How Long Does It Take to Become a Counselor?

If you like helping others cope with challenges in their lives, you may find counseling to be a satisfying career. The American Counseling Association (ACA) describes professional counselors as “mental health service providers who have earned graduate-level degrees and are trained to work with individuals, families, and groups in treating mental, behavioral, and emotional problems and disorders.”

Various factors affect how long it takes to become a counselor. Licensure requirements, including minimum hours for supervised clinical experience, vary by state.

How Many Years Does It Take to Become a Counselor?

It can take several years to become a professional counselor. Master’s degree holders are required to receive state licensure to be a mental health counselor. The length of time to complete a graduate program depends on whether you attend full time or part time. So, exactly how many years does it take to become a counselor? There’s no easy answer, and it takes specialized training and experience.

Clinical Internships and practica within the program also can affect how long it takes to become a counselor. After those are completed, criteria vary by state for post-graduate supervised clinical experience or other internship experience.  

How to Become a Counselor

Research and planning can help identify factors to consider as you explore how to become a counselor. Because counselors typically work with individuals, families, and groups, they usually possess strong interpersonal skills including compassion, patience, listening, and speaking abilities.

Steps to Become a Counselor

To enter the field, steps to become a counselor are as follows: Earn a bachelor’s degree, which is a prerequisite to master’s in counseling programs, according to the ACA. Obtaining a master’s degree is necessary to receive licensure or some other form of state credential and practice as an independent professional counselor. Individual state requirements will vary and are subject to change, including licensure standards, exam eligibility, and appropriate pathways, and may differ based on individual student backgrounds. Students should do their own due diligence to determine the appropriate pathway and license type for themselves.

Here are some more details about each step:

Earn Your Master’s Degree in Counseling

On-campus and online formats for full-time and part-time programs are available if you want to pursue a master’s degree in counseling. Those options provide flexibility to recent undergraduates and professionals who are interested in making a career switch without moving to a different location or leaving their current occupations. Some schools offer accelerated online master’s degree programs, which can take just 18 months to complete compared to about three years for more traditional programs.

Earning a degree in mental health counseling from an institution accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) indicates the program’s content and quality meet the high standards set forth by the mental health profession. Though CACREP is the widely preferred accreditor, a CACREP-accredited degree is not required in every state and there may be other accreditors for specific degree specializations. Aspiring counselors should check with their state board for more information.

The ACA says professional counselors typically will have a master’s or doctoral degree in one of these areas: addiction counseling, career counseling, clinical mental health counseling, community agency counseling, marriage, couple and family counseling, school counseling, student affairs and college counseling, gerontological counseling, or counselor education and supervision.

Complete the Counseling Practicum or Internship Hours 

If you pursue a master’s degree in counseling, plan to spend time completing internships, practica, and supervised clinical requirements. While program criteria varies, the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accredits programs that require a minimum of 100 hours for practicum and, after those hours are completed, another 600 hours for internships.

Before achieving full licensure to practice independently, graduates will need to obtain an initial license, which allows the individual to be supervised by a licensed independent practitioner in post-graduate practice and can be thought of as a provisional professional license. State licensure requirements for mental health counselors typically include supervised clinical experience ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 hours (two to four years).

Pass Any Required Counseling Exams for Licensure

Counselors are required to pass a recognized counseling examination for licensure such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and/or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Some states may have additional examination requirements for licensure, such as state-specific law exams, which aspiring counselors should become familiar with, depending on the state in which they intend to pursue licensure.  

Become a Licensed Counselor

Once aspiring counselors pass the appropriate examinations, receive required supervised hours, and meet additional requirements in the state they wish to practice, they can apply for licensure. This will be considered as an independent practice license. Specific licensing requirements vary between states.

Earn Your Online Master’s in Counseling Degree with Northwestern University

You can earn an online master’s in counseling degree from Counseling@Northwestern. The CACREP-accredited online Master of Arts in Counseling Program at Northwestern offers options as far as pacing, with students able to earn their degrees in 18 months to three years. 

Graduates of Northwestern’s Master of Arts in Counseling Program receive the skills and knowledge to become effective clinical mental health counselors. The scope of their practice varies by state, but most can diagnose and treat mental health concerns. Licensed counselors may work in agencies or in private practices, and they can receive third-party insurance reimbursement.

If you feel called to make a difference in the world and want to positively impact people’s lives, becoming a clinical mental health counselor might be the career path for you.

Last updated February 2022.