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What do You Need to do to Become a Counselor?

There is important preparation to be done in the weeks, months (and sometimes years) before you apply to counseling programs. A strong sense of what you want to do -- a real vision -- can help you get accepted into a program.

The best way to get a sense of what professional counselors do is to talk to professionals and spend some time out in the field.

Counseling programs have a common core but unique elements. A counseling specialty, broadly defined, determines licensing. Many counselors are licensed as Licensed Professional Counselors, but those in some specialties are either licensed separately or have dual credentials.

It's not uncommon for a counselor to also have an emphasis area -- a focus population, for example, even with that emphasis it doesn't change credentialing.

The best way to get a sense of what professional counselors do is to talk to professionals and spend some time out in the field either volunteering or working in a lower level position that doesn't require a professional license. But here's a breakdown of some types of counseling to get you started with your exploration.

Mental Health Counseling

Mental health counseling is what we often picture when we hear the word counselor. It is a licensed profession in all states, and the practice comes with rigorous requirements. Master’s programs are 60 units. Candidates learn to diagnose as well as treat. Counselors must work for a specified time period (usually at least two years) to attain full licensure.

Some states make mental health counseling its own license category while others license mental health counselors together with other professional counselors. If the license is geared specifically toward mental health, the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination is often a requirement. There are two exams that are commonly used for licensing purposes, but the National Counselor Examination is the more general one.

Even if a state doesn't require it, a counselor can take the NCMHCE as part of a national certification process.

If you’ve got what it takes to succeed in this field, there’s ample opportunity. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted 36% occupational growth between 2010 and 2020. The mean wage was $42,590 in 2011.

Marriage and Family Counseling

If your focus is on relationships and the family unit, you may want to pursue a career in marriage and family counseling. Marriage and family therapists have their own licensing process, which is slightly different than that of professional counselors. The time commitment, though, is similar.

The average salary is a little higher here: $48,710 in 2011. An impressive 41% growth has been predicted for 2010 to 2020.

School Counseling

School counselors work with students in grades K - 12. This profession is licensed in all states, but is licensed by the education department.

Duties can vary quite a bit by age group. At the lower levels, the counselor often focuses on violence prevention, inclusion, and anti-bullying, as well as helping children manage their emotions in the classroom. At the secondary level, the focus tend to shift to planning for planning for college and career -- and yet those emotional needs don't go away. Some counselors pursue combined programs in school counseling and mental health counseling.

Basic programs for school counselors are usually about 48 semester hours, but combined programs are 60+. Often a major in education is chosen by those who are planning on the school counselor path.

If a school counselor wants to pursue dual licensing as a professional counselor, she or he should give serious consideration to CACREP-accredited programs.

The mean wage for school and career counselors was $53,380 in 2010. The BLS predicts 8% growth in jobs for elementary and secondary school counselors between 2010 and 2020.

College Counseling

Some counselors take it to a higher level -- literally -- and pursue programs in college counseling. College counseling isn’t all about helping students choose a major. Many students are away from home for the first time. This brings new opportunities and new problems. Some college counselors focus on students with disabilities and special challenges.

There should be 34% increase in jobs for school and career counselors at the college level.

Rehabilitation Counseling

Other counselors focus their training on helping disabled individuals of all ages lead productive lives. Many work in vocational rehab. Rehabilitation counselors may also be employed by universities.

The mean annual wage in 2011 was $37,070.

Addictions Counseling

Addictions counselors help people whose lives have been impacted by alcohol or drugs. It is possible to get licensing at the entry-level with an undergraduate degree (or even less) but the highest level of credentialing requires a master’s. In fact, CACREP requires 60 units for this discipline.

Sometimes people who have alcohol abuse in their own pasts seek employment as addiction counselors, though this can be a difficult line to walk. Schools and licensing bodies typically require people to have been sober or drug-free for a period of years before they choose the career.

It is not uncommon to pursue addictions counseling in combination with some other form of counseling. After all, addictions impact families – and even school kids.

Pastoral or Faith-Based Counseling

Religion is integral to the lives of many counselors – and to many patients as well. Some faith-based programs meet CACREP accrediting standards and prepare counselors for the same licensing that secular programs do. Others are designed for clergy and religious professionals. A few states do license pastoral counselors separately.

Next Steps to Becoming a Counselor

If you have an idea of what your target population is, you can look for focused volunteer opportunities or employment. The experience can also prepare you to write a stellar application essay down the line.

And if a lot of the options sound good? There’s no penalty for changing your mind about your future work setting. This happens to a lot of people once they get into the field and begin doing practicum work.

If you are a high school student or high school graduate, your first step toward becoming a counselor will be to pursue an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.A psychology degree or human services degree make excellent options, however, it is not required that you earn your undergraduate degree in one of these fields. An undergraduate degree, however, is a necessary step toward a career in counseling since you will need this credential to apply to a master’s program later on.

Click Here to read about Master's in Counseling programs.

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