6 Steps to Becoming a Counselor Without a College Degree

Are you interested in counseling but don't have a degree? Follow these steps to get started as a counselor without going to college.

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Key takeaways

  • If you’re looking to become a counselor without a degree, triple-check your state’s certification and licensure requirements, as there are some notable differences between states.
  • If you don’t have a degree, some types of counseling, such as psychotherapy or school counseling, will be off-limits to you as they require a master’s degree in all states.
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Counselors are needed now more than ever, with modern life being full of stressors such as job insecurity, social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and climate change.

With the number of individuals needing help growing rapidly, it’s no surprise that the demand for qualified therapists is also increasing fast. Until 2031, certain sorts of counselors, such as substance abuse counselors, will see yearly growth of 22%: nearly triple that of the national average of 8% across all occupations.

However, how do you pursue counseling if you don’t have a college degree?

This is what we’ll discuss in this guide, as we take you through the key steps of becoming a counselor without a degree.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

What does a counselor do?

Counselors work with their customers to outline objectives and potential solutions to issues they are facing in their lives. Furthermore, counselors assist their customers in enhancing communication skills, coping with stress, building self-esteem, and showcasing paths towards positive mental health.

According to the American Counseling Association, there are four broad types of counseling:

  • Individual counseling
  • Couples counseling
  • Family counseling
  • Group counseling.

Depending on their specialization, the required skills and job responsibilities of a counselor will vary. Plus, keep in mind that if you do not have a college degree, you will not be able to work in all types of counseling, so it is essential to how far your qualifications will take you.

Let’s examine the importance of having a degree a little closer.

Can you become a counselor without a college degree?

The educational requirements for counselors vary by state. Most states allow people without degrees to work as psychiatric aides, social service assistants, peer counselors, or life skills counselors. However, school counselors and those providing psychotherapy or other forms of clinical counseling must have a degree. 

Thus, while it’s possible to pursue some types of counseling without formal education, your long-term career progression will be limited. Plus, you won’t be able to become a licensed professional counselor (LPC) without having a college degree.

Academic degrees are still highly valued (and often required) in jobs related to counseling, and if you want to work in this industry without one, you’ll need to aim for lower-level positions.

To be a little more specific, let’s examine some places where counselors without degrees can find work.

Places of employment for counselors without a degree

Here are a few examples of places where counselors without a degree can find employment:

  • Social service agencies: These are traditionally great jumping boards for a career in counseling. These offices provide food and clothing assistance, job search help, and housing referral to low-income families and individuals. Many of these offices will also readily accept volunteers and interns, giving you a chance to get some valuable experience under your belt and land a job as a social service assistant. Here’s a list of state social service agencies in the U.S.
  • Addiction treatment centers: Drug and alcohol addiction is a serious problem in the United States. According to recent statistics from National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 20 million people suffered from some form of substance addiction during the past year. Consequently, there is always a high demand for certified counselors in this field. Again, many addiction treatment centers are willing to take on volunteers. If you are passionate about helping people with addiction problems, this may be a great place to start a counseling career.
  • Employment agencies: Employment agencies typically have career counselors (sometimes known as career coaches) on their teams. In this context, the counselor is the link between a new career or a job and a client. If you have excellent interpersonal skills and are familiar with the job market, a career in an employment agency may be a good fit.
  • Healthcare facilities: In hospitals and other healthcare facilities, counselors without a degree are mainly hired as assistants to support the work of psychiatrists and other mental health counselors. The most common positions in this context are psychiatric aides. These professionals are responsible for monitoring and supporting patients in their daily lives, but they don’t provide direct patient therapy.

Whichever organization or facility you work in, it’s crucial to have the right skills for the job.

What skills does a counselor need?

