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How Do I Become a College Counselor?

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Becoming a college counselor is a noble, rewarding choice for individuals called to help young people transition to adulthood. College counselors are responsible for guiding post-secondary students smoothly through freshman to senior year to reach their full potential. Counselors work in several different campus departments, including admissions, financial aid, career services, and academic advising. Some specialize in treating mental health disorders common in college-age youth, such as depression, anxiety, anorexia, and substance abuse. College counselors play pivotal roles giving students the tools to start fruitful careers and healthy lives. For 2019, the U.S. News & World Report ranked college counselor as the 63rd best job with low unemployment of 2.2 percent. The following article outlines essential steps to join 291,700 school counselors and become a college counselor.

Complete a Human Services Bachelor’s Degree

After high school or GED completion, the first step for aspiring college counselors is earning a baccalaureate. These four-year programs require at least 120 semester credits at colleges or universities. Students focus their Bachelor of Arts or Science in specific areas called majors. Most counselors start with majors in the human services field, such as psychology, sociology, social work, and behavioral health. Certain institutions, including Liberty University, Grand Canyon University, Clarks Summit University, and Toccoa Falls College, even have bachelor’s degrees in counseling. Whichever major is chosen, the curriculum should include courses like Human Development and Student Affairs. Building hands-on experience in counseling settings via internships or work-study placements is also encouraged.

Enter an Accredited College Counseling Program

Next, attending graduate school is necessary to become a college counselor. Bachelor’s grads typically need GPAs above 2.75 and satisfactory GRE/MAT scores to begin advanced study. Admission teams might require prerequisite courses, references, interviews, and essays too. It’s best to apply to schools accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. Accredited master’s degrees meet field standards and have higher licensure success rates later. The CACREP presently lists accredited college counseling programs at 28 institutions, including DePaul University, Hampton University, Idaho State University, San Francisco State University, and Syracuse University. Each M.A/M.S. option will include 30 to 60 credits of upper-level courses with practicum hours and capstone projects. Some like North Carolina State and Arkansas Tech are fully online.

Begin a Supervised Internship Experience

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Most universities require a period of supervised work, also called an internship or practicum, in order for a person to complete their master’s degree in counseling. For a person who wants to know how to become a college counselor, this work is usually done at a career center, vocational center, vocational college, or similar facility. It could also take place at a job training program, unemployment office, or social services agency. The person who supervises the student must be a credentialed counselor who has a license in good standing. The number of hours of supervised experience varies by each university. A typical program requires 80 or more hours of supervised experience. This experience may be done during the academic year or during the summertime. The supervised experience is usually unpaid.

Licensing Requirements

Each state has its own licensing requirements for how to become a college counselor. Before a person can take the licensing exam, most states require a candidate to complete a criminal background check. Once a person’s background check is found to be satisfactory, the licensing agency will verify that the person has the right experience. Many states require at least one year of teaching experience for a person to become a college counselor.

Complete Required Work Experience

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Another essential aspect of how to become a college counselor is completing the required work experience. This is separate from an internship or practicum. Many states require the candidate to have paid work experience as a teacher. This may also involve having a teaching license that is in good standing. The usual requirement is one to two years of paid work experience in a classroom before a person can become a college counselor.

Pursue Professional Licensure as a College Counselor

Master’s graduates are prepared to complete the counseling licensure employers usually require. State licensure proves that individuals have the training, character, and experience to practice independently. The American Counseling Association outlines the general licensing qualifications as being a master’s degree and 1,000 hours of practice. Each state has different requirements for receiving the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or similar credential though. For example, Delaware requires passing a $171 exam and finishing 1,600 supervised client hours. Illinois stipulates that new LPC candidates must take the National Certified Counselors exam. New Jersey only accepts master’s degrees with the word “counseling” in its title, not simply student affairs or higher education. Reviewing one’s own state board requirements will ensure college counselors are ready for job applications.

Participate in Continuing Education

Once a person knows how to become a college counselor and have completed licensure, this is not the end of their educational requirements. Continuing education units are usually required in order for a college counselor to renew their license. Each state’s requirements on continuing education units for counselors are different. For example, California requires 36 hours of continuing education units for college counselors every two years. The types of continuing education units that are accepted also vary somewhat by state. In general, the units must be offered by an accredited educational institution. Some states place stipulations on the subject matter of the continuing education units. For example, Washington requires college counselors to take six hours of continuing education units in professional ethics and law every two years. A person who is licensed as a mental health counselor or therapist must also complete six hours of suicide assessment, treatment, and management every six years.

Develop Essential Character Traits

A person who would like to know how to become a college counselor should work on several character traits that are key to success in this type of work. There are five characteristics in particular that will help a person do well as a college counselor. One is strong analytical skills. A college counselor needs to be good at analyzing a person’s aptitude and personality traits and pairing them with several career options that capitalize on those skills. Another key characteristic is the ability to demonstrate compassion. College students are often under a lot of stress. They might be worried about how they will pay back their loans. They may be worried about the job market or have personal issues. The college counselor will need to be sensitive to each student’s individual situation. Strong interpersonal skills are also necessary for a college counselor. These professionals work with a wide range of personality types, and they must be able to successfully communicate with all types of people. College counselors should have excellent listening skills. They should be able to fully focus their attention on the student in order to understand where the student is coming from and what their problems are. The last necessary characteristic of a successful college counselor is speaking skills. A college counselor should be able to convey spoken information in a way that is easy to understand and that resonates with the student.

Maintain Professional Ethics

All types of counselors, including college counselors, need to follow the profession’s established ethics guidelines. Most colleges and universities also have a code of conduct that is required for all employees to follow. A big part of professional ethics involves maintaining the student’s confidentiality. The information given by the student to the counselor should not be shared with anyone else unless the student has provided written and informed consent. This means that the counselor cannot share personally identifiable information with their colleagues, coworkers, department secretary, friends, or anyone else. The only time any personal information can be shared is in a situation that must be reported by law. College counselors are mandated reporters in some places. An allowed example of what a college counselor could tell their colleague is, “A student is interested in becoming an epidemiologist. Is there a senior epidemiologist or anyone else at the state health department who may know of available internship opportunities within that agency?” A disallowed example of a discussion with a colleague is, “This student, First Name Last Name, told me they do not like Professor Smith.”

Keep Up With Employment Trends

Once a person is aware of how to become a college counselor and has entered the field, their work is still not done. In order to be a great college counselor, a person will need to keep up with business and employment trends. It would not be wise for a college counselor to encourage students to study a major that has low rates of employment. College counselors should regularly review information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Department of Labor. These agencies track employment trends in the United States, and the counselors can use share this information with their students in order to help them make informed decisions. A student who is trying to decide between becoming an accountant and becoming an investment banker might want to know about the employment statistics, wages, trends, and demand for each of these jobs.

College counselors are highly trained to address educational, social, and emotional issues young adults face. It’s their duty to make college less overwhelming and more rewarding for America’s 21 million students in higher education. Counselors are especially needed today when the NAMI reports one-fifth of older adolescents have mental health disorders. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects above-average job growth of 13 percent through 2026 for college counselors. Follow these steps to become a college counselor and set students up for bright futures.

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