A master’s in counseling meets the requirements to enter a well-established, highly regarded, and growing field. Counseling careers are diverse, offering both personal rewards and a stable income. Roles tend to be filled by individuals seeking fulfillment from their vocation and come with an average salary of $45,530, though top earners in the field can earn up to $74,150.  With a high degree of specialization possible and an ever-increasing pool of work, a master’s in counseling can be an excellent route to an exciting career.
The American Counseling Association defines counseling as “a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.” 
Although the term “counselor” is often used interchangeably with “therapist,” “social worker,” and even “psychologist,” the fields are actually distinct, each boasting their own unique space within the fields of psychology and social work. 
A counselor’s key focus lies in correcting specific issues that affect people’s lives. This may include everything from diagnosing and treating mental health disorders to providing behavioral therapy. The key difference between a counselor and a social worker, however, is that social workers are trained to take into account and assist with the wider physical environment in addition to the patient’s psychological requirements. For example, though a social worker may offer some form of counseling, needs like food and shelter lie within a social worker’s caseload but not a counselor’s.
In some states like California, the title of therapist requires a license. However, in other states, the title can be used by individuals in other professions, such as life coaching, without the professional training or licensure. Marriage, family, and couples counselors tend to use the term therapist more than other counseling professionals.
Psychologists require a master’s and perhaps even a Ph.D. in psychology. If you want to treat people with the most serious mental illnesses, you might need to train as a clinical psychologist. However, counselors with a specialization in clinical mental health may be licensed to perform some mental health assessments according to that particular state’s licensing laws.
A counselor’s duty is to “help clients understand and clarify their views of their lifespace, and to learn to reach their self-determined goals. A counselor does this by helping clients to make meaningful, well-informed choices, as well as through the resolution of problems of an emotional or interpersonal nature.” 
Counseling spans a wealth of subjects — from school and careers counseling to rehabilitation, mental health, substance abuse, behavioral disorders, vocational and educational guidance, clinical, and marriage and family therapy.
Counselors work in almost every walk of life, which can be useful for career changers and mature students looking to cross-utilize skills and experience from their former vocation. There are a great many reasons to want to become a counselor, but one common factor is the desire to help people.
Marriage and family counselor
Marriage and family counselors are sometimes also referred to as therapists depending on the specific requirements of the state board they operate under. They help people work through marital difficulties, sometimes with the aim of avoiding divorce or separation. Marriage and family counselors/therapists require a master’s degree, and accreditation from either the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), or both is desirable. Choosing a program accredited by a major body like CACREP often helps with certification and registration.
School guidance counselor
School guidance counselors work with children across a variety of issues from mental health problems to class selection. School guidance counselors are becoming even more in-demand to tackle the growing prevalence of mental health issues among today’s youth. School guidance counselors typically enjoy working with children and find meaning and purpose in making a difference in young lives. You’ll need a master’s degree to qualify for licensure in this field.
Career guidance counselors help people choose a career. They may work in a school or college, or in private practice. Generally, career guidance counselors are required to have a master’s degree alongside the credentials recognized by the state for licensure. 
Counselors working in the mental health field come into contact with a vast array of mental problems, including mental disorders, stress, eating disorders, and other issues affecting mental balance. More health insurance companies now cover mental illness services, with about one in four adults suffering from a mental illness every year. Counseling opportunities in this field are increasing.
If you’re looking for a way to help individuals facing mental, physical, and social problems, as well as people with disabilities to live and work independently, rehabilitation counseling could be a good option. Rehabilitation counselors may work anywhere from community rehabilitation centers and senior citizen centers to youth guidance organizations. You’ll need a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or a related subject to operate in this field, with some positions such as those within private practice requiring certification and a state license. 
Substance abuse counseling is a niche field, and there is a strong correlation between the amount of training you do and the level of autonomy and earning potential once you are qualified. In some workplaces you will be able to practice in this field with a bachelor’s degree; however, a master’s is needed to qualify for licensure and operate in private practice.
Completing a Master of Counseling degree
Most Master of Counseling courses take two years to complete on a full-time basis. Flexible online learning is an option for working professionals looking for a program that fits around their commitments.
Where to study
Elements to consider include the quality and reputation of the institution you choose. It is imperative you take into account the school’s and program’s accreditation. Is the program accredited by a national accreditation agency such as Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), or the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)? The former is the biggest national accreditation body for programs in the United States. Programs accredited by CACREP are generally regarded as those with the required course content and hours leading to certification and licensure. COAMFTE specializes in marriage and family counseling/therapy.
Eligibility for a master’s in counseling
A master’s degree in counseling is targeted toward students with several years’ experience in the working world. How you qualify as a counselor depends upon your experience up to this point. A Master of Counseling might appeal you if you are working in the field and looking to take the next step in your career.
Perhaps you’re a human service worker with an undergraduate degree in a counseling-related discipline or previous work experience in a counseling-related field. Alternatively, a master’s in counseling might appeal to professionals working in an unrelated field and looking for a career change.
A specialized education can help you achieve the goal of working as a counselor in an extremely specialized field. In general, an MS in Counseling is the route of choice for students who have earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a counseling-related field. If you have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, the MA is a more fitting option.
A Master of Counseling degree can prepare students to work in a variety of settings: private businesses, government agencies, health care systems, schools, or universities. Potential earnings depend on the industry and location, but counselors with a master’s degree can earn as much as $70,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Earnings vary depending upon specialization. For example, mental health counselors earn an average salary of $43,190. Marriage and family therapists earn an average of $48,600 , and school and career counselors $53,660, according to the BLS. 
When selecting your field, consider which area you are passionate about and why. Many students have a clear specialization goal early on, while others choose a more generalized counseling program.
Marriage and family counseling is ranked #2 in Best Social Services Jobs by U.S. News & World Report. In the U.S. there are 5,000 jobs in this field and an unemployment rate of just 0.6%. The median annual wage is $48,600. 
As a marriage and family therapist, you’ll need a master’s from a related, accredited program and two years or more of postgraduate supervised clinical experience. All 50 states license marriage and family therapy. COAMFTE-accredited marriage and family therapy programs train students to become clinical mental health practitioners. Marriage and family therapists/counselors are qualified to diagnose/treat mental and emotional disorders, including cognitive, affective, and behavioral disorders, within a family or marriage. 
There are 273,400 jobs in school and career guidance counseling in the U.S., with a median salary of $53,660. The highest earners take home around $87,640. Between 2014 and 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects almost an 8% increase in employment for educational, guidance, school and vocational counselors — around 22,500 new jobs. But the employment growth rate depends on state and local government budgets. Education funding cuts have the potential to impact this negatively. 
Jobs in mental health counseling boast a median salary of $41,880. Psychiatrists and psychologists charge higher rates for therapy, meaning insurance companies are directing patients toward the affordable alternative of mental health counselors to lower costs. Due to this, the BLS predicts the sector will see employment growth of 20% between 2014 and 2024 — or 26,400 new jobs. Mental health counseling requires a master’s degree and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical supervision, as well as passing a state license test.
Rehabilitation counselors typically earn $34,390 per year. There were 120,100 jobs in this field in 2014, and the BLS predicts a growth rate of 9%, which is higher than average.  Demand for rehabilitation counselors is expected to continue its steady growth rate, with life expectancy increases meaning an increase in the number of elderly people requiring such services. Rehabilitation counselors typically need a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or a related field, and some positions require certification or a license.
Substance abuse counselors earn $39,980 per year, but the BLS predicts a growth rate of 22% between 2014 and 2024 in the field. This is largely due to addiction and mental health counseling services increasingly being covered by insurance policies. Most positions require a bachelor’s degree, but this can vary. Depending on the employer, you may be able to practice as a substance abuse counselor with anything from a high school diploma and certification to a master’s degree.
Most master’s in counseling courses include a core of eight modules covering the following subjects:
CACREP reviews and evaluates counseling educational programs to determine whether national standards have been met. These national standards are centered around eight core areas in the discipline:
While each program will set its admission requirements based on its own criteria, many requirements are universal across all programs. No matter where you apply, you can expect to provide items like transcripts from previous degrees or coursework; standardized test scores; a personal statement or essay; letters of recommendation; and an overview of relevant work experience.
In certain cases, some of these requirements may be waived.
For more information about admissions, please visit our admissions requirements page.
Counselors in most fields are required to possess a master’s degree in most cases, whereas to qualify as a psychologist you must train to doctoral degree level. Ph.D. programs for psychologists are extremely competitive, requiring high test scores and a strong GPA. They can be very research heavy in terms of their content and include more statistics and quantitative work as well as highly detailed coverage of psychometric assessments.
Many consider the years of schooling it takes to become a counselor as enough of an outlay to reap the rewards of a steady income and worthwhile career. However, this does depend on the area you intend to work in. If you want to help treat people with serious mental illnesses, you might need to train as a clinical psychologist.
