The American Counseling Association describes counseling as the act of developing a professional relationship with clients to help them achieve mental health and well-being, as well as accomplish their educational and career goals. Becoming a counselor requires a specific preparatory path that includes academic training, clinical experiences, professional examinations, and licensure.

Counseling Licensure

There are several types of professional counselors, including the following:

  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC)
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor-Supervising (LPCC-S)
  • Licensed School Counselor (LSC)
  • Licensed Independent Chemical Dependency Counselor (LICDC)

Licensed counselors must earn a master’s degree from a program that meets the standards of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), complete a practicum, and finish an internship in their area of expertise (e.g. clinical mental health, school counseling).

Upon entering the workforce, individuals may specialize in different types and concentrations of counseling. According to the American Counseling Association, there are four major types of counseling:

Individual Counseling

Working with individuals, counselors may help them deal with a range of personal problems, such as depression or substance abuse issues.

Couples Counseling

Couples counselors help both married and unmarried couples to work through their problems or conflicts to establish and maintain healthy relationships.

Family Counseling

Family counselors assist families with an array of issues, such as adoption, divorce, or conflict between siblings.

Group Counseling

Group counselors traditionally work with two or more people, conducting sessions around topics such as substance abuse, depression or anger management.

There are also several professional concentration areas of counseling, such as substance abuse, clinical mental health counseling, school counseling, marriage and family counseling, and career counseling. Typically, most undergraduate counseling degree programs are general in nature and students specialize their studies upon entering a graduate program. However, some institutions may offer bachelor’s degree programs with a specialization of study. Below is an example list:

Substance Abuse Counseling

Prepares students to work with individuals who are dealing with problems caused by addictive behaviors, such as drugs, alcohol or gambling.

School Counseling

Prepares students to work in K-12 educational settings. Working in three areas—academic, career preparation, and personal and social development—school counselors may assist students using individual, family or group counseling settings. Most schools require graduate degrees to work in this capacity, but this can vary according to jurisdiction.

Career Counseling

Degree programs in career counseling prepare graduates to help others identify professional strengths and interests, and fashion an individualized plan for following a career path.

Other specializations include marriage and family counseling and clinical mental health counseling; these advanced fields of study are typically only offered at the graduate level.

Counseling Degrees: Where to Start

The first step for future counselors is completing an undergraduate degree in counseling. These programs are designed to provide students with a foundation in counseling principles and theories, preparing them for entry-level employment or future studies at the graduate level. Students can pursue these programs at either the associate or bachelor’s level.

Associate Counseling Degree Programs

The National Center for Education Statistics reports there are more than 200 associate degree programs in counseling and related fields. Substance abuse and addiction counseling is the most widely available program, with 173 colleges offering programs in the area. Other potential fields of study include:

  • Counseling Psychology
  • Community Health Services and Counseling
  • Mental Health Counseling
  • Vocational and Rehabilitation Counseling

The associate degree can be considered a starting point to a career in counseling. Depending on an individual state’s requirements, an associate degree may meet the certification requirements to practice as a counselor. However, this degree is most commonly used to complete core requirements prior to transferring to a bachelor’s program of study.

In general, associate counseling degree programs provide students with an introduction to the field, with classes being entry-level in nature and covering a broad selection of topics. Students are exposed to some of the skills needed for becoming a practicing counselor, including:

  • Establishing professional relationships with clients
  • Developing basic counseling skills
  • Understanding techniques for assessing and diagnosing clients
  • Developing treatment plans
  • Learning about case management planning
  • Understanding professional codes of ethics

Students usually complete between 60 and 65 credit hours of coursework divided across general education, core requirements, and electives. Curriculum may include the following :

Introduction to Substance Abuse Covers chemical dependency counseling, including theories of biological and cognitive dependence; substance abuse treatment; and an introduction to the process of addiction recovery.
Case Management Students are introduced to the basics of assessment, diagnosis and treatment planning. Classes may cover diagnostic criteria, intake skills, and the development of effective treatment plans.
Individual Counseling An introduction to the theories and techniques of counseling, including the fundamentals of diagnosis and assessment; identifying and implementing treatment strategies; and working with special populations.
Family and Group Counseling Examines the dynamics of counseling in group and family systems. Students explore core concepts and theories in the field; the role of the group counselor; different types of counseling groups; and techniques used in the group treatment process.

Bachelor’s Degree Counseling Programs

Most states require professional counselors to hold a graduate degree, although those with baccalaureate degrees may be able to take entry-level positions as social workers, case managers, or substance abuse counselors. The graduate degree is usually when students focus on a specific area of practice (e.g. marriage and family therapy or substance abuse), but before committing to a specialty, students may get a much broader education at the undergraduate level. Because the number of four-year bachelor’s degree programs in counseling is limited, prospective counselors often choose to complete their degrees in related fields, such as sociology, psychology or social work. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are nearly 190 universities that offer bachelor’s programs in counseling or counseling-related fields. The undergraduate degree, then, is key to providing students with foundational knowledge and skills that will prepare them for entry-level positions, as well as prepare them for the academic rigors of graduate school.

Upon completing a program, students are expected to understand the conceptual frameworks of counseling; the factors influencing human behavior, growth and development; professional and ethical practices; and assessment and research techniques. Bachelor’s in counseling degrees generally require between 120 and 136 credit hours of study to complete, and in most cases, students must also complete a hands-on clinical or practicum requirement. Students may opt for either a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts degree; the curriculum in a Bachelor of Science has a greater focus on science and mathematics, while the Bachelor of Arts is based more in humanities. Example degrees in the field include:

  • Bachelor of Science in Substance Abuse Counseling
  • Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Counseling
  • Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Addiction Counseling

Although curriculum varies by school, the table below includes a brief overview of the types of classes students may expect in a four-year program :

Introduction to Counseling An introduction to the core issues and concepts of counseling, including an overview of theoretical and practical methodologies; a discussion of psychological processes; and trends in the field.
Family Interventions Studies the theories of family counseling and covers the assessment and treatment of family problems through an understanding of family structure and individual experience.
Counseling Strategies Introduces students to different theoretical approaches to counseling therapy and typically includes peer review and practical exercises.
Case Management in Counseling Focuses on goals and strategies of case management, including a review of the case manager’s role, assessment techniques, client services and systems, and problem solving.

Opportunities for Learning Outside the Classroom

Hands-on training is central to preparing counselors for professional practice, and the requisite field experience is a core component of a counseling education. Although limited at the associate level, practicum requirements are standard in bachelor’s degree programs. Students work in a supervised environment, traditionally a community setting, putting their classroom-based knowledge to work in real-world scenarios. Commonly, students complete 180 hours of practicum experience either during the semester or over the summer. A more intensive internship experience usually follows the practicum; in most cases, students are responsible for securing an approved internship site before completing their practica.

Counseling Resources

A host of resources exist for students interested in completing a counseling degree program. Major counseling organizations often allow student members, and offer support services ranging from networking to scholarships. Check out these links for more information: