They're the questions that loom large for all prospective mental health counselors: What are all the requirements for counseling licensure and how will I meet them?
Yes, there are a number of requirements to become a fully licensed mental health counselor, but these goals are totally achievable. Each step is critical for gaining experience and providing expertise in order to confidently enter the profession.
Important to note: State requirements for counseling licensure vary
One of the most important things to keep in mind as you pursue your counseling license is that each state licensing board sets their own requirements for practitioners in their state. That means you need to make sure you meet requirements for the state in which you plan to practice. For example, if you live in New Jersey but plan to work in New York, you will want to make sure you're meeting the New York State requirements. Throughout this blog, we'll note when requirements are state-dependent and remind you to check with the appropriate board.
What are the requirements for earning a mental health counseling license?
Here's a checklist for earning your mental health counseling license (assuming you already have an undergraduate degree):
- Earn a master's degree in counseling (including practicum/internship requirements).
- Take the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination (CPCE) if required by your school.
- Complete post-graduate "supervision" or supervised experience hours.
- Complete the exam required by your state board. Either the:
- National Counselor Examination (NCE) for Licensure and Certification
- National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam (NCMHCE)
- Address any additional requirements as outlined by your states’ licensing board.
- Apply for a license with your state board of counseling.
Step 1: Earn your master's degree
The first step to becoming a licensed professional counselor is to earn your master's degree in counseling. While these programs can have different names like clinical mental health counseling, counseling psychology, or mental health counseling, what you should pay close attention to is the program's curriculum.
CACREP accreditation and counseling curriculums
Counseling master's programs can be accredited by The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), however, attending an accredited program doesn't mean you're guaranteed to get your license. Students at CACREP schools will still need to complete all requirements and pass all examinations that students who attend non-accredited schools need to complete. Most states do not require CACREP accredited programs to qualify for licensure, nor do most counseling jobs.
What CAREP accreditation does help with is to make sure that the curriculum of a mental health counseling program meets standards set by the profession, and, more crucially, requirements for state licensure. That being said, whether the counseling graduate degree programs you are considering are accredited or not, you should compare the curriculums to your state requirements. For example, state boards will require completed hours of academic credit in specific topic areas to apply for licensure. If you examine your school's curriculum, you should see pretty clear equivalents. You should also be mindful that some states do require CACREP accreditation. This is typically expressed by States’ Licensure Websites.
Using the requirements of the state of Wisconsin counseling board and Marquette's curriculum as an example:1
- Wisconsin Counseling Board requirement: Human growth and development
- Marquette University equivalent: Life-Span Human Development
- Wisconsin Counseling Board requirement: Crisis and trauma counseling
- Marquette University equivalent: Trauma Counseling
- Wisconsin Counseling Board requirement: Research and evaluation
- Marquette University equivalent: Research Methods in Counseling
The state board should have short explanations of each requirement so that you can closely compare those with complete course descriptions to make sure that your bases are covered. Each state will also dictate a certain number of hours of practicum and internship experience.
It's important to remember, CACREP evaluates and accredits programs, not people. Fantastic counselors come from both accredited counseling programs and non-accredited counseling programs alike. You should, however, make sure that you're attending an institutionally accredited program, in other words, going to a school that is accredited overall–as opposed to the specialty certification from an organization like CACREP.
Step 2: Take the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination (CPCE) if required by your school
The CPCE exam is an evaluation tool that assesses students’ competence of foundational, counseling-related knowledge and parallels CACREP standards. CPCE scores are reported based on the different CACREP core areas (which mirror those of state boards). Because of this grading structure, taking the CPCE can be a great way to identify where you need to prepare more prior to taking the NCE.2 It also can be a way for universities to evaluate their counseling programs to make sure they're properly preparing students for the mental health counseling profession.
Step 3: Complete post-graduate supervised experience hours
As with nearly all counseling licensure requirements, the number of supervision hours required for licensure, how and when you complete them depends on the state in which you plan to practice.
