Becoming a Licensed Counselor Accreditation, the NCE, and Certifications by State

Being a counselor comes with a series of responsibilities: to the practice, to the patients, and to the state. Before counselors are able to be part of a practice and treat patients, they have to fulfill certain national and state requirements such as passing exams like the National Counseling Exam. Each state varies on what is required from prospective counselors seeking licensure. Learn what credentials are available, gather information about the granting organizations, and get connected to your state’s licensing board.

Find Your State Licensing Board

From marriage and family therapists to addiction and substance abuse counselors, each state requires different licenses for the type of work one is pursuing. Use the map below to navigate to each state’s licensing board to research the licensing requirements.

Getting Licensed: What You Need to Know

Counseling licenses protect patients from unqualified therapists who don’t have the education and experience necessary to provide mental health treatment. While the requirements vary, the list below explains the role of accreditation and agencies counselors commonly go to for licensure.

The Role of Accreditation

Accreditation is the method by which colleges and their educational programs authenticate their quality. To receive accreditation, schools must maintain established educational standards in areas such as curriculum content, faculty qualifications, practicum experiences, and instructional support. As a result, students can be confident that an accredited program will not only provide them with an education that meets their state’s licensing criteria, but also give them the experience that employers expect from counseling professionals.

When it comes to accreditation, endorsement from the American Psychological Association (APA) or the Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE) may carry more weight than others as they are recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. However, each agency listed below plays a role in keeping education standards high.

American Psychological Association (APA)

The APA’s accrediting body, the APA Commission on Accreditation (APA-CoA), reviews both PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) and PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) programs. Both degrees prepare students for professional psychology practice psychology professionally. The APA accredits doctoral programs in clinical psychology, school counseling and other disciplines. The APA-CoA, which is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education, also accredits doctoral internships and postdoctoral residency training programs.

Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)

COAMFTE accredits master’s and doctoral degree programs, as well as postgraduate clinical training programs. Across the United States and Canada, COAMFTE’s accreditation standards are the touchstone for marriage and family therapy program. To develop the criteria that schools must meet to earn accreditation, COAMFTE coordinates with state licensing and certification boards, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards.

Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)

Recognized by approximately 600 programs in the North American continent, CACREP accredits master’s degree programs in various professional specialties such as addiction, school, career and marriage counseling. Through its accreditation, CACREP is able to promote excellence based on high educational and ethical standards.

Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE)

Recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, CORE accredits undergraduate and graduate programs that prepare students to treat patients with mental, physical or emotional disabilities. The organization requires accredited programs to cover topics such as professional ethics, cultural diversity and life span development in their curricula.

Master’s in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC)

MPCAC provides accreditation for counseling and psychology master’s degrees. MPCAC requires programs to promote ethical behavior, social justice practices and evidenced-based approaches to counseling. In addition, programs should provide a historical perspective of the counseling and psychology fields, as well as teach the evolution of theories that guide these disciplines.

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)

The National Association of School Psychologists accredits programs that have demonstrated comprehensive curricula and well supervised internships and field experiences. By attending a NASP accredited school, graduates benefit from a streamlined process to receive the Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) credential.

NCE: National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification

Some states require that counselors pass the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) to receive a license. Administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), this test demonstrates a prospective counselors’ knowledge of key skills and concepts such as helping relationships, human growth and development, and diversity. Find out more about the NCE, its administering board, and who benefits from passing the test.

NCE: The Facts
What is the NCE?

The NCE is a multiple choice test with 200 questions that evaluates whether or not potential counselors have the necessary knowledge, ability and skills to practice. The test has been used to evaluate counselors since 1983. In addition to being a requirement for licensure in some states, the test is also used to grant the National Certified Counselor (NCC) certification. This is a voluntary credential that counselors use to prove their education, clinical experience and training to potential employers and patients.

What important details should one know?

The test is offered twice a year in April and October. At this time, prospective counselors take the test with paper and pencil. The maximum possible score is 160. While it varies between versions, the NBCC determines the minimum passing score which varies between versions using a modified Angoff procedure.

Why does the NCE matter for state licensure?

Some states require that counselors pass the NCE in order to obtain a license. While the NCE may not be mandatory, counselors must successfully complete their state’s licensing requirements to practice.

What are the requirements for getting the NCE certification?

To receive an NCE certification, counselors must hold a master’s degree in counseling from an accredited program and complete 3,000 hours of counseling experience.

What does the test include?

Some of the topics reviewed NCE are group counseling, human development, cultural diversity, the counseling process and diagnostic services. The test includes 200 questions but students are only graded on 160 items. The other 40 questions are being field-tested by the NBCC.

How is the NCE used by the military?

The NCE and the NCMHCE are used to qualify counselors who want to work in military health systems, such as the Army Substance Abuse Program and TRICARE. Passing the exam allows counselors to provide services to veterans and active duty service members as well as their families.

Does the NBCC administer any other examinations for professional counselors?

The NBCC also administers the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), which some states use as an alternative to the NCE for licensing purposes. The NCMHCE is made up of 10 simulated clinical cases designed to test counseling and psychotherapy knowledge, clinical assessment skills and competence in patient consultations.

Does the NBCC offer any other certifications?

The NBCC also offers the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC) credential. In order to receive this certification, counselors must complete a master’s degree in counseling and 3,000 hours of clinical experience. In addition, they must pass the NCMHCE and submit an audio or video recording of a clinical session.

