Guidance Counselor

A guidance counselor (or career counselor) works closely with students to help them succeed in school. This includes supporting students and professionals in making decisions about their career path and teaching job search and workplace skills. They may also support school counselors and psychologists with academic and social needs and issues, such as poor grades or struggling with anxiety. 

They typically work with high school students, other teachers, and family members. They may work in higher education with college students or help members of the military transition into civilian life. Depending on age, guidance counselors may support students and professionals with everything from helping high school students research and apply to college to supporting a veteran looking for a new job.  

Guidance counselors commonly have a master’s degree in counseling and have completed an internship or completed a certain number of hours of supervised experience. Some states require guidance counselors to hold a credential in the state where they work to practice. Depending on the state, this credential includes applying for licensure, certification, or endorsement. Guidance counselors should always check with their state’s licensing board prior to getting started with the licensure, certification, or endorsement process. 

The National Career Development Association is the professional association that provides credentials and support to guidance counselors. While not every state requires guidance counselors to get certified, a certification is a useful way to demonstrate that you are up-to-date on key trends in the field and meet professional standards. Many career counselors get certified as Certified Career Counselors (CCC). They may also pursue certification as a National Certified Counselor (NCC) if they will also provide services traditionally provided by a school counselor. 

To learn more about what it takes to become a guidance counselor, check out the guide below.

How to Become a Guidance Counselor

Students interested in pursuing a career as a guidance counselor should always check with the state licensing board where they want to practice. Some states require prospective guidance counselors to hold a master’s degree in counseling and pass national and/or state examinations. Those working with primary and secondary school students may also need to have a current teaching license or even have prior teaching experience. The career counseling field has shifted, and it is now more commonplace for guidance counselors to hold a master’s degree in counseling.

When looking into guidance counseling programs, students should also check to ensure that the program is accredited through the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Programs accredited through CACREP have demonstrated that they meet the academic and professional standards required to make sure students are prepared to start working as guidance counselors after graduation. Please note that CACREP only accredits master’s and doctoral programs. 

Accreditation is the review process to evaluate the educational quality of an institution or program of study. This system does not rank programs against one another. Instead, accreditation examines whether a program has the curriculum, instruction, and practices to prepare students for success as guidance counselors. 

Many guidance counselors pursue master’s degrees in counseling with a specialty in career counseling. These degrees may include a master of arts (MA), a master of education (MEd), a master of science (MS), or even a combination program where a dual degree is issued. 

Many teachers hold an MA in teaching, commonly known as “MAT,” which directly prepares them for a path as certified teachers for K-12 schools. On the other hand, a master’s of education (MEd) is typically preferred by current educators or those already working in education. 

These degrees are designed to provide the skills needed to move into administration, such as working as a principal or at the district level. This is why some school counseling degree programs provide a dual degree option, allowing students to provide both degrees. 

For example, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, provides a fully online CACREP-accredited master’s of arts in counseling. This program is directed towards professionals who are already working and are unable to commit two years to full-time, on-campus instruction. This may include teachers already working in a school district or other people who are interested in a career change. 

All accredited programs require a set number of supervised experience hours or internships. These on-hand experiences allow students to observe working guidance counselors in action while taking on limited duties that allow them to learn by doing. 

Looking for a step-by-step guide to a career as a guidance counselor? Look no further than the guide below. 

Step One: Complete Undergraduate Degree (Four Years)

After graduating from high school or obtaining a GED, prospective guidance and career counselors should apply to undergraduate programs and successfully obtain their bachelor’s degrees. While students are not required to get a degree in a particular major, many hold degrees in education, psychology, or family and human services. However, many graduate programs may have prerequisite coursework requirements for admission, so students should ensure they complete the necessary classes for additional studies. 

Step Two: Take the GRE (Six Months)

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test that virtually all graduate schools accept. This test allows prospective graduate students to demonstrate their knowledge in analytical writing, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning. 

Unlike the SAT or ACT, those taking the GRE only have to send in the scores they want schools to see. The GRE can be taken at any time, although many take it while they are still completing their bachelor’s degree. GRE scores are available for five years after taking the test. 

Step Three: Apply to an Accredited Guidance Counseling Program (Six Months)

Prospective students should research what degree type they are interested in, depending on their current educational and professional experience. A licensed teacher interested in transitioning to career counseling may want to pursue an MA in counseling, while a recent graduate with a degree in psychology may want to pursue a dual MA/MEd program so they can also obtain their teaching license.

After identifying the appropriate degree type, look up an accredited master’s program with CACREP. Admissions requirements typically include completing an undergraduate program with a competitive GPA, GRE scores, a personal statement, a resume, letters of recommendation, prerequiste coursework, and a background check. 

Students should also have an idea of where they want to work before applying to a program. Some state licensing boards may require a certain number of internship hours or supervised education to be completed in-state before licensure. Always check with your state licensing board prior to applying to a degree program. 

Step Four: Complete a Master’s Program in Guidance Counseling (Two to Three Years)

Most career counseling programs are 48 to 60 semsester-credits and take two to three years to complete. Depending on the school, students may choose a subspecialty, such as higher education or veteran career counseling. Coursework may include career theories, human development psychology, professional development, and counseling theories.

