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How to Become a School Psychologist or Counselor

School psychologist works with a female student.

If you want to make a difference in students’ lives, consider a career as a school psychologist or a school counselor. You can help students maximize their potential and overcome emotional challenges. School psychologists and counselors both tackle similar problems. However, these professions differ in focus and approach to helping students.

Not sure how to become a school psychologist or counselor? This guide breaks down what school psychologists and counselors do. It will also review how to become either profession with a step-by-step guide. Plus, we break down the expected salaries and opportunities for each profession. Read on to learn more about becoming a mental health professional.

What is a School Psychologist?

Although school psychologists and counselors are similar, they have distinct responsibilities and duties.

A school psychologist identifies mental health issues that affect students. For example, a school psychologist may work with a student experiencing issues related to past trauma or mental health disorders like ADHD.

More specifically, school psychologists help those students who qualify for special services. These professionals have more mental health training and conduct psychological tests. Their other responsibilities may include:

  • Developing individualized education plans for specific students. In this way, they can help those at-risk students succeed, even with their unique difficulties.
  • Collaborate with teachers and parents to practice behavior modification techniques at home and in the classroom.
  • Check-in regularly with assigned students to make sure they progress in their treatment plans.

In essence, school psychologists train as psychoanalytical professionals who help students achieve more. They don’t necessarily focus on career paths or other, more general concerns. They generally develop strong emotional bonds with their assigned students. But their focus is always on at-risk students or those who have mental health issues.

School psychologists find employment with schools, clinics, community health centers, and more. They may also work at colleges or private schools.

What is a School Counselor?

On the other hand, school counselors are more generalized mental health professionals. They serve both the emotional and social needs of students under their care. On top of that, they help students explore career options and identify the best path forward during and after school.

Most school counselors work in offices at the schools where they are employed. Students can visit school counselors either independently or during planned meetings. School counselors may:

  • Coach students regarding behavioral or personal issues
  • Help students prepare for their plans and endeavors
  • Discuss student learning and career preparation progress with teachers and parents
  • Facilitate workshops for social problems like drug prevention or safe sex

The big difference between school counselors and psychologists is that the former works with all students. School psychologists typically only work with students who need specialized psychotherapeutic help.

Still, school counselors play an essential role. Their focus is simply on a different area. Almost every public school and college needs school counselors.

School Psychologist vs. School Counselor Career

Let’s take a closer look at the key differences between school psychologists and school counselors.

School Psychologist

School psychologists typically require more schooling and specialist-level degrees. They have higher levels of responsibility because they help at-risk students with behavioral or mental issues. For instance, they may help students with ADHD or depression achieve academic goals and maintain good habits.

School psychologists may perform the following services during their careers:

  • Provide targeted, one-on-one counseling for students
  • Create detailed support and instruction plans for at-risk or troubled students
  • Identify issues in schools that may contribute to mental health problems for students
  • Evaluate and assess the strengths and needs of individual students
  • Collaborate with parents and faculty to promote mental well-being both at school and at home
  • Research new interventions for academic success for students under their care
  • Promote mental welfare and equality in their schools and colleges
  • Offer crisis support in times of strife or stress

The majority of school psychologists work in public schools. Some, however, work in private schools, universities, mental health clinics, hospitals, or private practices.

School Counselors

Compared to school psychologists, school counselors also require a lot of education. But they do not necessarily need a specialist-level degree. Instead, a generalized master’s degree is usually enough to acquire employment as a school counselor. School counselors focus more on the well-being of the entire student body. In addition to providing emotional and mental counseling services, they also offer career advice for students.

School counselors may perform the following services during their careers:

  • Offer goal-focused counseling for students to help them achieve their goals
  • Participate in group activity planning
  • Help individual students plan their academic journeys, such as taking specific classes or passing AP courses for early college credit
  • Teach interpersonal and social skills
  • Assist with college and career planning
  • Promote mentally healthy and safe learning environments
  • Advocate for the needs and preferences of students to teachers or parents
  • Mediate between student conflicts or conflicts between students and teachers
  • Offer outside referrals and other resources to students
  • Interpret and assess data regarding student test scores and graduation rates
  • Identify issues with school settings or practices that may impact student well-being

Most school counselors work in public schools and colleges, though some work at private schools.

How to Tell Which Career is Right for You

You may determine which career is right for you by considering the responsibilities and necessary skills for each.

For example, suppose you like helping the school’s general student population. In that case, the path of a school counselor may be best. A school psychologist career could be better if you want to help at-risk or needy students.

