Steps to Obtaining Counselor Certification

If you derive satisfaction from helping others and if you are compassionate, non-judgmental, and can inspire the trust and confidence of others, becoming a counselor may be the right career choice for you. Counselors work in a variety of fields, providing support, rehabilitation, and counseling services in diverse settings. Counselors’ duties vary according to their area of expertise, expertise that requires them to recognize their clients’ issues and provide them with appropriate levels of support. It is important for anyone interested in becoming a counselor to understand the different types of counseling jobs available, as well as the training, education, and counselor certification requirements associated with each field.

In general, becoming a counselor requires significant training and education. Individuals who aspire to become counselors need to first obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree which can take several more years to complete. In order to be fully qualified to practice as a counselor, the individual must obtain state licensure. Obtaining a state license requires a certain number of hours worked and satisfactorily passing an examination in accordance with state requirements. Another professional credential most counselors obtain is certification in their counseling area of expertise.

Some counseling jobs, for example financial counselors, do not require a state license for the counselor to legally be able to practice. While, professionally, they should have at least a four-year college degree, financial counselors can supplement their education and credentials by obtaining a counselor certification from an accredited institution.

Most counselors obtain their certification at the national level, most typically from a nationally recognized organization such as the National Board for Certified Counselors or the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification.

The road to obtaining a professional certification requires both a time and financial commitment and investment. The return on this investment, however, is excellent, since the individual who has successfully obtained his counselor certification not only has more career options available to him (along with greater earnings potential), but also demonstrates to his clients and colleagues that he has met all state and national standards of his profession – something that should engender trust and confidence in anyone who seeks their services. To maximize the return on this investment, however, an aspiring counselor should thoroughly research all the steps necessary to obtaining a professional counselor certification.

Choosing a Specialty

Steps to Obtaining Counselor Certification

Once you have made the decision to become a counselor, your next step is to decide which field of counseling you will enter. There are many different types of counselors, so it is important to understand the various duties and responsibilities each type of counselor performs in order to make an informed decision. Depending on a counselor’s area of expertise, the duties vary considerably; they are primarily determined by the work place environment and the people they support.

If you enjoy working in an educational environment, you should consider becoming either a school or career counselor. School counselors help students ranging from elementary to high school age and beyond. These counselors may be required to obtain both counseling and teaching certifications. As a school counselor, you would work with students to evaluate their interests, talents, and abilities to help them develop appropriate educational and career objectives. At the high school level, counselors help students with college and career planning. School counselors advocate for students and promote their social and academic development. School counselors also provide specialized support such as alcohol and drug prevention programs. Career counselors, also known as vocational counselors, help individuals to develop their job skills and help them locate and apply for jobs. These counselors may also provide support to people who have lost their job or need to transition to a new career. In both instances, these counselors provide the necessary support strategies to help their students and clients succeed.

Many types of counselors are required to have a master’s degree, counselor certification, and state licensure. One type is rehabilitation counselors who help individuals, their families, and employers manage the effects that physical and emotional disabilities have on the individual. These counselors evaluate what the individual can and cannot do and provide the necessary personal or vocational counseling. If needed, the rehabilitation counselor will arrange for medical services. In general, rehabilitation counselors strive to increase an individual’s ability to live and work independently and coordinate whatever additional services are needed to that end.

Mental health counselors, who are also highly trained and educated, support individuals with mental or emotional disorders. These counselors treat individuals who may be depressed or suicidal, people with substance abuse or addictions, or those who may have anxiety or stress issues. Mental health counselors provide services in conjunction with other health specialists such as psychiatrists.

Substance abuse counselors and behavioral disorder counselors deal with clients who may have alcohol or drug addictions, or perhaps eating or gambling disorders. These counselors must also be certified and licensed. They help their clients to identify and manage the problems that drive them to addiction. Counseling can be done on an individual or group basis, and the individual is taught how to develop healthy habits.

Marriage, relationship, and family counselors, also licensed and certified, help individuals and families understand how they perceive and interact with other people. Emphasis is placed on improving communication between and among family members and other treatments that enhance interpersonal relationships.

Social workers are also required to be certified. These counselors offer guidance to people who are suffering through a crisis. Social workers can help clients obtain government funds, housing, education, or other necessary treatment. They can also work with individuals ranging from abused children to an elderly person who has lost a spouse.

There are many more types of counselors. Many require professional certification. It is up to you, as an aspiring counselor, to decide the field of counseling you wish to enter and take steps to understand the educational, certification, and licensing requirements to be able to practice.

