What Does a School Guidance Counselor Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image by Grace Kim © The Balance 2019 

School guidance counselors help students develop the academic and social skills needed to succeed, personally and professionally. Counselors in elementary and secondary schools help students overcome obstacles that may inhibit their learning.

Students come to school with a wide range of problems and challenges. They may have learning disabilities, come from a low-income family, experience abuse or neglect, or have an addiction. School counselors work in collaboration with parents, teachers, principals, medical professionals, and social workers to identify and address these problems.

School Guidance Counselor Duties & Responsibilities

The responsibilities of a school guidance counselor may vary according to student age and grade level. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides some typical duties that a school guidance counselor may perform:

  • Evaluating students’ abilities and interests through aptitude assessments, interviews, and individual planning
  • Identifying issues that affect school performance, such as poor classroom attendance rates
  • Helping students understand and overcome social or behavioral problems through classroom guidance lessons and counseling
  • Counseling individuals and small groups on the basis of student and school needs
  • Working with students to develop skills, such as organizational and time management abilities and effective study habits
  • Helping students create a plan to achieve academic and career goals
  • Collaborating with teachers, administrators, and parents to help students succeed
  • Teaching students and school staff about specific topics, such as bullying, drug abuse, and planning for college or careers after graduation
  • Maintaining records as required
  • Reporting possible cases of neglect or abuse and referring students and parents to resources outside the school for additional support

Students need to trust their counselors. Without trust, students will not provide counselors with the information they need to appropriately apply their professional knowledge.

Part of inspiring students' trust is maintaining confidentiality, but counselors must also know when it is necessary to violate this confidentiality. When students discuss crimes, abuse, or neglect, counselors have an obligation to report this information to the appropriate authorities. Counselors should also report suspicions of crimes, abuse, and neglect when their professional judgment leads them to believe that these events have occurred or are ongoing.

School Guidance Counselor Salary

The BLS provides a classification for school and career counselors. These professionals earned the following wages, based on education, skills, and experience:

  • Median annual salary: $55,410 ($26.64/hour)
  • Top 10% annual salary: $91,960 ($44.21/hour)
  • Bottom 10% annual salary: $32,660 ($15.70/hour)

Education, Training, & Certification

Those drawn to the counseling profession have a desire to help others. Although people rarely go into the field for financial reasons, school counselors often earn higher salaries than teachers.

To become a school guidance counselor, you will need the following degrees, licenses, and experience:

College degrees: Most states require that school counselors hold a master’s degree, as well as supervised experience with a completed internship.

Licenses and certifications: Public school counselors must have a state-issued license or certification to practice, although requirements vary by state. Licensure or certification typically requires a master’s degree in school counseling, an internship or practicum completed under the supervision of a licensed professional school counselor, and successful completion of an exam.

Some states require applicants to have classroom teaching experience or to hold a teaching license prior to being certified. Most states require a criminal background check as part of the credentialing process. Information about requirements for each state is available from the American School Counselor Association.

Experience: The experience required to land a school counselor job varies by state, school district, and job market. Job postings may not require experience, but a more experienced candidate certainly has an advantage over a less experienced candidate.

People who are new to the field may have to take less desirable assignments than counselors who have already put their time into the profession. Additionally, there is stiffer competition for jobs in high-performing and affluent schools.

School Guidance Counselor Skills & Competencies

To be successful in this field, you will need to be:

  • Trustworthy: Maintain the confidentiality of students, parents, and teachers unless something needs to be brought to the attention of the authorities,
  • Perceptive: Understand what's really going on to find a solution.
  • Objective: Be nonjudgmental so that a fair determination can be made that is not based on hearsay or bias.
  • Truthful: Be honest with students, teachers, and parents to gain their trust in order to determine the problem and appropriate solution.
  • A problem-solver: Be able to properly handle difficult situations, such as a student dealing with domestic abuse, addiction, or a criminal environment.
  • Ethical: Seek the proper intervention, for example, if the student is suspected of having committed a crime such as theft or drug abuse.

Job Outlook

According to the BLS, employment for school guidance counselors s projected to grow 13 percent from 2016 to 2026. Rising student enrollments in elementary, middle, and high schools are expected to increase the demand for professionals in this field.

Work Environment

Counselors conduct much of their work in an office, as they need private space to meet with students and others involved in each student’s development. Counselors may also venture outside the office to observe students in the classroom. Teachers may report certain behaviors to the counselor, and the counselor may want to make independent observations as part of assessing the student’s counseling needs.

Work Schedule

Most school guidance counselors work full-time. Some school counselors do not work during the summer months when school is out of session.

Comparing Similar Jobs

If you are interested in a career counseling students, you may want to consider these similar jobs, presented along with their medial annual salaries:

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017

How to Get the Job

Search the Job Boards

Look at popular job boards such as Indeed, Glassdoor, and CareerBuilder. The website iHireSchoolAdministrators also advertises school counselor positions.

Submit Your Application

The hiring process for counselors is similar to the hiring process for teachers. You must submit your application and other required documents to the school district’s human resources office for screening. Applications meeting the minimum requirements are forwarded to the school principal for further consideration.

Go on the Interview

Once finalists are selected, the principal or an interview panel selected by the principal meets the finalists for interviews. The selected candidate then receives a job offer.