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What does a school counselor do?                                                                    

Student and counselor chatting cheerfully

At a glance

  • To become a high school counselor, you will need a master’s degree in counseling or in a related field.
  • School counselors typically listen to student concerns, offer education advice, provide helpful resources and advise in career development.
  • Some counselors choose to lead public health programs to better educate their learning institution on topics like mental and sexual health.

High school guidance counselors provide advice and support to help students determine their academic, personal and career goals. They typically work in public or private schools with students of all ages and help them develop strategies to achieve their educational goals. They also advocate for students’ social-emotional development by providing resources and referrals to help them navigate life.

How to become a high school counselor

If you’re considering a career as a school counselor, you typically need a master’s degree in school counseling. However, related fields such as general counseling and psychology may also be accepted. Depending on the program, you might even find a counseling degree with an emphasis in career development, which would be helpful if you’re seeking a position as a high school counselor. It’s also important to keep in mind some states also require licensure. 

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Roles and responsibilities of school counselors

High school is a heady and tumultuous experience for many students, and school counselors can offer much-needed stability. The following are just some of the ways they fill this role.

Conflict mediation

Guidance counselors may sometimes aid in conflict mediation. They act as neutral third parties to help students better understand each other and develop positive solutions to their problems. Guidance counselors may also provide conflict resolution training to teach students how to resolve future conflicts independently while maintaining respectful relationships.

Common conflicts guidance counselors mediate include issues between students, such as:

  • Bullying
  • Cyberbullying
  • Peer pressure

A counselor’s purpose is to help prevent escalation of conflicts and restore positive student relationships.

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Listening to students’ concerns

One of the most essential roles of a school counselor is to provide a safe and supportive environment for students to express their thoughts and feelings. High school guidance counselors must be able to offer an objective, nonjudgmental space where students can open up about their struggles without fear of ridicule or shame.

High school is a time of transition, and students often need someone to talk to. Guidance counselors can help students cope with:

  • Social pressures — Such as fitting in with their peers.
  • Emotional issues — Such as depression and anxiety.
  • Family stressors — Such as divorce, abuse or financial problems.

They can also provide valuable resources and referrals for outside assistance if needed.

School counselors must be aware of their legal and ethical obligations when offering counseling services. They must ensure that they provide appropriate care and support to students while protecting privacy. High school guidance counselors must understand confidentiality laws to protect students from potential harm or exploitation.

Providing mental health support

School guidance counselors can play an integral role in providing mental health support. They are often the first point of contact for students struggling with their mental health, and counselors must be able to recognize signs of distress. They can also identify and refer students who need additional help or counseling services. In addition, they can provide mental health resources and support to families to help them manage the challenges their children are facing.

The guidance counselor’s role, however, is not limited to detection and referral. They must also be prepared to provide direct counseling services, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction. In addition to helping students manage mental health issues, guidance counselors may work with parents to build effective communication strategies to help the student succeed.

Counselors must be adequately trained and certified in school counseling to provide these services. Depending on the state or district, this may require certification from the National Certified School Counselor™ Program, a branch of the National Board for Certified Counselors®.

Equipped with this certification, counselors can assist in times of crisis that occur both within the school or the local community, and are responsible in many cases for determining the validity of threat assessments and students in crisis.

Providing career and education advice

Guidance counselors can help students prepare for their future by providing career and educational advice. In addition, they may assist with the college admissions process, helping students develop an effective plan of action to maximize their chances of getting into schools that best fit their needs.

Counselors also work to help students write an effective resumé and cover letter, as well as practice important interviewing skills. They may also help students explore career paths and options related to their interests and skills. This can include researching degree programs, exploring scholarship opportunities or assisting in setting up job shadowing experiences.

School counselors are also responsible for a student’s master schedule. Students go to a counselor if they are looking to switch out a class or change an elective.

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Providing helpful resources

Some students may face emotional issues such as body image, self-esteem and disability-related issues. Others may experience social issues such as pregnancies or substance abuse. Some may experience family stressors, such as neglect, homelessness and the death of a loved one. In these cases, counselors may provide helpful resources, such as food assistance programs, housing applications or other necessary financial aid information.                                                                                    

Guidance counselors can assist with college preparation activities, including college writing workshops and SAT or ACT prep classes. Additionally, they support students as they work on their applications, reviewing essays and providing feedback to strengthen their chances of admission.

They may also work to ensure that vocational training opportunities are offered to students who are not pursuing an advanced education by attending a university.

Facilitating goal development

Goal development is a critical component of the high school counseling process. Counselors work with students to set realistic and achievable goals that are tailored to a student’s needs and interests. This could include:

  • Developing plans for academic success
  • Identifying and developing personal interests, traits and skills
  • Exploring potential career paths and creating job search strategies
  • Creating a budget to help manage finances during college or career transitions

With so many looming choices and decisions, guidance counselors can provide support and structure to help students develop meaningful goals, which are critical for helping students develop a sense of purpose and direction.

Coordinating students, parents and educators

Guidance counselors are responsible for communicating with educators, parents and students to ensure each party is on the same page regarding decisions about a student’s academic trajectory.

Counselors may attend parent-teacher conferences or serve as liaisons between the home and school. They may coordinate meetings between parents, teachers and administrators to discuss academic progress or challenges. This connectivity helps build stronger relationships between students[1]  and teachers, leading to better communication and more open dialogue.

Leading public health programs

Not only do guidance counselors provide advice and resources for individual students, but they can also take a lead role in facilitating public health programs. Public health programs are initiatives that focus on promoting the health and wellness of a school or community:

  • Sexual health education teaches students about forms of contraception, safe sex practices and risks of sexually transmitted infections.
  • Substance abuse prevention aims to prevent or reduce underage drinking and drug use among students by providing education and resources on the risks.
  • Mental health awareness educates students on mental health topics such as depression, anxiety and suicide prevention.
  • Bullying prevention campaigns work to create a safe and inclusive school environment by raising awareness about the impacts of bullying and providing resources for those who might be affected.

Leading these programs can help foster healthy relationships between students, teachers and administrators while promoting a sense of well-being in the school community. Counselors may also arrange for public speakers to discuss a variety of issues within the school.

Organizing and overseeing peer-led programs

Peer-led programs are student-run activities and initiatives that support and guide other students. Examples of peer-led programs are:

Guidance counselors may organize these programs or provide oversight to ensure they run smoothly and safely.

Representing student interests

Guidance counselors are advocates for and can represent their needs to external entities such as school districts or other organizations within the community. This can include:

  • Writing letters of recommendation
  • Giving presentations at conferences
  • Advocating for policy changes that benefit students
  • Ensuring equity, diversity and inclusion are honored

Guidance counselors are invaluable resources for helping students get the most out of their education — inside and outside the classroom.

Although University of Phoenix does not have direct degree alignment to guarantee this career outcome, it does offer several online education and behavioral science degrees if you’re interested in learning more about working with students in general or about mental health counseling.


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