Here are also some of the most valuable skills that all counselors need regardless of their specific field:

  • Empathy: Regardless of their specialization, all counselors need to be able to empathize with their clients. Empathy is a skill like any other – it can be learned and cultivated, and to be effective in their jobs, counselors must still be able to step into the shoes of their clients and be understanding of their motives, actions, and thoughts.
  • Patience: Patience is another important soft skill for counselors. Whether the counselor’s client is a CEO looking to switch careers or a homeless alcoholic with bipolar disorder, the path towards set goals will have many unexpected twists and turns. As such, it takes a truly patient individual to be a successful counselor.
  • Body language: Sub-communication is a large part of human interaction. According to researcher Albert Mehrabian’s “7-38-55” rule, 55% of all communication is nonverbal. Whether it’s for exercising professionalism from the counselor or analyzing the nonverbal behavior of the patient, counselors must be able to read, use, and understand body language.
  • Stress management skills: Regardless of their specialization, counselors have to deal with the problems of other people daily. As such, it is only natural that some of this stress will rub off on them. This is why counselors must have well-developed stress management skills. These skills will help counselors avoid quick burnout and stay healthy both mentally and physically.
  • Listening skills: Listening is one of the most important skills for counselors. To be able to help their clients, counselors must first understand what their problem is. This requires active and empathic listening. Active listening is a finely tuned skill that requires the ability to pay close attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues.
  • Communication skills: Communication is a two-way street. For counselors to be effective, they must not only be good at listening but also at expressing themselves. This includes both verbal and written communication. Counselors must be able to clearly and concisely explain their thoughts and ideas. In addition, they must be able to adapt their communication style to the specific needs of their clients.
  • Critical thinking: At the end of the day, counselors are professional problem-solvers. To help their clients effectively, counselors must see the big picture and identify the root cause of the problem. To do this effectively, excellent critical thinking skills are a must.

Now, let’s go over the step-by-step process of becoming a counselor without a college degree.

What are the steps to becoming a counselor without a degree?

1. Choose a counseling career path that does not require a degree.

If you are interested in becoming a counselor, your first job is to figure out which of these jobs interests you.

  • Do you want to work in a medical setting and as an assistant to a certified psychiatrist?
  • Would it motivate you to help struggling addicts and alcoholics get their lives back on track as a substance abuse counselor?
  • Or, would you prefer to work with students and help them overcome the challenges they face in school as a guidance counselor?

Whatever your interests may be, there is a counseling job that suits those interests, and chances are, you don’t need a degree to qualify for that position.

Here are some types of counseling you can pursue without having a degree:

  • Substance abuse counselors: Drug and alcohol counselors work with patients who struggle with current or past substance abuse disorders. This may involve leading group therapy sessions, conducting individual counseling sessions, and developing treatment plans. While specialized education in substance use disorders is required to become a substance abuse counselor in most states, a degree is usually not required. The average salary of a substance abuse counselor is $47,660.
  • Career counselors: Also called career coaches, these professionals work with clients to help them make career choices. From finding a new career to setting new goals in an already existing career, career counselors help the client by providing actionable advice, conducting assessments, and monitoring the client’s progress. The average salary of a career counselor is $46,043.
  • Peer counselors: These are counselors who have directly experienced the same issue as their clients. For example, a peer counselor working in a cancer support center will have had cancer themselves, and a peer counselor in an addiction context has had issues with addiction. For many struggling clients, this approach grows more trust and yields greater results than working with a counselor who has not gone through the same experiences. The average salary of a peer counselor is $39,179.
  • Social services assistants: Social services assistants are commonly seen as links between social service agencies and their clients. In this capacity, social services assistants help connect their clients to their needed resources. This can involve anything from finding housing to applying for government benefits. Additionally, social services assistants often provide direct services, such as budget counseling and conflict mediation. The average salary of a social services assistant is $39,624.
  • Psychiatric aides: A psychiatric aide works in the mental health field, usually under the direct supervision of a certified mental health professional. While aides are not licensed to provide medical counseling services themselves, they do play an important role in the day-to-day operations of a mental health facility. Psychiatric aides typically work with patients diagnosed with a mental illness – their job is to provide support and assistance with various activities such as meals, personal care, and recreation. The average salary of a psychiatric aide is $34,640.

As you see, there are a lot of counseling careers available that do not require a degree. Many of these jobs also come with great career progression possibilities and the opportunity to make a genuine difference in people’s lives. Choose a career path that fits you, then follow the steps below to get started.

2. Research the counselor licensure requirements of your state.

The exact requirements for working as a counselor vary depending on the state you plan on practicing in. Before you take any concrete steps towards a particular type of counseling, make sure to do your research regarding the licensure requirements of your state.

Let’s take substance abuse counselors as an example:

  • Texas requires substance abuse counselors to have a master’s degree in a field related to behavioral health.
  • Colorado, on the other hand, allows people with only a high school diploma and work experience to become certified addiction counselors.

