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What does a Guidance Counselor do?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Jan 27, 2024
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A guidance counselor works in a school setting to help students better prepare for continuing education, or to help facilitate decisions made about future careers. The requirements for becoming a guidance counselor varies among schools. These professionals tend to have at least a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in psychology, but may also have a B.A. in career counseling. Some places require high school counselors to have a master's degree as well, and many schools require the counselor to be licensed. In the college setting, counselors may not have a B.A., but may be experts in their teaching area. Sometimes the counselor at the college level is called an academic advisor.

In the elementary setting, guidance counselors are frequently catchall counselors who help to facilitate testing for learning disabilities and may also manage Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students in need of them. They tend not to offer psychological assistance, but may participate in observation of students in classroom settings or in psychological or intelligence testing. Children in need of significant counseling for psychological issues usually meet with a school psychologist, although in some schools, funding issues can mean that access to a psychologist may be significantly limited.

Usually, a guidance counselor in an elementary school is simply called a counselor. Regardless of title, these employees can be an excellent resource for children and parents. If a parent is concerned about a child's learning abilities, contacting the elementary counselor is a good first step. The counselor may be particularly helpful if the administration of the school does not take the parent's concerns seriously.

In the middle school setting, the guidance counselor may still participate in some educational testing for students deemed "at academic risk." He or she usually also helps students make decisions regarding choices in electives and whether they are challenged enough or too much by their present classes. When courses are too hard or too easy, he or she may be able to help the student change his or her schedule.

While the guidance counselor at one time was an everyday presence on the junior high or middle school campus, funding cutbacks have forced many counselors to work at more than one school on a part-time basis. The difficult years of beginning adolescence can be significantly aided by having a friendly counselor. Counselors may meet with students with emotional problems regularly, simply to check in with them and see if assistance can be offered, although this role is often performed by a school psychologist, if one is available.

In high school, emphasis for the guidance counselor is on helping students make decisions about their future careers or college plans. He or she helps a student make out a plan of study that will best fit his or her plans after high school. For example, a student who wants to attend a university will likely be directed to take courses that will help achieve this end and make the student eligible for attendance. The high school counselor may give information about financial aid options for those who wish to attend trade schools or college after graduation. He or she can also help those students who are struggling and are at risk for failing to graduate.

While working with a guidance counselor can be very helpful for many students, it can be important that the student not depend entirely on the counselor's information. If a student is interested in applying to particular colleges or getting financial aid, for example, it is worthwhile for her to double-check information and ask for guidance from a perspective college. Sometimes information changes so quickly that the counselor simply cannot keep up.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon289944 — On Sep 06, 2012

In my state, school counselors are required to have earned at least a master's degree before they can be certified to work in the public schools.

Amanda, my advice would be to research the roles of school counselors and school psychologists, perhaps interviewing and shadowing a few people to get an idea of what the jobs really entail. After spending the time, money, effort and emotion earning a degree in counseling, you very well may not feel like (or be able to) completing another advanced degree program requiring upwards of 65 additional graduate credits. You may want to decide on one program of study that will lead to the job that best fits your interests and values. Although you may certainly earn the counseling degree first, and decide you also want to earn a degree in school psychology. That will depend on your stamina, financial resources, life responsibilities, etc.

Second, I think you should develop a more realistic perspective of the kinds of issues you might be dealing with as a middle school counselor. Most of the time, you should not be solving students' problems. Your job is to help students figure out how to solve their own problems. And believe me, in many middle schools, there are more issues than you can imagine. It's not just that mom and dad are getting a divorce, it's that dad is extremely violent in front of your client (student), and has on multiple occasions beaten her to the point of breaking bones. Your client's brother has tried to protect his mother, but ends up physically fighting with dad, to the point that the police must be involved. During these fights, your client barricades herself in her bedroom, locking the door and moving large pieces of furniture in front of it. And this is only the beginning.

