Why and How Long Does It Take To Become a Counselor?

Close up of counselor writing on clipboard while with patient

During any given year, about one in five American adults struggle with symptoms of a mental health disorder, with one in 20 experiencing a serious mental illness.1 Studies have demonstrated that mental health therapy or counseling can significantly benefit individuals struggling with these health conditions, such as by modifying the brain’s structure as well as its function.2

If you’re passionate about helping people live life well, you may be curious about becoming a mental health counselor, and you have probably pondered the question, How long does it take to become a counselor? In short, the answer to this question varies. Depending on how you have progressed in the process of becoming a counselor, you may require a different amount of additional time to achieve your career goals.

For example, if you’ve previously completed some college credits, but not a degree, you may be able to transfer some credits into a counseling degree program at a transfer-friendly university, such as Grand Canyon University. This can help shorten the time to graduation. Importantly, the requirements for licensure vary from state to state.3 Because of this, the location in which you intend to practice may also affect how long it takes you to become a counselor. It’s essential to research your state’s counselor educational requirements prior to enrolling in a program.

In This Article:

What Is a Counselor?

As defined by the American Counseling Association, "counseling is a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education and career goals.”4 Counselors are mental health professionals who help people overcome a variety of struggles and improve their overall mental health.

These professionals may specialize in various areas, including:5

  • Childhood and adolescent disorders
  • Family counseling
  • Substance use counseling
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Grief and loss
  • Stress management

No matter the specialty area, counselors perform assessments, strive to develop a rapport with their clients, and develop individualized treatment plans designed to teach coping skills and interpersonal relationship skills.5

Counselor Educational Requirements

To become a licensed professional counselor, you must typically hold a master’s degree in counseling.3 In order to earn a master’s degree, you must first have a bachelor’s degree. If you have already completed an undergraduate degree, you may be able to jump right into a master’s degree program. 

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree To Begin Meeting Counselor Educational Requirements

If you haven’t yet completed a bachelor’s degree, then this is your first step. Although there are no universal requirements, it’s ideal to earn a bachelor’s degree in counseling or a related field, such as psychology. This will allow you to develop a firm foundation of academic competencies from which to pursue your master’s degree.

Earn a Graduate Counseling Degree

All states require mental health counselors to obtain a license and licensure requirements typically require a master’s degree in counseling. (The licensure requirements for substance use and behavioral disorder counselors are more varied.)3

When choosing the best master’s in counseling program for you, it is important to consult the appropriate body in the location where you plan to work. Taking this step helps to ensure the courses in your program of interest meet the requirements for licensure or certification in the area where you plan to practice as a licensed counselor. Find out whether GCU meets your state's requirements, whether you're earning your Masters of Education in School Counseling or a Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

Some graduate counseling degree options include the following:

Some professionals may choose to continue their education and earn a counseling related doctoral degree.

Complete Field Experience Hours

Completing your academic coursework at the graduate level isn’t the last step toward obtaining licensure. Toward the end of your degree program, you’ll be required to complete practicum/field experience and internship hours. These supervised work experiences are intended to provide hands-on learning opportunities, as well as to allow you to meet the licensure requirements for your state.

Different states establish their own standards regarding the number of supervised clinical experience hours required.3 Research the requirements for your state to ensure that your degree program will allow you to obtain a sufficient number of hours.

Obtain a Counseling License

The final step of becoming a mental health counselor is to obtain your license. After you earn your graduate degree, the general process to obtain your license typically includes the following steps, although the process can vary from state to state:

  • Acquire experience: Each state requires counseling candidates to complete a minimum number of hours under the supervision of a counseling professional.4 Because the required number of hours and the rate at which you complete them can vary, this requirement is among the factors that can impact how long it takes to become a counselor.
  • Complete a background check: Individuals who intend to become counselors may have to submit to a background check and complete other paperwork with personal information.6
  • Pass an examination: Counselors may be required to take various exams depending on state regulations.3 For example, to become a counselor in Arizona, you are required to take the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination, the National Counselor Examination or the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Examination.7

After you have completed these steps, you can choose to pursue additional specialties and certifications if you wish to potentially enhance your career qualifications. It is also important to note that depending on your state, you may be required to complete a certain number of continuing education hours and pay licensure fees to maintain your counseling license.3

Explore Counseling Degrees at GCU

If you are interested in pursuing a degree as a counselor, you can begin your academic journey at GCU within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. GCU has a variety of psychology and counseling degree programs for you to explore. To learn more about our college and programs, please fill out the form on this page to speak to a university counselor.  

1 National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2023, April). Mental health by the numbers. Retrieved April 15, 2024.

2 Mental Health America. (n.d.). Science behind therapy. Retrieved April 15, 2024.

3 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023, Sept. 6). What substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors do. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved April 15, 2024. 

4 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023, Sept. 6). How to become a substance abuse, behavioral disorder, or mental health counselor. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved April 15, 2024.

5 OnlineCounselingPrograms.com. (n.d.). Counseling licensure and certification. EdX. Retrieved April 15, 2024.

6 Board of Behavioral Health Examiners. (n.d.). Counseling licensure exam information. State of Arizona. Retrieved April 15, 2024.

7 American Counseling Association. (n.d.). What is counseling? Counseling.org. Retrieved May 31, 2024.

Approved by the CMHC program chair of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on June 7, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.