Once you've graduated from your master's program (and passed the CPCE if required), you'll need to apply for and procure a training license. While you have this license you will complete a minimum number of supervised experience hours. To use Wisconsin as an example once again, its counseling policies stipulate that a prospective counselor needs to engage "...in the equivalent of at least 3,000 hours of professional counseling practice, including at least 1,000 hours of face−to−face client contact, while holding a valid professional counselor training license and supervised by a [qualified person]."3 Requirements for qualified supervisors generally include certified counselors who hold doctorate degrees, licensed mental health counselors who have five years of full-time professional experience and psychiatrists.4
The point of completing supervised hours after you've earned your degree is to continue to build up your first-hand experience with patients while still under the careful guidance of an established counseling professional. According to the Wisconsin statutes, "The supervisor shall monitor the quality of services offered by the supervisee with the purpose of enhancing the quality of skills and services provided by the counselor−in−training. Furthermore, the supervisor shall monitor and provide clinical oversight of the professional services rendered by the counselor−in−training to ensure ethical delivery of services and protection of public health and welfare."
Step 4: Complete the exam required by your state board
The part of licensure that looms largest for many prospective clinical mental health counselors is the licensing exam. State boards typically accept one of two exams. Whichever exam you end up taking there are many materials available online and by faculty recommendation that can help you prepare.
National Counselor Examination (NCE) for Licensure and Certification
The National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE) is a 200-item multiple-choice examination designed to assess knowledge, skills and abilities determined to be important for providing effective counseling services.5
National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam (NCMHCE)
The National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) is designed to assess the knowledge, skills, and abilities determined to be important for providing effective counseling services.6
Step 5: Address any additional requirements as outlined by your States’ Licensing Board
Once again, make sure you’ve taken care of all additional requirements required by the state licensure board of the state in which you plan to practice. These additional requirements might include a jurisprudence examination, additional training or something similar.
Step 6: Apply for a license with your state board of counseling
Once you've completed all the requirements mandated by your state licensure board, you can finally submit an application to be approved for a clinical mental health counseling license. You'll submit your exam scores, graduate diploma, copies of syllabi to show evidence of meeting CACREP standards, records of your supervised hours/field experience, and other paperwork.
How can I ensure I'm anticipating all license requirements for clinical mental health counseling?
One of the best ways to make sure you're prepared for licensing exam eligibility is to talk to an expert: either a licensed professional counselor in your state who has already gone through the process, or, someone who works for the counseling board in your state.
At Marquette University, you'll also have an opportunity to speak directly with faculty at your admissions interview, which is a great opportunity to find out more about curriculum, accreditation, practicums and more. After your materials are reviewed and validated, you'll be licensed!
First things first: Earn your master's degree from a respected counseling program
Earning your mental health counselor license requires a lot more than just passing an exam. Start with a solid foundation by earning a master's in counseling from a university with a reputation for molding competent, compassionate clinical mental health counselors. The online Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Marquette University is designed for your success. Offering the same course work as the on-campus CACREP-accredited master’s program (and led by the same expert faculty), students will gain invaluable clinical mental health counseling knowledge and experience that includes core CACREP areas like counseling theories, treatment planning, professional practice and more. Plus, Marquette offers a specialization option for students interested in providing the unique counseling services necessary for children and adolescents to help some of the most vulnerable members of the population. Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor to learn more about the online clinical mental health counseling program at Marquette University.
- Retrieved on July 14, 2023, from docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/document/administrativecode/MPSW%2014.01(2)
- Retrieved on July 14, 2023, from cce-global.org/assessmentsandexams/cpce
- Retrieved on July 14, 2023, from docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/code/admin_code/mpsw/11.pdf
- Retrieved on July 14, 2023, from docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/code/admin_code/mpsw/12.pdf
- Retrieved on July 14, 2023, from nbcc.org/exams/nce
- Retrieved on July 14, 2023, from nbcc.org/exams/ncmhce