What Is the Fastest Way to Become a Counselor?


Updated June 5, 2024

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Counselor speaking in group therapy session Credit: FluxFactory / E+ / Getty Images

If you want a career in helping others, you’ll likely want to start making a difference as soon as possible. While there are no shortcuts to becoming a professional counselor, you can follow some tips for completing requirements more quickly.

Learn the fastest way to become a counselor by completing the necessary licensure requirements with accelerated programs, transfer credits, and provisional licensure.

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The Fastest Pathway to Becoming a Counselor

Each state has different requirements for becoming a counselor. The fastest way to become a counselor is to earn a master's degree, complete supervised experience requirements, and pass a national licensing exam. Here are some ways to speed up the process.

  1. 1

    Earn a Bachelor's in Counseling or a Related Field.

    You can accelerate earning a bachelor's degree by entering the program with advanced placement (AP) or other college credits from dual enrollment or previous college experience, enabling you to graduate early. Typically, earning your bachelor's degree takes four years, but you may be able to finish a semester or even a year early with existing credits. Be sure that a school accepts your previous credits before applying, and ask your admissions counselor how many are eligible for transfer.

  2. 2

    Earn a Master's in Counseling or a Related Field.

    You may be eligible for advanced standing, such as a joint bachelor's-master's or accelerated program. Most master's programs take approximately two years, but you may be able to finish an accelerated degree in 12-18 months with an accelerated program.

  3. 3

    Complete Post-graduate Supervision Requirement.

    In some states, you may be eligible for a non-clinical counselor license when you practice under a licensed clinical counselor to complete your supervised experience requirements. Many states also allow people with undergraduate counseling degrees to become certified in substance use counseling. However, while these career pathways allow you to become a counselor faster, they limit your scope of practice and career options.

  4. 4

    Apply for Licensure with Your State Board.

    You can apply for licensure through your state's counseling licensure board when you meet all the eligibility requirements. The American Counseling Association publishes a list of state-specific eligibility guidelines. Use it to reference the basic guidelines in your state and for reference and to find links to your state's counselor licensing agency. Each state board will have specific guidelines letting you know the earliest you can apply. Review your state's documentation requirements in advance to speed up the process. Prepare as much of your application ahead of time as possible and collect additional documentation as soon as it becomes available. Then, once you're eligible, gather your application materials and send them in right away.

  5. 5

    Pass Your National Licensing Examination.

    Licensure candidates must pass the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), depending on their state, license, and education level. Either way, you'll want to pass your licensing exam on the first try. Start studying early, take advantage of available prep resources, and schedule your exam as soon as you become eligible.

Alternative Pathways to Becoming a Counselor

You can also explore other counseling careers with fewer requirements. In some states, becoming a substance use counselor, peer counselor, or career counselor is the fastest way to become a counselor. These careers still require formal professional training, such as certification, an undergraduate degree, or some college courses.

Become a Certified Counselor With a Bachelor's Degree

Some states allow you to become a certified licensed counselor with an associate or bachelor's degree in a counseling-related field. The steps to becoming a certified counselor are similar to those required for becoming a licensed counselor.

Typically, you must take the coursework required by your state board, complete an internship and clinical hours, pass the examination, and have a signed supervision agreement with a licensed counselor.

However, in this role, you will have a limited scope of practice and must work under a licensed counselor. Counselors at the undergraduate level cannot diagnose, assess, or treat mental health conditions, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

Work in a Counseling Field That Does Not Require Licensure

Some counseling-related careers are not regulated. While you cannot call yourself a professional counselor without a state license, you can still use your skills.

For example, working at a youth organization such as a Boys & Girls Club can involve giving advice and guidance. Life coaches also do not need state licensure, though earning certifications or having a related degree can make you more competitive.

Entering a non-regulated career is the fastest way to become a counselor. However, you can not diagnose and provide treatment for mental health conditions without a license in counseling.

Requirements for Becoming a Counselor

Regulations vary by state, but most require a master's degree, supervised experience, and a national examination to become a licensed counselor. You may also need to pass a jurisprudence examination on your state's laws and regulations.

The Difference Between a Licensed and Certified Counselor

Many aspiring counselors need clarification on the difference between licensing and certification. Here's a more detailed breakdown:

Frequently Asked Questions About the Fastest Way to Become a Counselor

How long does it take to become a counselor?

Becoming a licensed professional counselor requires six years of college education and approximately 1-3 years of supervised experience. Other counseling careers, such as substance use counselors, require less education and do not require licensing. According to state regulations, these certified mental health professionals have a smaller scope of practice and cannot diagnose or treat mental health conditions.

You can become a counselor online by earning an online degree, but you must complete your required fieldwork hours in person. Many counseling programs will help you arrange internship opportunities locally, so ask your admissions advisor if their program offers that assistance.

A bachelor's degree may qualify you for state certification in your state. With state certification, you can work in a supporting role under a fully licensed counselor. However, you'll need at least a master's degree plus a full state license to run an independent practice or to diagnose and treat mental health conditions.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for counselors is $53,710. Location, license level, scope of practice, and highest degree greatly impact how much counselors make. Each state has a different cost of living and different regulations for licensure and scope of practice.

Page last reviewed on June 3, 2024

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