A master’s degree is typically the minimum requirement to become a licensed counselor; in a master’s program students combine classroom and practical training to learn the advanced knowledge and skills necessary for treating patients, as well as the ethical and legal standards that govern the field. The following guide provides a comprehensive overview of on-campus and online master’s degrees in counseling, including curricula, areas of specialization, graduation requirements, and further resources.

Who Earns an Online Master’s Degree in Counseling?

Although a bachelor’s degree may be enough to find an entry-level job in counseling, a master’s degree is required to open up more career options and advance in the profession. Students may wish to pursue a master’s for several reasons, including:

Licensure

All states require counselors to be licensed to practice, and in most cases a master’s degree is one of the requirements for licensure. To become licensed, counselors must also complete an internship with supervised practical training, one of the key components of a master’s degree program.

Doctoral Degree

A doctoral degree is not required for licensure, but may be desirable for counselors who wish to continue their studies. The PhD and EdD degrees in counseling supervision and education prepare graduates for careers in research and academia. Therefore, some students earn a master’s degree as preparation for a doctoral program.

Higher-Level Position

Non-counseling positions in the mental health field—such as those at drug and alcohol treatment facilities, youth facilities, or crisis intervention units—may not require a license, but applicants may still need a graduate degree to qualify for consideration by potential employers.

Steps to Get into a Master’s in Counseling Program

After deciding to earn a master’s degree in counseling, students need to research different programs to find ones that match their goals, and then review the individual requirements for the schools to which they’d like to apply. Here are some of the common steps involved:

Step 1: Fulfill Prerequisites

Each program will have its own admission requirements, but often students are required to take specific courses, maintain a minimum GPA, or obtain relevant work experience before they can be admitted.

Step 2: Take the GRE

Some schools require students to submit a general GRE (Graduate Record Examination) score; others ask that students take the psychology subject test of the GRE. Some schools may not require these standardized test scores at all; however, students who think their GRE scores represent their ability to succeed in a graduate program may decide to submit them for consideration even if a school does not require it.

Step 3: Obtain Letters of Recommendation

Most schools require three letters of recommendation as part of the application packet. Students usually gather these from undergraduate instructors and/or employers. Letters should include information on a student’s duties and aptitude related to counseling. The earlier students request these letters, the better, as instructors need adequate time to write them.

Step 4: Write a Statement of Purpose

Most programs ask students to submit a statement of purpose of approximately 500 words, describing how students believe a particular program is well-suited to preparing them for their personal and professional goals. Additionally, students should briefly outline how their previous academic, work, and volunteer experiences have contributed to their path toward becoming a professional counselor.

Step 5: Submit the Application

Formal admissions applications must be submitted by the appropriate deadline set by each school, so students should make note of all relevant dates. Applications include several components, and schools won’t consider them until all parts are submitted. Therefore, students should devise a schedule for getting the entire application completed on time.

Step 6: Interview

Depending on the college or university, students may be invited to a group interview with the counseling faculty. Students who live outside the area or those who are applying to an online degree program usually have the option of participating in a phone or Skype interview.

Step 7: Apply for Financial Aid

Students who need financial help to pay for graduate school may fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine eligibility for funding from graduate grants, loans, or scholarships. Other public and private foundations also offer scholarships specifically to students pursuing graduate studies in counseling and related fields.

Master’s in Counseling Program Requirements

It usually takes two years to earn a master’s degree in counseling, but the total time may vary depending on the student’s schedule of coursework and fieldwork, as well as other work or personal commitments. Program requirements and structure differ between colleges and universities, but it’s typical for students to spend the first year taking courses from the core curriculum and completing a supervised practicum experience, and using the second year to complete classes in their specialization, take electives, and participate in an off-site internship. The following section examines common goals, curricula, and other components of a master’s in counseling degree program.

Goals of the Online Master’s Degree in Counseling

  • 1. Meet standards for licensing

    The coursework and experience obtained in a master’s in counseling program is designed to meet the educational standards of various licensing boards, such as the Board of Licensed Professional Counselors, Board of Licensed School Counselors, and Board of Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists.

  • 2. Graduate skilled clinicians

    Graduates should understand the clinical procedures and techniques, assessment methods, and empirical research necessary for clinical practice.

  • 3. Provide fieldwork training

    A variety of fieldwork experiences should prepare graduates to work successfully in mental health agencies, schools, and other healthcare settings.

Master’s in Counseling Sample Core Curriculum

Psychology of Interpersonal Communication Foundation course to strengthen communication skills. Topics include the cultivation of attention, learning to ask questions, confrontation, and empathy.
Couples and Relational Counseling Covers the treatment of problems frequently encountered by couples, with a focus on emotionally based therapy.
Human Development Overview of current research and theories on human development throughout the life span. Emphasis on the factors influencing physical, cognitive, emotional and social development.
Psychotherapy and Personality Examination of the key theories of personality, and the accompanying systems of counseling and psychotherapy. The goal of the course is for students to begin developing a personal theoretical perspective and a unique model of counseling.
Group Counseling Introduction to the theory and practice of group counseling. Training includes establishing, leading, and evaluating groups of various types. Topics include theoretical approaches, basic principles, group developmental stages and member roles.
Substance Abuse Counseling Covers the personal, social, emotional, physiological and environmental factors related to addictions, particularly chemical addictions. Also examines professional, ethical and legal issues in the field of substance abuse counseling.
Ethical and Legal Issues Study of legal and ethical issues that emerge in counseling, including confidentiality, clients’ rights and mediation.
Human Sexuality Covers sexual development and educational issues applicable to the field of professional counseling. Topics include being comfortable with one’s sexuality, assisting parents with teaching sexual education to their children, and diagnosing and treating sexual dysfunction.
Evidence-Based Practices to Psychotherapy Examination of research and clinical techniques relevant to evidence-based practice in psychotherapy. Covers cognitive, behavioral, person-centered, and psychodynamic techniques.
Counseling Paradigms Overview of major paradigms of psychotherapy, both established and evolving, and how they influence counseling theory and practice. Students will be able to demonstrate concepts and therapeutic skills that underpin counseling.
Assessment in Counseling Examines group and individual appraisal techniques used to support career, educational, and personal development. Topics include methods of collecting information, assessing the validity and reliability of data, psychometric statistics, factors influencing appraisals, and interpretation of results.

Additional Counseling Master’s Degrees Requirements

In addition to basic coursework, students must also complete several hundred hours of fieldwork, sometimes within a specialization. Working under the close direction of a site supervisor and college faculty instructor, students use field training experiences to ensure that core theories and skills are well understood and effectively put into practice. Students usually complete:

  • 300 hours in a clinical practicum during the first year
  • 400-600 hours in an internship at an external field site during the second year

Most programs also require students to pass a comprehensive examination to graduate. In some cases, students may submit a thesis instead. Depending on the school, the comprehensive examination may include more than just a written examination. For example, students may be evaluated on their performance during an actual counseling session, and may present a paper on the case.

Counseling Concentrations and Areas of Emphasis

Clinical Counseling Specialization

Clinical mental health counselors help clients deal with a wide spectrum of mental and emotional disorders, and promote mental health and wellness. Students who choose this specialization receive in-depth training in clinical issues and treatment planning, taking courses such as the following:

Assessment/Diagnosis & Psychopathology Fundamentals of psychopathology and assessment. Topics include differential diagnosis, diagnostic skills, clinical interviewing, treatment modalities, dual diagnoses, multicultural considerations, and diagnosis during a crisis.
Counseling for Contemporary Problems Overview of the psychosocial factors and dynamics involved in addressing child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse and addiction.
Clinical Therapeutic Interventions with Children Explores a broad range of therapeutic intervention techniques for children and families. Focus on play therapy.
Measurement and Treatment Planning In-depth examination of the content and process of developing written treatment plans for individuals, couples, and families.

Marital and Family Therapy (MFT) Specialization

Marriage and Family Therapists diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples and family systems. Students in an MFT program learn to analyze, synthesize and evaluate the theoretical and practice issues relevant to family dynamics and systems theory. Core courses usually include:

Assessment/Diagnosis in Marriage and Family Therapy Provides a background in diagnosis and assessment, including skills necessary to conduct a relational assessment review, as well as the development of assessment skills through the use of family sculpture, genograms, role play, and exercises.
Couples Counseling Examination of assessment techniques and intervention options useful in the treatment of couples in crisis.
Introduction to Marriage and Family Therapy Survey of the history of marriage and family counseling/therapy, including its establishment and development. Topics include current trends and issues in MFT.
Advanced Marriage and Family Therapy Designed to strengthen students’ theoretical understanding, as well as the application of family therapy.

School Counseling Specialization

School counselors help students with academic achievement, social development, and career development. Students in a school counseling program learn how to advocate for the personal, educational, and social needs of students, developing their skills through courses such as these:

Assessment/Diagnosis in School Counseling Focuses on the selection, administration, interpretation, and statistical understanding of standardized tests that measure aptitude, achievement, and personal-social adjustment.
Contemporary Issues in School Counseling Development and Supervision Overview of current school counseling issues, with a special emphasis on development, administration, and evaluation of comprehensive school counseling programs for students K-12.
Psychology of Exceptional Children Overview of the range of exceptional characteristics and their effects on learning. Focus on the physical, mental, emotional, behavioral, and social traits of children and adolescents, as well as pertinent federal and state legislation that governs how such students are treated in the school environment.
Introduction to Educational Research and Statistics Explores a wide range of research methods used in education. Topics include traditions, theories, approaches, and applications of qualitative and quantitative research methods.