Identify Prerequisites to Obtaining Certification

One primary prerequisite for anyone interested in becoming a counselor is a desire to help others who are struggling with life or emotional issues. Counselors treat and teach people how to deal with marriage and family problems, financial difficulties, obsessive behaviors, mental troubles, employment and career matters, and much more. Counselors must be emotionally strong, highly ethical, and inspire the trust and confidence of the people they help. Being a respected, effective counselor, however, requires more than just an ability to listen; a counselor should also have relevant training, education, experience, and counselor certification.

At the high school level, most students have not yet made a decision about their lifelong career. By taking a well-rounded course curriculum of biology, algebra, computer, social studies, and English, however, they should be sufficiently prepared when they enter college. Other pertinent courses include sociology, psychology, speech, and classes relating to the health and/or medical professions.

Once in college, you should take classes in psychology, sociology, and social work in order to obtain a bachelor’s degree. At this point you will be well-equipped to finally focus on one specific type of counseling and to enter into a master’s degree program where you will take more narrowly focused courses. Most graduate schools will require prospective students to take and obtain a certain minimum score on the graduate record examination (GRE). Similarly, the graduate school and program you select may also require a minimum grade point average at the undergraduate level for admittance. A portion of your master’s work will include performing a certain number of practical hours, always under the supervision of a licensed counselor.

Some types of counselors have more specialized prerequisites. One such example is a genetic counselor. These health counselors help individuals and families understand genetic disorders, so they can learn how to treat and deal with the disorder. In order to become a genetic counselor, you will need to enter a two-year Master’s of Science degree program. You should have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university and have taken courses in biology, chemistry, psychology, and statistics. Once enrolled in the master’s program, you will need to take specific courses and maintain a minimum grade point average, typically a 3.0. You will also be required to complete clinical internships and write a research-based thesis.

Pastoral counselors also have unique education requirements, as they must train and develop in the areas of both counseling and ministry. To become a certified pastoral counselor you may need to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, a professional degree from a seminary, and a master’s or doctorate degree in the mental health field. With their extensive education, pastoral counselors can apply for National Certified Counselor certification, or they can apply to the National Board for Certified Pastoral Counselors, both independent and voluntary credentials that allow counselors to distinguish themselves professionally.

School and guidance counselors must also receive extensive education and training in order to meet state and national certification requirements. State certification is mandatory, while national certification is voluntary. Public school systems typically require counselors to have at least a master’s degree that includes coursework in individual and group counseling, professional and career development and orientation, human growth and development, a supervised practicum and internship, and more. Aspiring counselors should, however, confirm all prerequisites for certification from their respective state’s board of education. Many states also require counselors to possess their teaching certification and several years of teaching experience.

Prerequisites for certification in mental health, marriage and family, substance abuse and behavioral disorder, and rehabilitation counselors are similar in that individuals aspiring to careers as one of these types of counselors should have a bachelor’s degree in an area such as psychology, social work, or sociology. From here, they will enter an accredited master’s program where they will take more specialized courses such as addictions counseling, marriage and family therapy, gerontology counseling, agency or community counseling, or clinical mental health counseling. These master’s programs also typically require a certain number of semester hours of supervised clinical practicum in counseling. These counselors most typically obtain certification at the national level from an organization such as the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Minimal NBCC certification requirements include a master’s degree in counseling, 3000 hours of counseling work experience, and 100 hours of supervision over a two-year period after obtaining the master’s degree, and a passing score on the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE).

Regardless of the type of counselor you wish to be, you will be making a significant time and financial investment as you pay for undergraduate and graduate degrees, qualifying examinations for school, professional licensing, and counselor certification. Those who succeed, however, will reap the benefits in the form of a very rewarding career.

How Much Time Will Be Required?

There are many factors to consider when deciding to become a counselor. One of those factors includes the time commitment needed to obtain your college degree and counselor certification. To become a counselor, you must complete your formal education, prepare and take any necessary certification examinations, and obtain state licensure in the state where you wish to practice. In some instances you will also be required to perform a certain number of hours of supervised clinical work. Depending on which counseling field you intend to enter, your education requirements will vary. Similarly, every state has its own counselor certification and licensing requirements, so it is important for the individual to understand how significant a time commitment is required on their part in order to obtain all the necessary education and training credentials to be able to legally practice their profession. The educational requirements can vary among the different counseling fields.

School counselors work with children at any level within the education system performing functions ranging from evaluating a student’s special needs to advising teens on college and career planning. School counselors must have state-level certification which typically requires a master’s degree and a teacher’s license. The master’s degree should have accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and related Educational Programs (CACREP). CACREP accreditation ensures that the counselor’s education has met very high training standards. Depending on the state or individual school district, in addition to completing a two-to-three year master’s program, the counselor may also be required to have between two and five years of teaching experience.