Similar differences in requirements are found across different states and counselor career paths. Thus, before taking concrete steps toward becoming any type of counselor, you will want to double-check whether your state allows you to practice that field without a degree.

3. Volunteer or intern and get real-world experience in counseling.

While not all states require counselors to have higher education, a set amount of on-the-job work experience and an official certification are generally required. To acquire this experience, volunteering is by far the easiest way to go. Volunteering usually counts as official work experience, meaning you can put it on your resume just like any other job.

There are a number of ways you can get volunteering experience related to counseling. For instance, many addiction treatment centers offer volunteer opportunities to those interested. Some other common volunteering opportunities include crisis hotlines, homeless shelters, and suicide prevention centers. These jobs are not easy, but they will give you a taste of what it is like to work as a counselor and help people daily.

Alternatively, you may also seek out internship opportunities at organizations related to counseling. In many ways, an internship is an even better way to get experience than volunteering. This is because an internship will generally be more structured, and you will likely have more responsibilities.

That said, finding an internship will not be as straightforward as finding a volunteering opportunity. Without prior experience, you will likely have to do some serious networking to find an organization willing to take you on.

4. Get your counseling certifications and licenses.

Assuming that you know the exact amount of working hours and experience you need to acquire in your state, it is time to start working towards getting your licenses and certifications. Again, the process of obtaining these will vary depending on the state you are practicing in.

For instance, a substance abuse counselor in Colorado must hold a Colorado Addiction Counselor certification. This certification comes in multiple levels and requires different amounts of experience and coursework. The first level, for instance, requires the applicant to have a high school diploma or its equivalent as well as 1000 hours of clinically supervised work experience.

The second level, however, will acquire you to have 2000 hours of experience.

Lets take a counseling job with slightly less stringent requirements as the next example – only four states require community health workers (CHWs) to hold official certifications. Thus, to enter this career, all you have to do is apply for a training course offered by the health department of your state and complete it. Once you have finished the training, you will be eligible to start working as a CHW.

The bottom line is this – some states and counseling jobs have strict certification requirements, even for professionals working entry-level counseling jobs. Meanwhile, some counseling career pathways require no official certifications whatsoever. If you want to become a counselor without a degree, you need to make sure that you are aware of the certification requirements (or lack thereof) for the specific job you are interested in.

5. Optimize your resume and LinkedIn profile for job hunting.

Before you head to the job market, ensure that your skills, experiences, licenses, and certifications are properly represented on your resume and LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn is becoming more important than ever, as recruiters increasingly use this platform to find qualified candidates.

In your resume and social profiles, you’ll also want to highlight at least one project where you had a key role in counseling others to success. For example, if you volunteered or interned at a substance abuse center, mention the types of counseling you provided, the number of clients you served, and any examples of success stories with clients (while maintaining confidentiality).

Moreover, try to go above and beyond when it comes to the aesthetics of your resume. Resumes that are well-designed and easy to read tend to make a better impression than those that are not. If you are unsure about whether or not your resume is up to par, consider working with a professional resume writer or even just asking a friend with experience in human resources to take a look at it for you.

6. Start applying to entry-level counseling positions.

The need for qualified professionals in the counseling field is only going to continue to grow in the years to come. This means that there are plenty of entry-level job openings out there for those interested in a career in counseling.

Suppose you already managed to find an internship or a volunteering opportunity related to counseling during the previous steps. In that case, you may even be able to continue your career at the same organization as a paid employee. Or, if not, you’ll still find it easier to land a full-time job than someone without volunteering experience, because you already have first-hand experience with counseling work.

If, however, you didn’t do any volunteering or intern work, start applying to entry-level jobs anyway. There are plenty of entry-level jobs in counseling that don’t require any prior experience.

Start by scouring job boards and classified ads online and offline. You can also contact local counseling organizations directly and inquire about any open positions they may have.

Some of the best job portals for finding counseling jobs include:

Once you land that first entry-level job, you’ll have done it: you’ll have started your career in counseling without a college degree.

Ultimately, if you think a career in professional counseling might be a good fit for you, do not let the lack of a degree stop you from exploring your options.

Sander Tamm

Sander Tamm

Founder @ Degreeless. I write about online education, self-teaching, and the job market. Last year, my articles were read by over 1 million people and my writing has been featured by Neil Patel, AOL, HackerNoon, The Baltimore Sun, Independent Australia among others.