Common State Licensures for Counseling

Although all states require that counselors receive licenses before practicing, the specific licensing criteria varies from one state to the next. In addition, each state’s regulatory board issues different types of licenses. Learn more about some common counseling licenses, including eligibility criteria.

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)

What It Means: Some States that issue this counseling license use it as their highest licensing level.

Who It Is For: The LHMC is for those who want to provide mental health counseling to patients.

Requirements: To receive an LCPC, counselors must have at least a master’s degree in counseling from an accredited school. Depending on where they practice, applicants may be required to have a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) credential, a specified number of hours of supervised clinical experience, and training in diagnostic evaluation.

Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)

What It Means: Some states issue this license as a provisional credential that allows counselors to work as they pursue higher-level licensure.

Who It Is For: The LHMC is for those who want to provide mental health counseling to patients.

Requirements: A graduate degree in counseling or a related discipline from an accredited program is required. Other qualifications may include 3,000 hours of supervised postgraduate experience and over 1,000 hours counseling individuals or groups.

Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

What It Means: This credential is sometimes earned before counselors receive licenses that require additional experience and training.

Who It Is For: The LPC is for professionals who want to provide help to patients with mental, emotional and behavioral problems.

Requirements: LPC holders need a master’s degree or higher from an accredited counseling program. Depending on the state, applicants may also be required to have a certain number of hours of supervised clinical training and/or professional experience. Counselors may also be expected to pass the NCE or NCMHCE.

Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC)

What It Means: States may use this license as an advanced credential. In such cases, counselors must hold a lower-level license and undergo additional training to receive an LPCC.

Who It Is For: This license is for those who want to provide clinical counseling. In addition, marriage and family counselors and social workers in some states may obtain this license.

Requirements: A graduate degree in counseling from an accredited program is required for the LPCC. Additional requirements may include passing the NCMHCE or NCE, gaining a certain amount of supervised work experience, and conducting a certain number of unsupervised clinical hours.

Counseling License Agencies

Not only do licenses tell the state an individual is qualified to practice, it shows colleagues and prospective clients that the licensee is a competent professional. From the National Board for Certified Counselors to Association of State and Provincial Psychology Board, find out more about the various accrediting agencies.

Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB)

The ASPPB provides licenses and certifications to psychologists in the United States and Canada. To guarantee consistent standards are applied in all locations, the ASPPB established the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) as its required licensing test. While the organization does not accredit schools directly, it endorses the position that graduation from an APA-accredited program should be a requirement for practicing psychologists in the U.S.

National Board for Certified Counselors

Also known as the NBCC, this agency administers the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Consisting of 10 clinical simulations designed to test a broad area of competencies, this test is required by many states for certification.

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards

NBPTS’ goal is to advance the teaching profession to benefit all students. They also administer licenses for school counselors who have three years of work experience. As one of two options for school counselors to be licensed, the NBPTS determines licensure through a portfolio review process.

Additional Resources for Counseling Licensure

Obtaining the right licensure is almost as complex as the study of psychology itself. The following resources have information for potential and practicing counselors looking to gain licenses and certifications.

American Association of Pastoral Counselors

This organization is for professionals who integrate spiritual principles into their counseling services. Members can earn certifications, participate in training programs, and receive news about the field.

American Counseling Association (ACA)

Since 1952, the American Counseling Association has represented the needs of professional counselors. Members receive access to continuing education courses, professional journals, podcasts and news that impacts the field. They can also attend an annual conference to network with each other and share information about their work.

American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA)

The AMHCA provides education and advocacy support to counselors. In addition, members receive professional publications and a discount on liability insurance.

APA Accredited Programs

The American Psychological Association’s website includes information on accredited psychology programs and a search tool for finding doctoral degree programs, postdoctoral residency programs and internship opportunities.

Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC)

CRCC offers certifications for counselors who provide rehabilitation services.

International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (IAMFC)

This organization, which is affiliated with the American Counseling Association, promotes high standards among professionals who work with couples and families. To that end, the group has publications and resources that counselors can take advantage of.

Licensure Requirements for Professional Counselors

Those who want to become counselors can find each state’s criteria for specific professional licenses.

Master Addiction Counselor

The Association for Addiction Professionals offers the Master Addiction Counselor credential.

National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)

The NBCC is responsible for administering the tests that states use when licensing counselors. Its website also has a job board.

National Certification and State Licensure

This page by the NBCC includes information on the types of licenses and certifications available to professionals in the field.

National Certified Counselor (NCC)

This NBCC page has detailed information on the NCC credential.

NCE Handbook

Created by the National Board for Certified Counselors, the NCE handbook includes information on how to register for the test, how the test is administered, and what content is included on the examination.

NCMHCE Handbook

This handbook, which is produced by the NBCC, provides detailed information about the procedures for taking the NCMHCE as well as the test’s content.

Professional Associations and Certification Organizations

This page by the American Counseling Association lists organizations that provide counseling credentials and other professional services.

Sample Questions for the NCE

This page from the NBCC website includes examples of the types of questions that can be found on the NCE.

State Certification Requirements

The American School Counselor Association provides detailed information on the state-by-state licensing requirements for school counselors.

State Professional Counselor Licensure Boards

This page on the American Counseling Association’s website lists the counseling licensing bodies for each state in the country.

State School Counselor Certification/Licensure Agencies

Using this page of the ACA website, college graduates who are interested in pursuing careers as student counselors can find information on the organizations that issue licenses and certifications.

Understanding Accreditation

The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs explains the importance of enrolling in an accredited counseling degree program.