Furthermore, school psychologists have more technically challenging work. They need to create treatment plans or mental health frameworks for individual students. Thus, they build up deep relationships with their students over time.

School counselors also build meaningful relationships with their students. However, their focus is more general. They help many students over a single year rather than a handful with mental health issues.

You should also consider the educational requirements and certifications necessary to become a school psychologist or counselor. It often takes more time and training to become a school psychologist than a counselor. Therefore, if you wish to begin your career quickly, the path of a school counselor might be a better choice.

How to Become a School Psychologist

Becoming a school psychologist involves acquiring a specific degree, completing special training, and acquiring state-specific certifications. Below we outline the steps on how to become a school psychologist.

1. Acquire A Degree

First, candidates must acquire the right degree for the job. A general master’s degree in education or a related topic will not be enough. Instead, school psychologists must pursue advanced and specialized degrees. These include but are not limited to:

  • Master in Psychology
  • Master in Education (Education Specialist)
  • Master in Education (Psychology Specialist)
  • Ph.D. in Educational Concepts, Therapy, or Counseling
  • PsyD or Doctorate of Psychology
  • EdD or Doctorate of Education

The difference between a standard master’s degree and a specialist degree is the subject matter and time for completion. Most specialist-level master’s or higher degree programs require at least 60 graduate semester hours in the topic at hand. They also require an internship and a certain number of completed practicum hours for graduation. Because of this, most specialist-level degrees take three years of full-time study compared to the two years of full-time study required for most master’s degrees.

Which Degree Do You Need?

Generally, you should pursue a specialized master’s degree in psychology or education if you wish to become a school psychologist. These degrees include a lot of coursework in relevant topics like:

  • Resilience and risk factors
  • How to perform mental health interventions
  • How to make mental health assessments and administer tests
  • Proper learning or academic interventions for patient students
  • Special education techniques and services
  • Mental health crisis recovery and response practices
  • How to perform mental health research and analyze treatment efficacy

A school psychologist is a social scientist in more ways than one. Therefore, these degrees emphasize a more scientific approach to psychology and focus on educational/psychological principles.

Candidates only require a master’s degree at the specialist level to become a school psychologist. However, a doctoral degree is never a bad idea. Doctorate-level degrees often qualify you for positions with greater responsibilities and higher salaries. They are also needed to start your own practice.

In-Person vs. Online Degrees

You should also consider whether to pursue an in-person or online degree. With a specialist degree of this nature, you must fulfill in-person practice hours. Therefore, any online degree will not be 100% online.

Suppose the degree program is far from your home. In that case, you can usually complete your practicum requirements at local clinics or schools. Licensed school psychologists supervise all practice hours.

In-person school psychologist degree programs are better for students who learn more effectively in university environments. However, online degree programs may be best for:

  • Those who have to juggle a busy schedule
  • Students who have to work while completing their degrees
  • Students who wish to attend a prestigious school located far from their home

Aside from the practical or in-person hours, most online degree coursework is asynchronous. You can complete it on your schedule up to the work deadline.

2. Practicum Requirements

School psychologists must acquire a certain number of in-person practice hours before qualifying for licensure in their states of residence. However, each state has its own practicum requirements. School psychologist degree programs usually set their requirements based on the rules of their home states. For instance, a school in California will require graduates to have in-person practice hours based on what the state requires for psychologist licensure.

Generally, this adds up to between one and two years of supervised in-person practice or 1,200 separate hours. Many school psychologist programs include units or classes that allow students to complete some or all of their hours before graduation.

3. Gain Experience

School psychologists must sometimes gain a certain amount of experience in direct teaching or education. This depends on individual state requirements, of course.

For example, Alabama requires school psychologists and counselors to have a minimum of two years of direct service work with elementary or secondary school students. In other words, candidates may need to acquire teaching experience before becoming full-on school psychologists.

4. Acquire Certification for Licensure

School psychologists must acquire certification to practice as psychologists based on state requirements. Most states require psychologists to obtain DOE or Department of Education certification.

These psychologists will, upon acquiring licensure, be able to work as professional psychologists in a public school. This licensure may also expand your career options to include work in private practices or other settings.

However, the tests and certification requirements differ for each state. The National Association of School Psychologists has a detailed breakdown of individual states’ certification rules. Check it out here.

5. Continuing Education

On top of all this education and prep work, school psychologists must acquire continuing education units every one to two years. School psychologists have to attend in-person or online classes depending on state requirements. You will receive continuing education credits upon completing the courses and passing the tests.

The continuing education credits ensure that school psychologists always use up-to-date, modern psychological practices. If a psychologist fails to complete continuing education credits on time, their license may become invalid.

