Guidance Counselor Careers
The nature of the counseling profession is that you have the opportunity to help people become better versions of themselves and see positive change in their lives. One of the most rewarding sub-niches in this field is guidance counseling, because a stated part of the role is to lead young adults through decisions about their future choices and careers.
That’s not to say guidance counselors don’t deal with their fair share of depressing or even heartbreaking situations – these are normal activities for a guidance counselor as well. But, most guidance counselors spend most of their time walking students through classes, extracurricular activities, college choices, and other fun stuff related to their future.
When choosing whether to become a guidance counselor over other types of counseling or therapy careers – or another field entirely – it’s helpful to know exactly what people in this role do, what salary you can expect to earn, and what the path to the profession looks like. If you think this might be the career for you, let’s begin.
What Is a Guidance Counselor?
Guidance counselors, as the name implies, offer guidance to students. This may take the form of helping them plan their schedules, assisting them in finding support for difficult subjects or school situations, discussing career goals and aspirations, helping with social and emotional development, and giving them a shoulder to cry on.
The position is a blend of career counseling and light therapy. Counselors talk students through the changes they’re experiencing – physical, mental, social and emotional – and help them navigate relationships, while at the same time assisting with school decisions, helping with networking and advocating on their behalf with teachers, parents and other adults.
While we typically think of guidance counselors as helping at the high school level and performing the prototypical role of helping students apply to college, the role is far wider-ranging than that. Guidance counselors work with elementary students all the way up through college students, and obviously, their role in that time changes. In the next section, we will look at the different forms the role can take.
What Does a Guidance Counselor Do?
Guidance counselors today are critical parts of the educational sphere. They meet all their students within the first few weeks and months of the school year, and check in with them throughout the year – and often through several years, in the common case of students who stay in the same district throughout their academic education.
Their goal always is to help students be the most adjusted they can possibly be, and make the best possible choices for the future. While counselors spend most of their time speaking with students and helping them plan, however, they also spend a significant amount of time communicating with parents, talking with teachers and other administrators, and completing paperwork. In some cases, they may also help support teachers and other staff at the school.
Guidance counselors have a huge range of duties, and on any given day, may perform any or all of the following:
- Administer and interpret aptitude tests and other assessments
- Identify issues related to school performance, and help brainstorm solutions to them
- Work with students to identify negative thoughts and behaviors and find more positive substitutions
- Counsel individuals and small groups of students about college and career, matching possibilities to student aptitudes and goals
- Help students learn job search and study skills
- Hold sessions related to emotional health, relationships, studying, writing resumes, applying to programs and schools, advocating for themselves, medical wellness and more
- Help students identify trades or other jobs that might be appropriate for them
- Teach students and staff about social or emotional issues, such as bullying or drug use
- Report abuse, neglect and other negative situations to the proper authorities, even if they aren’t sure anything is happening
- Collaborate with parents and teachers to create Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and other methods of helping students with special needs stay on track
- Assist with discipline of students
- Help maintain student records to meet state and federal regulations
- Analyze student data to draw meaningful conclusions that add to the body of educational knowledge
… and more. Depending on what age a guidance counselor works, these tasks will change. At very young ages, for instance, behavior is a much bigger issue and drug use is less of a concern. In older students, social and emotional development often take a backseat to career planning.
The most important part of a guidance counselor’s job, however, is to be flexible and give the student what they need. They base this off of what they personally witness when speaking with and observing students, but also what they hear from teachers, administrators and parents, and what aptitude tests tell them. Based on this, they will develop the best possible strategies to maximize student success, both in the short run and long into the future.
Typical Work Environment & Occupational Challenges
While the nature of the guidance counseling job means they typically work in school settings, guidance counselors do work in a surprisingly wide range of environments. They may work in elementary schools, middle schools, junior highs and high schools, for instance. However, they also work in private schools, academies, Montessori schools, alternative schools, special education facilities, schools and institutions for the mentally ill or developmentally disabled, and other highly specialized organizations.
