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How to Become a School Counselor: Key Steps and Skills

Newsroom | Articles April 20, 2020
A smiling school counselor in button-down shirt and tie sits at a desk across from a mother and her school-age son.

When it comes to academics and career options, school counselors help students tackle big—and often stressful—decisions. Today’s school counselors also offer personal and social development support, which students can apply inside of school and carry with them outside of school and beyond. Despite the rewards of the profession, the demand is much greater than the supply: for every 50.59 million students, there are roughly only 111,000 school counselors. A 455-1 ratio falls far short of the 250-1 ratio that the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends.

Do you have a heart for helping young people who may be grappling with issues like bullying, social anxiety, or abuse and neglect? Do you want to help them get over academic hurdles and achieve more than they ever thought they could? Does it gratify you to make a difference in their lives as they face choices about the future? If you’re a compassionate people person and an excellent communicator, learn more about how to become a school counselor. If you feel this challenging but rewarding career is for you, an advanced degree can boost your success as a job candidate in the field.

Individuals seeking to learn how to become a school counselor should have compassion and a desire to help young people in educational settings. An advanced degree can help aspiring school counselors succeed as job candidates.

The Importance of School Counselors

Technology can improve learning, but “access to technology outside of learning environments is still very unevenly distributed across ethnic, socio-economic, and geographic lines,” according to a Brookings Institution report. Another Brookings Institution report cites the impact of poverty and trauma caused by homelessness, abuse, neglect, and domestic violence on student academic performance. The report notes the heavy burden placed on teachers to help affected children and recommends stronger collaboration “across education and social service entities” to better assist students.

School counselors help to ease the burden on teachers so that they can focus on imparting knowledge to students. By identifying hurdles to learning, connecting students with resources, and serving as advocates, school counselors help students to achieve academically. According to The Education Trust, roughly 8 million children, or about 1-in-5 students, are without access to school counselors. The issue is more prevalent with students of color and students from low-income families whose school districts are often not sufficiently staffed with school counselors.

To understand the value of school counselors, you only have to look at recent teachers strikes across the nation. For example, the Chicago Teachers Union asked the school district to hire more counselors, so teachers can focus on teaching, as reported in a recent New York Times article. Recently, the Oakland Unified School District promised to hire more counselors.

Duties and Skills Required of a School Counselor

School counselors can help students to achieve their full potential, academically and otherwise. Specifically, they “help all students in the areas of academic achievement, career, and social/emotional development,” according to ASCA. Their active involvement in the education process helps “students become the productive, well-adjusted adults of tomorrow.”

From pre-K through college and in both public and private schools, counselors meet with students and their teachers and parents to discuss goals. They often serve as confidants, which enables them to learn about barriers to academic achievement. For instance, school counselors can help address the challenges of bullying. A study published in the Professional School Counseling journal points to a bullying intervention program that helped reduce bullying; school counselors trained students on strategies to defend against bullying during the program.

School counselors also connect students with essential resources to overcome learning hurdles. In another study published in Professional School Counseling, group school counseling proved to help middle school English language learners to adjust to learning environments and improve their GPAs.

Skills Needed for School Counselors

Individuals seeking information on how to become a school counselor may have questions about what skills are needed to succeed in the role. First, school counselors must show compassion and empathy, qualities that, when combined with listening skills, help them to understand student needs. School counselors are also skilled in advocacy, always looking for opportunities to enhance student success, and consistently voicing the concerns of underrepresented student groups.

School counselors must have strong communication and presentation skills to provide students, parents and teachers with information on topics ranging from bullying to colleges and careers. Since school counselors often work with hundreds of students, they have very little time. Therefore, the ability to manage their caseloads is essential; this requires strong organizational and time management skills. Writing skills are necessary for maintaining student records and reporting cases of neglect or abuse.

How to Become a School Counselor

A bachelor's degree in counseling, psychology, education, or sociology is the first step to becoming a school counselor. Most school counselor positions require a master’s degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Advanced degree courses for public school counselors include human growth and development, counseling, testing/appraisal, and research and program evaluation, as well as practicums and internships, according to ASCA.

Public school counselors must obtain a state-issued license or certification; requirements vary by state. Usually, students complete a master’s program, including an internship or a practicum, before taking their state licensing exam. The BLS reports that the annual median salary for school counselors and related roles was $56,310 in 2018 and projects faster-than-average growth from 2018 to 2028.

The LSU Online Master of Social Work

If you want to pursue a school counseling career, LSU Online offers an online Master of Social Work. The curriculum prepares graduates with the skills to tackle social problems and help students in need. Additionally, graduates gain real-world experience through the required Advanced Field Internship course. Other courses include:

  • Human Behavior and the Social Environment. This course examines human behavior in the context of biological, psychological, social, and cultural determinants.
  • Human Diversity and Oppression. This course explores oppression, including topics such as institutional discrimination, inequality, stigma, prejudice, and multiculturalism.

The LSU Online Master of Social Work program prepares graduates with holistic, multifaceted perspectives and tools to impact their local communities and beyond. Learn more about the LSU Online Master of Social Work.

Recommended Readings

MSW vs. BSW: Different Degrees, Different Opportunities

MSW Careers: How a Master of Social Work Can Change Your Life and Your Community

Most Rewarding Aspects of LSU Online Master of Social Work

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