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A Day in the Life of a Guidance Counselor

Few careers are as potentially rewarding—or as frustrating—as that of a guidance counselor, whose job it is to help guide and structure children’s educational and vocational direction as they pass through an unstable and confusing time in their lives. It can be frustrating because you will have limited power to make students follow your advice, and often you will face students “who don’t want to think about the day after tomorrow,” as one counselor put it. A guidance counselor helps students determine courses of study and possible vocations. Counselors try to understand what motivates each student as well as his or her skills and desires. “When you’re doing things right,” wrote one, “it’s like you’re another parent, except they trust you a little more.” Individuals who aspire to enter the field should be aware that emotional as well as intellectual demands come with the territory. As most guidance counselors spend over a third of their time in consultations with students and parents, prospective counselors should be comfortable with teenagers and have excellent communication skills. Another 25 percent of a guidance counselor’s day is spent administering and evaluating tests. Guidance counselors use the results to provide context for existing records of academic performance, teacher evaluations, and a better overall understanding of students’ needs. Some guidance counselors call the continuing education they receive from the students with whom they work the most interesting feature of the profession. “I learned more from them than from any class in college,” wrote one enthusiastic counselor. “I learned more in the first day.”Not all counselors are as positive as this, but the level of satisfaction guidance counselors recorded was one of the highest of any career in this book. Of course, people who don’t love the profession usually leave quickly; guidance counselors have one of the highest initial attrition rates of any profession in this book—a staggering 60 percent within the first two years. Careers that require this degree of emotional commitment can be rough on those individuals who are not prepared to make one on a regular basis.

Paying Your Dues

A bachelor’s degree is required to become a high school guidance counselor, and some states require that the candidate have a master’s degree, as well. To work in public schools, guidance counselors also typically need to be licensed. Coursework should include social studies, psychology, and communications work, with an emphasis on public speaking. Courses dealing with education are important, too; many private schools require that guidance counselors teach courses in addition to performing their counseling duties. A background in statistics and mathematics is important for evaluating students’ standardized tests. By far the most important skill a potential guidance counselor can bring to this profession is the ability to relate to adolescents. This skill requires a combination of the ability to listen, honesty, an open mind, and a sense of humor. Individuals who succeed in this profession communicate well with students.

Present and Future

Guidance counselors were first introduced in the United States in the Northeast in the early 1900s, but this profession didn’t experience any significant growth until the end of World War II. Pushed by the Department of Education, school systems across the country soon “strongly encouraged” the position in every public and private school. Guidance counselors face daunting tasks every day, but their roles at the center of youth education have never been more important. The job market for guidance counselors should be full of opportunity for the next 10 years or so, as enrollment is growing in United States school systems. The problem is that institutional support for guidance counselors is waning. Guidance counselors can be the first to face the consequences of budget cuts, since they are “noninstructional personnel.”

Quality of Life


These early years are the most trying years for guidance counselors. The full emotional impact of helping guide teenagers through difficult personal decisions and life-changing options presents itself to the new hire. Many counselors opt for different occupations after the first couple of years. Individuals who remain must learn to keep personal and professional decisions separate while maintaining warm relationships with students. This juggling act is difficult to manage, particularly in the first few years when older students are making critical decisions but have no context in which to trust in your ability to help them.


Individuals who’ve survived five years as guidance counselors face a much more stable work environment, from which less than 5 percent leave each year. Counselors learn to interpret standardized tests and improve their communication skills with students. Many of them become involved in conferences, lectures, and conventions where issues about vocational and academic counseling are discussed. The hours decrease and pay increases, but administrative duties may increase as well. Many schools like to see a continuous development of guidance-counseling programs, so creative thinking is a must.


Ten-year veterans, for the most part, have found positions where they are happy and satisfied. Pay levels off, and, unless they want to assume additional duties, guidance counselors can expect only cost-of-living salary adjustments. Guidance counselors continue in the same roles as before, but many of them exercise their seniority to initiate parent/ teacher programs that provide a further safety net for troubled teens.