How To Become A Licensed Counselor In The U.S.

Learn the steps to become a licensed counselor. We outline everything you need to know.


Updated July 10, 2023

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People who want to help others can pursue various counseling careers. Some counselors work with couples or families. Others help clients living with addiction. Licensed counselors may work in private practice or in hospitals or schools.

Counselors need a college degree and strong analytical skills, as the career requires reviewing and maintaining paperwork.

This article explains how to become a licensed counselor. Read on for answers to common questions and to learn about counseling specializations and potential careers.

Questions About Counseling Careers

Q. What is the difference between a counselor and a therapist?

Professionals in both roles try to improve clients' mental health through one-on-one and group meetings. However, therapists' training lets them offer more interventions, such as therapy sessions.

Q. What kind of jobs can I get with a degree in counseling?

Degree-holders may work as school counselors or marriage and family therapists. Graduates with licensure can also work as mental health counselors and rehabilitation counselors. Some professionals specialize in grief counseling or pediatric counseling.

Q. What degree do I need to become a counselor?

Many careers in counseling require a master's degree. This degree qualifies graduates for licensure. However, some states let substance use counselors with only a bachelor's degree practice.

Q. Are certifications required to be a counselor?

States regulate the counseling profession through licensure. Licensed professional counselors (LPCs) and other workers can advance their careers with professional certifications.

How To Become a Licensed Counselor

Licensure requirements vary by career. School and career counselors need a master's degree in counseling or psychology, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Licensure candidates complete an internship under the supervision of a licensed professional.

Substance use counselors only need a bachelor's degree. However, professionals with a private practice need a license. Like school and career counselors, rehabilitation counselors need a master's degree.

Prospective counselors can check with their state's board of licensure for requirements. They may need to complete supervised work experience and pass a criminal background check.

Counseling Specializations

The counseling field features many specializations, such as families, substance misuse, and grief. Specializations vary by school and degree level. Some colleges refer to specializations as concentrations or tracks. Academic coaches and career counselors can help learners select a specialization, research classes, and meet licensure requirements.

See below for popular counseling concentrations. Keep in mind that options vary by school. Students should confirm available concentrations with their prospective school. Degree-seekers can contact a school's admissions department or career center.

What Are the Education Requirements for Counseling?

Licensed counselors need a master's degree. However, many careers in counseling only require a bachelor's degree. See below for each degree's academic requirements and relevant careers. Please note that programs and graduation requirements vary by school. Program websites feature the latest information.

How Much Does a Counseling Degree Cost?

College costs an average of $35,331 per year, according to However, costs vary by program, school type, and learners' residency status. Students attending public, in-state schools usually pay the most affordable tuition. Private four-year schools charge an average annual tuition of $35,807. Public four-year schools cost $9,349 per year on average for in-state students.

Online learners benefit by not paying for room and board, meals, and other campus expenses. An online format allows students to enroll in the most affordable program without relocating. Programs that run asynchronously let students complete coursework around work and family commitments.

How Much Do Counseling Graduates Make?

Salary depends on many factors, including employer and geographic location. School and career counselors earn a median of $58,120 annually, according to the BLS. Counselors who work at K-12 schools or educational services companies make more. School and career counselors in California, New Jersey, and Virginia earn the most.

Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earn a median $47,660 annually. The highest-paying employers for this career include government agencies, hospitals, and individual and family services agencies. Counselors in Nevada, Utah, and Alaska earn more than professionals in other states.

Rehabilitation counselors earn a median $37,530 annually. Those who work at state government agencies earn a median annual salary of $53,210. Rehabilitation counselors in New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Nevada earn the most.

Career and Salary Outlook for Counselors

Counseling careers feature many similar responsibilities. Counselors may lead sessions and suggest outside services. However, each career requires skills aligned with a specific group's unique needs. These differences affect median annual salary and projected growth rate.

See below for potential counseling careers. The chart includes salary and projected growth from 2020-2030.

Salary Potential and Growth Rate
Career Median Annual Salary Projected Growth Rate (2020-2030)
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $47,660 23%
School and Career Counselors and Advisors $58,120 11%
Rehabilitation Counselors $37,530 10%

Source: BLS

Certifications and Licensure for Counseling

Many careers in counseling require a state-issued license. Licensure requirements vary by state but may include a master's degree and supervised work experience. Licensed and unlicensed counselors can advance their career by earning a professional certification. A certification shows mastery of different skills and may lead to new job opportunities.

Every state uses a board or department to create requirements for LPCs. In some states, such as New York, candidates need a master's degree in one of four specializations, such as creative arts therapy or mental health counseling Other requirements include an internship and supervised work experience after graduation. Some professionals need a master's and a graduate certificate to qualify. The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) awards the CRC certification. Eligibility criteria include a master's or doctorate from an accredited program, the CRC application, and a passing exam score. The four-hour exam includes 175 multiple-choice questions. The CRCC's 50-question practice test helps candidates prepare. CRCs can maintain their certification by completing 100 professional development hours every five years. Some states require school counselors to hold a teaching license. Earning a license involves completing a state-approved teacher-education program. A bachelor's or master's degree qualifies graduates for an initial license. Aspiring counselors should research degrees combining teacher and counselor preparation classes.

Resources for Counseling Majors

This group offers networking and professional development opportunities. Members can also access publications detailing the latest research into counseling best practices. The American Psychological Association (APA) awards programmatic accreditation to the best psychology and counseling programs nationwide. Prospective students can use the organization's search tool to find programs in their area. The APA updates its list of accredited schools annually. The National Board of Certified Counselors awards the NCC to licensed professionals with at least two years of experience. Other requirements include a colleague's endorsement and a passing exam score. AMHCA offers members career guidance, a private job board, and many networking opportunities. Students need liability insurance for practicums and internships. They can get this insurance through the AMHCA.

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Portrait of Sarah Holliday, MS

Sarah Holliday, MS

Sarah Holiday has years of experience working with nontraditional and traditional-aged students in various areas related to career coaching and training and development. Holliday holds a BA in English from The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and an MS in instructional design and technology (training and performance improvement) from Walden University. Holliday is currently working on her doctorate and looks forward to dissertating in the near future.

Sarah Holliday is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

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