Jobs for counselors are growing more quickly than psychologists — for example, mental health counseling jobs are expected to grow 20% between 2014 and 2024.  Jobs for counseling, clinical, and school psychologists, meanwhile, are expected to grow 19%.  But salaries for psychologists in these specialties was $70,580 in 2015, while the mean salary for mental health counselors was $41,880.
As a counselor, you will likely earn less than a psychologist, but there may be more access to work and a stable income.
It is important to note that you can become a counselor with master’s degrees in subjects other than counseling. For example, you can become a school counselor with a master’s degree in psychology, but you must be able to meet the requirements for the education component. This could mean completing additional coursework and a practicum to follow state guidelines. You’ll need to do this after completing your program to gain state licensure. Choosing a specialized master’s in counseling with the applicable education component will get you there faster.
Master of Counseling and Master of Social Work degrees do overlap in their content. Both degrees require state licensure and will give you the skills to provide counseling. These programs differ in that counselors focus on helping people with a specific set of problems or who require treatment for a mental health disorder. Social workers are involved in providing a wider range of services within larger social service systems — such as food and shelter, for example.
Social work is also set to grow quickly — by 12% between 2014 and 2024, with a median salary of $45,900. Although most social workers need a bachelor’s degree in social work, clinical social workers must have a master’s degree and two years of post-master’s experience in a supervised clinical setting. Clinical social workers must also be licensed in the state in which they practice. 
Industry associations bring together like-minded individuals and academics for networking, career, and educational advancement. Institutions may benefit from connections with these organizations by providing a chance to network with professionals already working in the industry, gaining access to up-to-date information, high-quality internships, and more. Networking broadens the mind, introducing counselors to new techniques and budding theories in the field.
Founded in 1952, the American Counseling Association is a not-for-profit professional and educational organization. It is dedicated to the growth and enhancement of the counseling profession and represents counselors in an array of practice settings. 
The American School Counselor Association provides professional development, publications and other resources, research and advocacy to professional school counselors worldwide. Its mission is to support school counselors’ efforts to help students focus on academic, career, and social/emotional development so they achieve success in school and are prepared to lead fulfilling lives as responsible members of society. 
The National Career Development Association provides professional development, publications, standards, and advocacy to practitioners and educators who inspire and empower individuals to achieve their career and life goals. 
A specialized accreditor for counseling programs, CACREP accredits most master’s in counseling at the master’s and doctoral levels in the United States and throughout the world. CACREP is recognized as an accreditor by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
CACREP is an accrediting body recognized by both the American Counseling Association and the U.S. Department of Education. As a specialized and unbiased third-party accrediting body, CACREP takes on the task of reviewing and evaluating educational programs in counseling to see if they meet national standards. In addition, the reviewing body will also review the clinical standards to ensure that supervised clinical training is offering the specialty training that students need.
Specializations accredited by CACREP include:
It’s generally easier to become licensed if your program has the expected accreditation. You may also find it easier to obtain employment with certain agencies. Proper accreditation can also make the licensing process easier if a counselor moves from one jurisdiction to another.
The Commission on Accreditation of Marriage and Family Therapy Education promotes best practices for Marriage and Family Therapy educational programs. It reviews and revises the accreditation standards and policies, and the accreditation of graduate and post-graduate educational programs. 
The Council on Rehabilitation Education is a specialized accreditation organization recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and a member of the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors. This body accredits graduate programs for a variety of professional rehabilitation counseling positions.
There are a number of factors that can greatly affect how much your education will cost. These include whether you attend a public or private institution; whether you attend as an in-state or out-of-state student; and whether you qualify for financial aid like grants or scholarships.
For a more detailed breakdown of tuition, fees, and other financial issues, please visit our tuition and fees page.
A MAC degree program aims to prepare graduates for a variety of counseling settings. Once the program is completed, the graduate can begin the counseling licensing process. Students in a graduate counseling program will be provided with a foundation in general counseling coursework with the opportunity to complete a thesis or research project that focuses on their area of interest. Some of the common specializations are:
While a graduate degree can’t guarantee career success, it can provide the additional education and training necessary to increase opportunities for the graduate. Specifically, a master’s degree is required to gain certification as a professional counselor. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) “developed and owns both the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), which is used for licensure in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and Guam.”  The application process for state licensure varies by state; visit the state board directory to determine your state’s requirements. 
