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How to Become a College Counselor

The most common path to becoming a college counselor involves earning a bachelor’s degree, completing a master’s in counseling program that includes several hundred hours of supervised clinical counseling work, and attaining state licensure as a clinical mental health or school counselor. While the specific qualifications for working as a college counselor may vary by school and by state, most college counselors hold a graduate degree in clinical or school counseling and have completed a training program that includes supervised internships and/or practicums. However, some college counselors are licensed psychologists, which requires a doctoral degree in psychology, and it is also possible to become a college counselor by earning a master’s degree in clinical social work.

What Is College Counseling?

College counselors are mental health professionals who provide therapeutic counseling services to students at colleges, universities, and other postsecondary educational institutions. As a field of practice, college counseling represents an area of specialization within the broader fields of clinical mental health and school counseling and psychology. Mental health counselors who are licensed to practice in K-12 schools (i.e., licensed school counselors) and licensed mental health counselors, therapists, and psychologists are typically qualified to provide counseling services at colleges and universities, as are licensed clinical social workers. These professionals may work at campus-based clinics, university hospitals, and regional counseling centers where students can access a range of mental health services, including individual consults and psychotherapy sessions, group counseling sessions, and, in some cases, psychiatric medical services.

It is important to note that colleges and universities provide a range of academic and career-based advising services to students, some of which may be referred to informally as counseling services. However, the services offered by clinical counselors require specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. While students at colleges and universities may receive various types of advising and non-clinical counseling from faculty and administrative staff, mental health counseling services are provided by designated professionals who must be formally licensed.

Education and Training for College Counselors

There are essentially three academic routes to becoming a college counselor, the most common of which culminates in the completion of a master’s program in counseling and a year or more of supervised internships. There are a range of formal designations and several types of degree programs that may be classified as master’s in counseling programs, including but not limited to Master of Arts (MA), Master of Education (MEd), and Master of Science (MS) in Counseling, Clinical Counseling, College Counseling, Mental Health Counseling, and School Counseling. These programs typically take two to three years to complete and include a minimum of 700 hours of supervised clinical work, as mandated by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP). CACREP is the primary accreditation body for master’s in counseling degree programs, although programs may also be accredited by the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC), a newer programmatic accreditation organization.

Some accredited master’s in counseling programs have elective coursework in college counseling and there are a limited number of programs that specialize in training for college counseling. For example: Monmouth University has a partially online, CACREP-accredited Master of Science in Education (MSEd) in Student Affairs and College Counseling program; California State University Northridge (CSUN) has a campus-based, CACREP-accredited Master of Science (MS) in Counseling program with a track in College Counseling and Student Services; and North Carolina State University offers a CACREP-accredited Master of Education (MEd) in College Counseling and Student Development program that can be completed online or on campus.

An alternate academic route to becoming a college counselor involves earning a graduate degree in psychology. There are master’s in psychology programs that may be sufficient for some types of non-clinical counseling work at colleges and universities, but licensure in psychology typically requires a doctoral degree. There are two main types of psychology doctorates: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology and Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). These programs can take six or more years to complete, which may include two or three years of post-baccalaureate master’s-level study in preparation for a doctoral program. Larger colleges and universities may employ one or more senior clinical psychologists in addition to several clinical mental health counselors to meet the counseling needs of their students.

A third if somewhat less common way to enter the field of college counseling is through a Master of Social Work (MSW) program with a clinical social work focus. Clinical social workers use many of the same diagnostic and treatment techniques as clinical mental health counselors, and Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs), like Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs), are authorized to provide individual and group counseling services in their state of residence. As a result, clinical social workers who have training and experience working with students and young adults may qualify for college counseling positions and may be employed as college counselors.

Licensure for College Counselors

Clinical mental health and school counselors are required to hold a license issued by the state in which they practice in order to provide counseling services without supervision. This includes clinical counselors who work in the field of college counseling. Similarly, all psychologists who provide counseling services must be licensed as psychologists by the state in which they practice. Clinical social workers are not required to hold a state-issued license provided they work under the supervision of an LCSW. However, social workers who engage in clinical counseling at colleges and universities are typically required to hold a state license.

Licensure requirements vary by state and by field. In counseling, a master’s degree from a CACREP-accredited or MPCAC-accredited master’s program that provides training in clinical mental health and/or school counseling and that includes a minimum of 700 hours of supervised clinical experiences, followed by a year or more (2000-4000 hours) of full-time clinical counseling work is generally sufficient for licensure eligibility. Eligibility for state licensure in psychology typically requires a doctoral degree and 2000-4000 hours of clinical experience, half or more of which may be completed in post-doctoral internships. LCSW’s are typically required to hold an MSW degree and a minimum of 2000 hours of supervised clinical experience. Counselors, psychologists, and social workers are required to pass an exam once they are eligible for licensure and prior to receiving their license.

Most states grant a provisional license to clinical counselors and psychologists who have completed the education requirements for licensure in order to facilitate the completion of the supervised clinical experiences required for full licensure. Clinical social workers are qualified to work in settings where they are supervised by LCSWs once they have completed a master’s program. Specific information on licensure requirements for counselors, psychologists, and social workers in a particular state is generally accessible online via state licensing boards.

Steps to Becoming a College Counselor

As detailed above, there are essentially three distinct pathways to a professional career in college counseling. The table below illustrates the key steps along the way of each of these pathways:

RequirementsCounselingPsychologySocial Work
UndergraduateHigh school diploma & bachelor’s degreeHigh school diploma & bachelor’s degreeHigh school diploma & bachelor’s degree
Graduate degreeMaster’s in counseling Doctorate in psychologyMaster of Social Work (MSW)
Years of post-baccalaureate study2-35-62-3
Supervised work hours2000-40002000-40002000-4000
Provisional licensureYesYesMay or may not be required, depending on state
Licensing examNational Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE)The Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP)Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Clinical Exam

The American College Counseling Association is a professional organization of clinical counselors, psychologists, and social workers who are engaged in the field of college counseling. It is a division of the American Counseling Association, a non-profit professional and educational organization that provides resources and support to those in the counseling profession. For a detailed discussion of the steps to becoming an LPC, refer to our FAQ on How to Become a Clinical Mental Health Counselor. For more information about online counseling programs that can lead to licensure, see our Online Counseling Degree Programs section.

More Counseling FAQs: