If you’re currently in or are considering a counseling psychology program, you’re probably familiar with the acronyms like LMHC, or LPC, or other credentials behind people’s names. Here, Nicole Greenwald, a licensed counselor with over 10 years of experience, talks about the most frequently asked questions about the counseling licensure process—from different state requirements to hours of supervision.

What is counseling licensure?

Licensure is the granting and regulating of a license for professionals. To practice as a counselor or therapist, you need to become licensed. In our country, licenses are issued by the state, which means we have 50 different processes for 50 different states, and each one has different criteria in place for regulating the practice of mental health counseling and therapy in their state.

The first place to start is knowing the licensure process in the state where you live, and also to check the process in a state you might live in the future. As you’re researching the license requirements in your state or the state you might want to live in in the future, bear in mind that this is a process. You’ll notice that some of the requirements are a bit different, and that’s okay. That’s just knowledge that you want to come equipped with as you pursue your education—which leads me to the first step of licensure requirements.

What are the education requirements to become a licensed counselor?

Each state is going to have specifics around what they expect from your education. To practice as a professional counselor therapist, you need to have a master’s degree in a behavioral science-related field. That might be a master of science and counseling, or it might be a master of arts in counseling psychology, like our program here at The Seattle School. But you need to show that the degree received matches their education requirements.

The education requirement will spell out content areas that you’re expected to have some robust training and knowledge in. That ranges from things like research and assessment to treatment to working with diverse populations. Something that you’ll want to pay attention to is how many credit hours of each subject area does that state care about. Some states will want you to have six credits of ethics. Another state might want four credits. So again, just be equipped with the knowledge of what your state or states that you might want to practice in are looking for in a counselor.

How important is my school’s accreditation?

After you have a sense of the content areas that your state wants you to have experience in, pay attention too to the accreditation they want your school of training to have. The Seattle School is regionally accredited through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which is the regional accrediting body for the Pacific Northwest. If you’re from a state that prioritizes CACREP applicants for licensure, give the Department of Health a call and find out what their appeals process is. Most states, if not all, have an appeal process in place, and often it will default into regional accreditation and perhaps showing “Here’s how my program matches CACREP requirements.”

Where can I find the application to become a licensed counselor or therapist?

Applications for licensure are typically found on your state’s Department of Health website. The most important thing that your state will ask you to meet is the education requirement, which looks at the program’s curriculum, such as: What did you get training in? What are the content areas that you have expertise? They track research assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and working with diverse populations. Some states will require specific courses, like drug and alcohol dependency, or vocational and occupational direction. Whatever program you choose, you’ll want to make sure that as you’re signing up for classes, you are following those guidelines.

Does The Seattle School meet counseling licensure requirements for the state of Washington?

As a school with a counseling program in the state of Washington, our counseling psychology program automatically meets all of the curriculum requirements for the state of Washington. But if you’re coming to The Seattle School from another state, or know that after coming here you might move to another state, you’ll want to have the state’s curriculum requirement list alongside you as you’re registering for classes. Our academic advisors actively work with students on as discerning classes to register for in the program.

How does my internship impact becoming a licensed therapist?

The last component of your education that you’ll want to pay attention to is the internship expectations. To complete a masters in counseling, you will need to complete a clinical internship. That means you’re out in the community working at a site and working directly with clients. Every state has different requirements, mostly related to the hours that you’ve completed. For instance, Colorado wants you to have 600 internship hours during your program of study. Washington State wants you to have 250 hours during your program of study. We have incredible partnerships with mental health agencies and other counseling services around the region. Each year we do an internship fair, and there are a number of sites that pursue our students to work at their organizations.

Practically speaking, what does the licensure application process look like?

Once you’ve completed your degree, you’ll apply for licensure in the state where you wish to practice. All states have something that’s called a postgraduate supervision experience. What that means is you’re in the field, you’re practicing as a therapist, but you’re doing that under supervision of a more seasoned clinician. or instance, in Washington state post-graduation, you go online to the Department of Health, apply for licensure, submit things like your transcript, offer information around how you met the expectations, and let them know that you’re working with a supervisor, and they send you something back saying “Wonderful, congratulations, you’re a licensed mental health counseling associate”. In Washington, associate means you’re working towards full licensure.