Most schools require students to complete internship and practicum requirements. Note that depending on the state where you wish to practice, a certain number of internship or supervised education hours may be required to apply for licensure. Some programs may also require a capstone project. 

Step Five: Complete NCC/NCDA Certification Requirements (Six Months)

Some states require guidance counselors to get certified through the National Career Development Association (NCDA). They may also require them to successfully pass the National Counselor Examination (NCE) administered by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) and apply for National Counselor Certification (NCC).

The NCDA offers a credential as a Certified Career Counselor (CCC) for guidance counselors interested in (or required to) pursue a credential. To receive this credential, guidance counselors must have graduated from a CACREP-accredited program and pass a competency assessment. The NCDA provides a study guide that covers exam material. The application to apply for certification is $175. Applicants must also provide two references, a resume, and submit written essay responses to four case studies.

They must also meet experience requirements by demonstrating the following:

  • Completion of a minimum of 600 hours of supervised clinical experience in career counseling (completed before or after their degree). This work must be done under the supervision of a career counselor or experienced career professional; or
  • Completion of a minimum of 60 hours of approved continuing education units in career development research, theory, or practice through the NCDA or NBCC; or
  • Completion of the U.S. NCDA Facilitating Career Development course.

After meeting these requirements, you can apply for a CCC credential. 

Guidance counselors interested in NCC certification must provide in-depth written responses to four CCC case studies. Each case study covers a different competency so candidates can demonstrate their expertise. This is a timed exam, and candidates will have 60 minutes to complete each scenario question. 

After passing the NCE, prospective career counselors can apply for their National Certified Counselor (NCC) credential. This certification is at the national level and is required by many states to practice as a school counselor, which is related to guidance counseling. 

Those applying for NCC certification must have at least 100 hours of supervised postgraduate counseling experience and 3,000 hours of postgraduate counseling work experience completed over at least a 24-month period. However, this requirement is waived for graduates of CACREP-accredited programs. It is also waived for state-licensed professional counselors or those with a doctorate in counseling. Last, they must have an endorsement from a professional colleague with a master’s degree or higher in the mental health field. 

Prospective guidance counselors can pay for the NCE and apply for NCC certification at the same time for $375. 

Step Six: Complete State Licensing Board Requirements (Six Months)

Each state has its requirements for school and guidance counselors, including examinations and supervised education or internship hours. Some states also require prospective guidance counselors to hold a teaching certificate as well as several years of experience. 

For example, the New Jersey Department of Education requires applicants to meet the same requirements as a school counselor and hold a master’s degree from a regionally accredited university. They must also meet required coursework requirements and hold NCC certification.

Step Seven: NCSC/NCDA and Continuing Education Requirements (Ongoing)

Many states require guidance counselors to complete continuing education requirements to renew their license to practice. Those with their NCC certification must get recertified every five years. They must also take a certain number of continuing education credits every year, pay an annual fee, and review NCC ethical requirements. 

CCC-credentialed guidance counselors must have 30 hours of continuing education experience every three years to maintain their certification and pay an annual $40 fee.

What Does a Guidance Counselor Do?

A guidance counselor’s job duties may vary depending on the groups they work with. Generally, guidance counselors work in school or office settings. They may have a private office, so confidentiality is maintained. Many guidance counselors work in primary and secondary schools, particularly high school. Others work at junior or technical colleges, undergraduate and graduate schools, and for the military to help veterans transition back into the civilian workforce.

Guidance counselors can generally expect the following job duties:

  • Use career, aptitude, and achievement assessments to help clients learn more about their interests, skills, and abilities. 
  • Work with clients to learn more about their background, education, and professional development and help them develop professional and academic goals.
  • Teach clients job search skills and provide support, such as resume writing or interviewing
  • Help clients make decisions about their careers.
  • Help clients find and apply for jobs.
  • Support clients with building skills and strategies for resolving conflict or issues in the workplace.
  • Help clients pursue education or technical training needed to apply for jobs, such as a degree, certification, skill development, or licensure.

How Much Do Guidance Counselors Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, education, guidance, and career counselors make an average annual wage of $64,200 per year (BLS May 2022). They had these percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $38,280
  • 25th percentile: $47,380
  • 50th percentile (median): $60,140
  • 75th percentile: $76,590
  • 90th percentile: $98,530

As of May 2022, California, Texas, and New York employed the most guidance counselors—also home to the largest school districts in the United States. California, Washington, and Massachusetts are the highest-paid states for guidance counselors.

Guidance Counselor Professional Associations & Resources

There are several professional associations and resources available for guidance counselors. Some of these are professional associations, which allow guidance counselors to stay up-to-date on new trends and build their professional networks. Other online resources provide important information for working or prospective guidance counselors. These resources include:

  • National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
  • National Career Development Association (NCDA)
  • American Counseling Association (ACA)
  • American Psychology Association (APA)
  • National Education Association (NEA)
  • Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
Bree Nicolello

Bree Nicolello


Bree Nicolello is an urban planner and freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. She has worked on land use and housing policy issues throughout the Pacific Northwest. She previously led Run Oregon Run, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Oregonians run for office and apply to boards and commissions. When not writing, she is lovingly tending to her cast iron