The Online Master’s Degree in Counseling

For students who want convenience and flexibility, an online master’s degree in counseling degree program is often the answer. Online programs can be ideal for busy professionals who need to schedule classes around work and family responsibilities. With a computer and Internet connection, students can take classes from home, the library or local coffee shop, and even when traveling.

Scheduling

There are three main online learning formats:

  • Synchronous

    Classes involve live communication such as teleconferencing or chatting online.

  • Asynchronous

    There are regular deadlines (typically weekly) to complete assignments, but students work at their own pace.

  • Hybrid

    Courses are a combination of the asynchronous and synchronous formats. Students may also combine on-campus with online classes.

The synchronous format is ideal for counseling coursework because communication is so important. However, in most online counseling programs coursework is delivered in a combination of formats, with one to two academic residencies spaced throughout.

Faculty

Without an experienced, high-level faculty, no degree program can be successful. It is especially true in the online classroom, where faculty must deliver comprehensive training in a non-traditional setting. Before enrolling in a master’s degree in counseling program, students should find out as much about the faculty as possible. Ideally, faculty members should be licensed professionals who have substantial work experience in school counseling, marriage and family therapy, clinical counseling, and other specialty areas.

Student Services

Because students in an online program aren’t able to access student services on-campus, it’s important for these services to be available virtually. For example, most online programs have a career services center, 24/7 technical assistance, personal advisers, and library/research support.

Academic Residencies

It is not unusual for a master’s in counseling program to require students to fulfill academic residency requirements to create personal interaction. Typically, students will take part in one or two residencies throughout the program, during which they visit the school’s campus or meet at another location. This provides the opportunity to meet face-to-face with professors and peers in the program.

Technology

The most successful master’s in counseling programs offer state-of-the-art learning technologies such as high-tech interactive videos, simulations, and presentations.

Field Experiences

Depending on the program, students receive different levels of assistance in finding a fieldwork experience. Some schools require students to locate a site that provides the types of activities, numbers of clients, and supervision criteria to meet the program requirements, while other programs handle the placement process directly.

Online Master’s in Counseling Q&A

Do licensing organizations recognize online programs?

Yes. The state licensure boards for counseling professions only require applicants to earn a degree from an accredited school, be it on-campus or online. Reputable online counseling programs are accredited by one or more accreditation agencies.

Is the academic quality the same?

Although academic content will vary by program, the overall quality of a program often can be determined by looking at its accreditation status, which is conferred regardless of whether it is online or offered in a traditional campus setting. Students should look for those that are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP), the recognized body for accreditation.

How do I get the face-to-face experience required for this degree?

This issue is a common concern among prospective students, who wonder if an online environment can adequately prepare them for a profession that demands such a high level of interpersonal communication. Fortunately, most online counseling programs require students to complete an internship and/or practicum, as well as a residency, to meet the need for face-to-face interaction. Some schools offer virtual fieldwork experiences as well, allowing students to observe and learn from experts through streaming media.

How do I collaborate with instructors and other students?

Technology makes it easy for students to communication with peers and faculty through chat rooms, email, videoconferencing, and interactive programs. Many classes are designed so that students are online simultaneously to communicate, and instructors may offer online office hours, as well.

Finding the Right Online Master’s Degree in Counseling Program

With so many online programs available, how do students choose the right program for their needs? Here are some issues to consider before making a decision:

Specialty Areas

While some schools offer a basic master’s in counseling degree curriculum, others allow students to specialize in areas like Marriage and Family Therapy, School Counseling, or Clinical Counseling. Make sure the school you choose offers the specialization you want.

Support Services

Research programs to find out the different ways they approach online learning support. Is there an orientation session? Are resources available around the clock?

Communication

A good program allows for a constant exchange of ideas, insights, and experiences. Students should ask about what types of residencies are offered or required, and investigate how faculty members ensure that students receive the necessary attention and do not get lost in the crowd.

Internship Opportunities

Internships are key to providing hands-on experience, but not every one will be a good fit for every individual. Look into the different types of internships that are available, and the settings in which they occur. It’s also helpful to find a program that will assist you in setting up your practicum or internship.

Success Rates

The underlying purpose of any online counseling program is to prepare students for the workplace. Check to see what percentage of students graduate from the program, and what percentage find work shortly after graduation. What kinds of jobs did they get? If possible, speak with alumni about their satisfaction with the program. It’s also useful to look for schools that have a professional network in place, and that provide job placement assistance.

Resources for Counseling Students