Supervision means that you have someone who’s a seasoned person in the field who legally is responsible for you in your work and is someone who you legally can lean into. Because counseling is such a unique field, and so much of it is rooted around containment and creating a safe space that’s confidential for the people that are coming and bringing such tender parts of their stories, you’re going to be holding a lot. A supervisor is a safe, legal space where you can bring the content that you’re working with in a clinical way and get support, feedback, and development.

How long do I have to remain under counseling supervision?

In Washington State, associates are under supervision for 3000 hours. That sounds like a lot, but depending on the pace at which you’re working, it typically takes people anywhere from 1 to 3 years to complete those hours. The 3000 hours is broken up into two ways: indirect and direct. Indirect means anything you’re doing related to your clinical work. It might be reading a book. It might be attending a training. It might be doing your case notes. It might be working with your supervisor. That’s 1800 hours of the 3000. Direct hours are any work you’re doing directly with another person. That could be individual therapy, family therapy, or group therapy. It’s any time you’re doing direct clinical work with a person.

How do I find a supervisor?

If you’re working in a community mental health agency, or in a hospital setting, typically you’re assigned a supervisor, and that person signs off on your clinical work. If you’re in private practice, or maybe you’re in an agency setting that doesn’t offer the type of support that you feel like you need to thrive in the work, you can pursue an approved supervisor. An approved supervisor is someone who is also licensed in the state where you’re practicing, and has met additional requirements beyond the counseling license to become an approved supervisor. They meet with you on a regular basis, and when you are reaching the culmination of your hours, they’ll sign off on the hours that you completed under their supervision.

What are CEU’s in relation to counseling licensure?

In addition to your clinical hours and your supervision hours, you’ll also need to show proof of continuing education units (CEU’s). This is an ongoing part of working as a professional in the field. It’s very important and valuable to be able to continue to learn and grow, and that’s one of the expectations of your license is that you’ll be committed to. To apply for licensure you’ll need to show that you’ve completed 36 hours of continuing education.

Is there a test or exam I need to take in order to become a licensed counselor?

The final component of applying for licensure is taking a national exam. There are two options available. There is the NBCC, which is the National Board of Certified Counselors exam. And there’s the NCE, which stands for the National Counselor Exam. Washington State will accept either exam. Some states will only accept one or the other. So again, as you’re researching the requirements for your state or the state you wish to live in, pay attention to what they require. NCE is a multiple-choice exam and is comprehensive around the field of counseling. The NBCC is a more vignette-focused exam and will present various scenarios and ask diagnostic and theory questions. I would say if you’re going to get licensed in Washington, think about the way you learn and your study approach, and pick the exam that aligns most with you.

You can complete the exam at any point in your licensure period. So you could do it the day after you graduate when theories and terms and theorists are fresh in your mind. You could put it off and do it right before you’re ready to submit everything to the state. I would recommend doing it earlier rather than later.

Now that I’ve completed all the requirements to become a licensed counselor, what are my next steps?

Once you’ve completed what’s called your licensure period, you submit everything to the state. They review it and send you back a certificate showing that you are a licensed mental health counselor or licensed professional counselor. At this point, you’re fully licensed!

Once you’ve become fully licensed, the work then is to maintain your license. The way you maintain your license is to renew it every year, which means you pay a fee and also complete the continuing education requirements. In Washington, your license is due on your birthday every year and your CEUs are due every two years.

It’s such a privilege to be in a therapeutic role with another person, with a family, with a community, and whether you end up resonating with the title of therapist or counselor or psychotherapist or analyst, whichever path you go down in your practice, just hold that end goal with you as you move through your education and as you move through your licensure period.

Due to changes from COVID-19, we recommend checking for any updates to the licensure process in your state.