Marriage and family counselors work with couples and families to help them identify those problems that negatively impact their relationship, and then teach them how to manage those issues constructively. After completing a four-year bachelor’s program, the individual will then complete a two- to three-year master’s program, typically majoring in psychology. These counselors must accumulate two years, or 3000 hours, of supervised clinical experience and then pass a state-recognized exam.

Substance abuse and behavioral counselors help individuals, families, and therapy groups who are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. They also help individuals with gambling problems and eating disorders. These counselors must first complete their four-year bachelor’s degree, and subsequently graduate from a two-year master’s degree program in psychology. They must also complete up to three years, or 6000 hours, of supervised clinical work. For a counselor to obtain certification for treating alcohol and drug abuse, they must have three to five years or supervised work and up to 500 contact hours of additional training or education. Specializing in the treatment of gamblers or people with eating disorders requires up to an additional year of training, and certification can be obtained within another year.

Social workers help people deal with and solve their life problems such as disability, disease, unemployment, or spousal abuse. Social workers work in schools, government agencies, hospitals, or clinics. Because of the counseling and other specialized support they provide, social workers must have extensive educational training. In some cases, a four-year bachelor’s degree may be all that is needed to perform social work, although some positions require a graduate degree, a license, and a certification. A master’s degree usually takes two years to complete and also requires at least 900 hours of supervised field work or interning. Anyone wishing to perform research or teach at the university level will need at least another two years to complete a doctorate degree. Most states require licensure, which includes two years, or completing 3,000 hours, of supervised clinical work.

Choose The Right Program For You

Once you have decided to become a counselor you will need to weigh and consider a number of other factors when selecting the specific type of counselor you wish to become. While counselors share a common personality trait, that of a genuine desire to help people, an individual counselor’s other interests and skills may make them better suited for one type of counseling over another.

In light of the wide variety of counseling professions from which to choose, a career counselor may be able to help you narrow down your selection by presenting the pros and cons for each of the types of counseling fields that interest you. If you are presently in school, whether it is high school or college, you should have direct access to a guidance or career counselor who can provide assistance. Many online websites offer career advice and information including tests that help you narrow down a list of careers for which you are suited. These tests will help you better understand the responsibilities of each type of job as well as the training and education you will need for a given career. By investing some time to research your options, you will be more likely to pinpoint the counseling career that is suited to your own needs and professional objectives.

It can't be stressed enough that the educational requirements for aspiring counselors are extensive, so you must be prepared to accept both the time commitment and the financial responsibilities that accompany this career. In general, counselors must possess a minimum of a four-year bachelor’s degree, although many have a master’s degree, which requires an additional two to three years of schooling at the graduate level. Of course, a doctoral degree is the premier educational attainment, and acquiring one takes a lot of time, discipline, and hard work. (Here's the handbook for a doctorate in counseling at one university.) In addition to obtaining professional counselor certification, many counselors must also prepare for and take licensing examinations, all of which have associated costs.

Many counselors, such as mental health counselors, marriage, family and relationship counselors, and behavioral counselors help individuals, families, and groups who are struggling with any number of lifestyle issues and personal or emotional problems. A career as a mental health counselor is right for you if you are interested in psychology, sociology, and social work. You may need to continue your education beyond the master’s degree level to obtain a doctorate degree, and be willing to spend significant time performing research for a doctoral dissertation. While counselor certification is voluntary, many mental health counselors obtain national certification from the National Board of Certified Counselors. To prepare for this, you will need to perform an internship and pass a written examination.

Perhaps you are interested in a more narrowly-focused counseling career. Some options include abortion counselor, grief counselor, pastoral counselor, sexual trauma and assault counselor, and even a navy counselor. In addition to obtaining a college degree, these types of counselors also require continuing education coursework in their area of specialty.

Work environment is another factor to consider when choosing a counselor profession. Depending on the career, counselors can work in elementary or high schools, vocational schools or college placement offices, community and mental health agencies, hospitals, prisons or detention centers, medical offices, or even a private office.

Counselors typically help people deal with conflict resolution, interpersonal communications, human growth and development. Job loss, changes in healthcare options, and school issues are just a few of the factors that contribute to an ongoing need for expert advice, so the job outlook for aspiring counselors is good. Once you have made the decision to become a counselor, weigh the other factors when deciding what type of counseling profession to enter.

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