You may get a student whose pet died innocently. Or you may get a student whose pet was killed by a parent or sibling. You may determine that an actual student is torturing and harming animals. And as for bullying, it is rampant. But try to move past the idea of pushing and shoving in the hallways, taunts, and threats. We regularly have to involve law enforcement because gangs put "hits" out on students and their siblings.

If you're ready to face suicide, family deaths, diseases, rape, incest, major family dysfunction, assaults, and just about anything else you might imagine, or find in DSM-IV, then pursue one of these degrees. As you might have guessed, there is a desperate need for more school counselors almost everywhere.

By anon266824 — On May 08, 2012

@Amanda: I am a school counselor at a middle school in Southern California. I work with kids who have lost parents and siblings, children of divorce, kids dealing with bullying, students who are at-risk academically and based on home life, children with friendship or teacher troubles, parents who just don't know what to do, and a variety of other cases. I work with kids one-on-one, in groups, through guidance curriculum, and through parent education nights, where I often speak.

I teach kids and parents about what they can do now to successfully prepare for college, career, and other post-secondary options. I help connect those in need to resources, show parents how to qualify for insurance if they lost their jobs, help kids gets glasses, braces, and medical care. I teach parents and kids about safe Internet use, I run our Safe School Ambassador's Program, which is a school-wide anti-bullying program.

I also co-run an "organizational bootcamp" for kids in need of organizational skills. I run SST meetings, work on behavior plans for kids in the classroom who need additional help, and I also serve on my district Violence Prevention Action Committee and Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Task Force.

I coordinate a school-wide Career Day and help connect kids' education to plans for the future. I report child abuse, perform risk assessments on students who may be suicidal (and act from there), and work with students who self-mutilate.

I refer students to outside therapy, but they know I have their back for three solid years if they ever need me during the school day. I also help with the scheduling, but that is considered to be an inappropriate use of my time. I also don't assess for Special Education, as this is the role our school psychologist fills. I hope this information helps!

By anon148104 — On Jan 31, 2011

why don't counselors discuss alternatives after high school besides a four year college? My daughter is doing a paper and we can find no research info as to why counselors don't at least discuss other alternatives with high school students. They should know what their options are if they are unable to attend a four year college.

By anon113023 — On Sep 22, 2010

I honestly don't think the author of this article has ever met a school counselor! Maybe in a fantasy land this is the role of counselors, but get real!

Before students explore the goal of college, they first have to graduate from high school, which in most states entails a set curriculum and passage of a state mandated test. Who, in most, is responsible for organization and administration of these tests? You guessed it: the guidance counselor.

I am just getting started here, but suffice it to say that if my job were as concrete as implied in this article, I could go 35-plus years! No mention of special ed., organizing the student registration process for a school of 1000 or so students, building the master schedule, keeping track of individual student progress to ensure that they actually will graduate, filtering students to alternative programs, consoling students and parents who finally realize that a 1.5 GPA will notplace you on track to be a doctor (which is the fault of the school counselor!), etc. Ugh!

By anon46949 — On Sep 30, 2009

I am a middle school counselor and we do work with kids one on one when situations arise such as bullying or a pet dying. Our school is very large (over 1300 kids) so we don't run groups ourselves. We have someone who comes in (funded through the drug and alcohol program) to run them. Our school psychologist works out of our office as well. Her only responsibility is testing for special education. She does not provided "counseling". In a smaller school setting you may have more one on one or opportunity to run groups. The reality here is more crisis intervention, scheduling, and meeting with parents. Hope this helps.

By anon5295 — On Nov 19, 2007

Hello, my name is Amanda. I am going to Ottawa University in January. I am going to school to be a school counselor, and later i would want to be a school psychologist. What i want to know; I'm going for solving kids problems, such as mom and dad getting a divorce, pets died, bullied, etc.. Depending on the middle schools, does most middle schools have those kinds of counselors?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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