Guidance counselors may also work at institutions of higher learning, from community colleges where students are earning associate’s degrees all the way up to advising post-doctoral fellows. And sometimes, they go into practice for themselves, offering freelance guidance counseling to students of all ages.
For the most part, no matter where they work, guidance counselors work in similar settings. They usually have an office of their own with a door that closes, to ensure privacy between them and whichever student or group they’re currently working with. However, they also travel around the school to observe classes and programs, and to meet with teachers, parents and administration. They may hold seminars or assemblies in other parts of the school and attend community functions.
They may also work in community and vocational rehabilitation services, in state and local government, or hospitals and other medical facilities. Anywhere children or students are present, a guidance counselor role may be called upon. The challenges of working with student groups are not insignificant: dealing with parents, teachers and regulatory authorities can be daunting; witnessing trauma and emotional stress can be very hard; and the hours can be long, especially amid crisis.
For the most part, guidance counselors work full time. They do, however, have the benefit of summers off. While they don’t typically get a full three month break the way students do, most guidance counselors get at least a month or two of time off during the summer.
Guidance Counselor Salary & Job Outlook
School and career counselors make a good living, slightly higher than other types of counselors. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says the median income for guidance counselors is $60,140 as of May 2022. Jobs are growing at a rate of about 10% which is higher than average for all other industries.
As birth rates rise, and school enrollments continue to increase, it is reasonable to assume that if you get a counseling degree, you will be able to find a job without too much difficulty. Also keep in mind that the stated salary is just an average; people who stay in the field for a decade or more stand a good chance of earning much higher pay.
Guidance Counselor Jobs & Job Description
When it comes right down to it, guidance counselors walk students through their education. This can mean helping them succeed in classes, negotiate relationships, find ways to compensate for difficult home lives and more. Your role will involve speaking with students daily and constantly searching for ways you can improve their lives.
It will also be your responsibility to help identify strengths and weaknesses in each student, addressing their weaknesses with support and suggesting life paths that make the best use of their strengths. Many students do not know what they want to do, and rely on adults to help them consider their options – which is where you come in.
Guidance counselors must rely on a specific knowledge base and set of skills, including:
- A thorough understanding of educational principles, as well as human growth and development
- Firm adherence to the code of ethics
- Comfort discussing difficult topics, such as drug abuse and sex
- The ability to foster academic development in students of all ability levels
- Proficiency in counseling both groups and individuals
- Compassion and empathy, because so many of the people with whom they work are dealing with emotionally and socially stressful situations
- Listening skills, which allow you to hear not only what students are saying, but the real meaning beneath the words
- Communication skills, crucial for building consensus, working with teachers and parents, and coaching students through the many life choices they must make
- Proficiency with data and its uses in the school setting
If you already have many of these skills, or think you would like to develop them, it’s very possible that guidance counseling will be a successful and profitable field for you.
Guidance Counselor Degrees & Education
Guidance counselors must earn a master’s degree in school counseling before they can begin practicing. In some cases, you may be able to get your master’s degree in education and then transition to counseling with a few extra courses, but you are much more likely to succeed if you go to school specifically for counseling.
There are also institutions that may allow you to provide some counseling services without a master’s degree. Data entry and administrative work, or counseling purely on academic grounds, may be allowed with only a bachelor’s degree. However, you will not be able to provide any of the therapeutic counseling services that often make the career so rewarding.
Candidates in counseling programs typically need to complete internships or practicums, in which they practice their skills. In rare cases, you may need classroom experience before you can apply to a counseling program, so check the laws in your state. Upon graduation, you will most likely need to take a board-approved examination to receive your license to practice. The exact licensing body will depend on your jurisdiction; you can find out more from your program. This, however, is not always necessary, so be sure to check the rules of the organization for which you’d like to work.
Guidance counseling is, overall, a rewarding job and an enjoyable one. Most people find the schooling enjoyable as well, especially since you get to do many of the same things you’ll do as a professional: talk with others, plan for the future, and help people. If that sounds like a pretty good way to spend life, you may have found your career.
2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends and salary figures for school and career counselors and advisors are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed July 2023.