A State by State Counselor Guide

Undergraduate Preparation for a Counseling Graduate Program and Career

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People decide to enter the counseling field at many stages, and they do so with undergraduate majors in many different fields. There is no one path you need to follow. Still, if you know early in your undergraduate career that you want to go into counseling, there are steps you can take that will make you a more competitive candidate.

A Bachelor's Degree in Psychology is a common undergraduate degree choice for future counselors. Read up on and find undergraduate Psychology degree programs here.

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Program Prerequisites

One thing you will want to do is visit the websites of different programs or request information from them. Some programs do have prerequisites. This happens more often with specialty counseling programs than with traditional mental health or rehabilitation counseling, though some general programs do require social science coursework. Counseling psychology programs often require psychology courses. Counseling programs that include a specialty in a creative arts therapy field may have quite a lot of prerequisites; these include performance or studio classes. Some even state that students should have an undergraduate major in one of several related fields.

In some states, you can't become a school counselor without a teaching background. In the majority, though, you can. Some schools favor candidates who do have backgrounds in education or a related social service field. If you have enough experience outside the classroom, this may be adequate.

Academic Performance

Master’s programs in counseling often set a minimum undergraduate GPA somewhere between 2.7 and 3.0. They may note that exceptional candidates will be considered with less. You are more likely to be given consideration if you’ve distinguished yourself in the years since graduation.

If you’ve taken any graduate courses, you may be expected to have a GPA above 3.0. Candidates sometimes have the option of enrolling in a few graduate courses before formal admission to the master’s program; some find it to their advantage to do so. Unlike in medicine or psychology, sciences courses are not typically given special consideration.

Many, but not all, graduate counseling programs require candidates to take the GRE or MAT. Some have formulas for determining academic aptitude based on both GPA and test scores.

Real World Experience

One reason to consider a degree in social sciences or human services is that you may have more opportunities for internships and paid employment before graduate school. This can look good on your resume when you do apply. Technician level mental health positions (for example, working with youth in a residential setting) often go to candidates who have not completed graduate school. Many states even certify individuals who have less than a master’s education in counseling-related positions. Substance abuse counseling is often a possibility.

You may want to join the Health Occupations Students of America. You can explore virtually any health profession while simultaneously developing your speaking skills.

You may look to your state’s Department of Mental Health for volunteer or paid employment options. Another good resource is your state or local division of Mental Health America.

As a prospective school counselor, you may want to spend a year as a volunteer for a program like Americorps or City Year. You may tutor individuals and small groups – in the process, you’ll learn a little about classroom management. There’s an opportunity to earn scholarship money as well as a small living stipend.

The Application Process

As you complete your paid or volunteer work experience, you’ll have the opportunity to cultivate professional relationships and impress prospective references. Graduate programs typically ask for three references. It’s better if you’ve known them a while.

Another typical requirement is an essay or personal statement. The committee is looking for several things: written expression, aptitude, and commitment to the profession.

If an initial review indicates that you have what it takes to succeed as a counselor, you will likely be asked to come to campus for an interview. This can be an opportunity to demonstrate your commitment, maturity, and communication skills.

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