No — attaining management/senior positions is not guaranteed through the completion of a master’s degree. These positions often require many years of experience and a significant level of career achievement. However, an advanced degree can help you develop the necessary knowledge and skills required for these positions and also prove your dedication to the field.
No, a bachelor’s in counseling is not a requirement to apply to a MAC program. As long as the minimum GPA and other admission requirements are met, students from a variety of backgrounds can be accepted into a graduate counseling program. Those without a bachelor’s in counseling or the closely related field of psychology may be placed in a program that would address any gaps in education or professional experience.
Key attributes to look for in an MAC degree include:
Online MAC programs can vary in length between 18 months to three years. The time it takes to complete a program will depend on the number of courses you enroll in for each term. Some MAC programs may allow flexibility with your curriculum load, meaning you can take longer to complete the degree if necessary.
Many MAC programs offer concentrations for their students, while others are more general. Of those that offer concentrations or specializations, some of the more popular are:
Some online MAC programs are 100% online, while others are more of a hybrid model. Hybrid programs may require two to three campus visits throughout the program. Students should ensure they have a full understanding of these requirements and determine if they will have the flexibility and funding required for campus visits prior to applying.
A minimum GPA of 3.0 is generally what online MAC programs are looking for in their applicants. However, applicants with a lower GPA should not be discouraged from inquiring about a program they are interested in. Universities look at a number of factors when determining an applicant’s eligibility. Consult with a guidance counselor on the enrollment team to determine if you meet the eligibility requirements.
Whether you will need to complete the GRE prior to applying for a program will largely depend on what school you have chosen. There are many programs that do not require a GRE. Check the admissions requirements for your school before applying.
While this will depend on your course load and your familiarity with the subject, most MAC students typically spend anywhere from 15 to 20 hours studying each week.
This will vary by university, but most programs stipulate you must enroll in two courses per semester. There may also be minimum enrollment requirements to maintain financial aid eligibility. Be sure to discuss the course load requirements with your guidance counselor prior to applying.
Many institutions offer MAC degrees online.
Most institutions do not indicate on the degree that it was earned online.
Yes, typically schools follow the same curriculum for their online programs as they do for their campus-based programs.
Asynchronous coursework can be completed on your own time — a big plus for many online graduate students. Synchronous coursework has to be completed within a set timeframe. This is typically done for group projects, seminars, presentations, and other learning initiatives that require multiple attendees. The elements of asynchronous and synchronous learning in your online program depend on the professor and class itself. Once you enroll, reach out to teachers for specifics, but remember that the curriculum may be divided into these two subsets.
MAC tuition varies greatly from university to university. Among a sample of CACREP-accredited online MAC programs, the cost of tuition was found to be between $51,000 and $100,848.
Generally there are supplementary costs apart from tuition. The tuition does not usually include the cost of books or additional fees. These additional costs will vary from program to program.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office is the largest provider of student financial aid in the country. To find out whether you are eligible to apply for Federal Student Aid for your MAC, visit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) website here. 
The largest provider of student financial aid in the nation is the Federal Student Aid office in the U.S. Department of Education. They supply college-level or career school students with loans, grants and work-study funds, as needed. You can apply for federal financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as, FAFSA.
There are numerous other scholarships available, but you will need to research which opportunities you’re qualified to pursue. Many states, associations, websites and businesses award scholarships based on specific criteria. Be sure to do your research and apply for any scholarships you’re qualified to be awarded. 
Start with a cost-benefit analysis based on the price of the degree and potential ROI. Weigh the full cost against the positive outcomes you expect as a graduate, which may include a boost in earning potential, upward mobility, or job satisfaction.
Students should research schools and programs that are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Programs with CACREP accreditation have been evaluated and meet expected industry standards for preparing students to make valuable contributions to the field of counseling. 
Accreditations are a strong indication of quality, but are also required for students who plan to apply for federal financial aid. Accreditation ensures that your degree is recognized by employers, professional associations, and other accredited institutions of higher education.
SARA (State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement) applies only to distance education programs in the United States that cross state lines. This agreement is made between member states and establishes comparable postsecondary national standards for distance education courses.
Not every state is a SARA member. Through SARA, member states only have to receive authorization in their home state. Without SARA, non-member states would have to receive authorization in their home state and the state of each of their online students. 
Every school has a department or team responsible for online education. This department will be able to answer questions regarding compliance for your home state. Additionally, you can locate the school through SARA (if it is a SARA institution) to confirm compliance.
Other graduate programs that may offer coursework in similar areas include:
Master of Science in Counseling
Master of Arts in Psychology
Master of Science in Psychology