while others may be better for students looking to attend full-time.

Additionally, you may choose your program depending on your career goals. Some programs may offer greater opportunities to specialize or work with professors who have expertise in an area of specialization, which can help you advance your career.

5. Apply and enroll in a program

After doing your research, create a list of programs to which you want to apply. It can help to keep a spreadsheet with important links and application submission dates for your preferred schools. For each program, learn about the application process. Understand the program's prerequisites and application requirements.

Many programs require students to submit information like school transcripts, letters of recommendation, resumes, personal statements and standardized test scores. These documents help the admissions team determine whether you're a good fit for their program. Make sure to follow all submission instructions thoroughly and meet your deadlines.

Related: 7 Pros and Cons of Being a School Counselor (With Tips)

What courses do students take in school counseling programs?

Coursework can vary depending on your program. While most school counseling programs introduce students to topics in counseling theory, ethics and cultural competencies, some may offer more specialty tracks than others.

For example, programs for students looking to become elementary school counselors may focus on classes related to child development. Students typically complete the core coursework in their program and choose several electives related to their specific interests.

Here are some common classes that school counseling students take:

  • Fundamental counseling skills and theories

  • Introduction to educational research

  • Diagnoses and assessment

  • Law and ethics for school counselors

  • Counseling children and adolescents

  • Introduction to special education, learning disabilities, behavior disorders and intervention

  • Consultation and advocacy

  • Social justice in professional practice

Types of school counselor degrees

Here are some types of school counselor degrees with consideration for what you can do with them:

School counselor certification

Certifications differ from degrees in that they're typically shorter programs that emphasize a particular skill or area of competency within a field. Some schools may hire counselors with a school counseling certification, but many prefer these professionals to have a master's degree or higher in their field.

Pursuing certifications can be a great way to advance your career if you're a currently practicing school counselor. Certifications can help you learn new skills, pursue professional development or gain credentials in an area of specialty. These programs can help you advance your career and stand out during the job search process.

Related: School Counselor Certification Requirements (And How To Get It)

Master's degree in school counseling

Most school counselors pursue a master's degree to qualify for their roles. This level of education expands on the fundamental knowledge students gain through pursuing an undergraduate degree, and it typically involves focused training on counseling practices.

This advanced education helps students acquire the skills they need to perform accurate assessments of student mental health and behavioral challenges, develop treatment plans and implement therapeutic techniques. These programs typically require students to complete classroom-based coursework in addition to a practical internship. Students with this level of degree most often work in the grade school system, though some work for colleges.

Doctorate degree in school counseling

Most school counselors don't need to earn a doctorate unless they want to pursue a career in academia or government advocacy. Earning a doctorate degree typically takes an additional two to three years on average for a student with a master's degree in a related field.

Doctorate degrees can qualify students to conduct independent research in the field of school counseling. These professionals often work for universities where they instruct aspiring school counselors and publish their research findings. Others may work in government positions where they determine school policies, advocate for students and develop educational programs.

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