How to Become a School Counselor

Becoming a school counselor is similar to becoming a school psychologist. However, the educational requirements and necessary certifications differ significantly.

1. Acquire A Degree

Like school psychologists, school counselors must acquire a graduate degree. The degree shows they have the academic background for their work. School counselors typically have master’s-level degrees though they do not need specialized degrees as school psychologists.

Which Degree Do You Need?

Generally, you can pursue any master’s-level degree in an appropriate subject, such as education, counseling, or therapy. Some schools also offer master’s degrees in school counseling. These are created for school counselor positions and are the best choices when available.

Most appropriate degree programs for school counselors includes coursework on the following subjects:

  • Psychological research and testing
  • Career development practices and ideas
  • Human growth and development
  • Student counseling practices and principles
  • Group and individual counseling techniques
  • Counseling theories and framework classes
  • Social and cultural awareness training

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In-Person vs. Online Degrees

As with school psychologists, school counselors can also choose between in-person and online degrees. Online degrees are often more flexible. But in-person degrees could be better for students who learn better in these environments.

Additionally, most school counselor programs do include practice or in-person hours. If you attend an online program, you’ll be able to fulfill these requirements at a school or counseling agency near you.

2. Practicum Requirements

School counselors don’t have as rigorous practicum requirements as school psychologists. The exact hour requirements will vary from state to state. Generally, school counselors need between 100 and 800 clinical hours.

Counselors-in-training provides direct counseling services to students or clients. A licensed school counselor or psychologist must supervise these practicum hours.

3. Gain Experience

As noted earlier, certain states have teaching hours requirements as well. Some positions require school counselors to have experience in academic environments before employment. Depending on the state and school, you will need to fulfill a few hundred hours of teaching experience to several years of teaching experience.

4. Acquire Certification

Of course, school counselors must also acquire certification to work as public school employees. The American School Council Association breaks down the classes and academic knowledge required to sit for certification exams. It also includes a detailed list of certificates and exam requirements for each state. You can check it out here.

Some states require board exams. Others require job candidates to provide proof of professional educator certification, similar to the certification necessary to be a public school teacher. Different states may waive other credential or certificate requirements if you already have teaching experience in public schools.

Because of this, current teachers might be able to pivot their careers into school counselors without having to get a completely new degree.

5. Continuing Education

Like school psychologists, school counselors must also pursue continuing education credits from time to time. Once every year or two, these professionals have to take a few online or in-person classes and pass exams. This enables them to maintain active certification or licensure status.

These courses refresh school counselors on up-to-date counseling practices and principles. If a counselor fails to complete these continuing education credits, their license may lapse.

School Psychologist & School Counselor Salary

Because of their increased responsibilities and training requirements, school psychologists typically make higher salaries than school counselors. Below we delve into the potential earnings of each career.

School Psychologists Salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that school psychologists earn an average annual wage of $79,820.

However, many earn salaries of over $100,000. The top 10% earn wages of over $138,000. Therefore, there is quite a lot of potential for salary growth in this career.

School Counselors Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, school counselors can expect an average salary of $58,120 per year. The top 10% of school counselors and advisers earn an average salary of over $97,000. The lowest 10% make an average salary of less than $35,600.

Both of these salary ranges are enough to live comfortably in many areas of the country. They are among the best paid positions in education. However, school psychologists can afford to live at a higher level of comfort in more expensive areas. These include major metropolitan areas or big cities like New York City.

Career Outlook for School Psychologists and Counselors

Fortunately, both school psychologists and counselors have excellent career outlooks. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows approximately 111,000 clinical, counseling, and school psychologists jobs. There is a continued strong need for these professionals in both public and private school environments.

In contrast, school counselors have even more employment opportunities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that school and career counselor and advisor positions will grow by 11% until 2030. This will lead to another 35,000 or so job openings every year over the next decade.

This is partially due to the rising student enrollment in all types of public schools, ranging from elementary to high school. More counselors will be needed to respond to both the developmental and academic needs of students. On top of that, many colleges will hire counselors and psychologists to meet increased demand, particularly in light of new respect for mental health challenges among young adults.


Both school psychologists and counselors offer meaningful services. They help students develop and learn critical social skills. But they perform very different tasks, so one career over the other may be ideal for you.

If you’re still on the fence about which career may be right for you, look no further than GetEducated. GetEducated has a detailed list of high-quality online schools that offer degrees for school psychologists and counselors. This online list can help you determine which degree program may best suit your needs or budget. Check it out today!

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