How to Become a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

Jessica White

Written by Jessica White

Community Mental Health Worker & Case Manager

Updated & Fact Checked: 4/1/2024

Licensed professional counseling is a career that involves providing mental health care which focuses on a number of complex mental, behavioral, and emotional health issues. These services are delivered through client-centered therapy. This type of therapy does not try to solve a client’s problems for them, but instead, they are given the guidance to work out their struggles while the counselor acts as a support. Typically, an LPC has a master’s or doctoral degree as well as a license. Earning a license requires completing additional steps beyond the education needed for a degree. LPCs enjoy a wide range of work options due to the high demand for their credentials and skills.

What Does an LPC Do?

Licensed professional counselors are responsible for helping a diverse number of clientele that experience mental illness or behavioral health issues. LPCs are very important to the population, and assist many individuals including children, teenagers, adults, the elderly veterans, people who are incarcerated, people struggling with addiction, people who are disabled, and many more. The complexities and nuances surrounding these populations is why LPCs are required to be licensed, which ensures the protection of public safety. In order to reach these populations, an LPC can work for a variety of organizations, which may include:

  • Mental health facilities, residential treatment centers, and substance abuse treatment centers. LPCs at these organizations can help clients who have struggled with addiction get through the difficulties of becoming sober, as this often comes along with relationship issues and housing issues as well. They can assist by creating goals for the future through the use of treatment plans. Similarly, LPCs at mental health facilities can help people struggling with complex mental health diagnoses to determine what may be affecting them and how to help them, whether it may be long-term therapy, medication, or both.
  • Medical facilities and nursing homes. An LPC employed by these organizations may be responsible for supporting those experiencing life changes and emotional struggles that come with medical issues such as injury or illness as well as aging. They can do so by determining what comes next and what to do about it.
  • Government agencies, prisons, or military bases. LPCs in these environments may assist in mental health clinics for local county agencies by working with walk-in clients who are experiencing crisis to create a safety plan or help them decide to go to the hospital to receive further care. This process may depend on the state. An LPC employed by a prison may work to assess the mental health of individuals who are incarcerated. They might also help people serving in the military adjust to the variety of complex and difficult circumstances they may be experiencing.
  • Schools and universities. LPCs who work at educational organizations can provide counseling services for students of all ages, including elementary school students, high school students, college students, and adults. Counselors support these students emotionally, mentally and give them advice with social issues. Many individuals at this stage of life have unique issues, since students can have particular struggles that those not in school don’t have.
  • Private practice. LPCs who choose this path have the option to choose their own hours, although they should also accommodate the schedules of their clients. When running a private practice, an LPC may also deal with insurance companies, marketing their practice, taking and updating client notes, billing for services, and more.

In summary, the main role of a licensed professional counselor is to listen to the struggles clients are facing. These clients can be of any age. LPCs help the clients by assisting them in developing better coping skills, improving their communication and self-esteem, and changing their behavior. The goal of a counselor is to help clients improve their mental health for a better life.

Why Are LPCs Important?

LPCs are vital to helping individuals navigate different struggles. These struggles often cause someone difficulty functioning in their daily life, which may include their relationships, careers, parenting, health, and housing. This can lead to other issues such as substance abuse or homelessness. LPCs are important to help these individuals address these struggles before, during, or after a person’s functioning is impacted in a serious way.

In the United States, LPCs are very needed, as almost fifty million people experience a mental illness. This is according to the most recent data, which was gathered in 2019. The same data stated that over fifty percent of adults experiencing the mental illness did not receive treatment. However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the percentage of adults who received mental health treatment increased from 19.2% to 21.6% in 2021. For individuals aged between 18-44, the percentage increased from 18.5% to 23.2%. Symptoms of anxiety and depression significantly increased among young adults in particular between 2020 and 2021. In fact, adults aged 18-44 had the highest increase in percentages of individuals receiving mental health treatment from 2019-2021 when compared to the population aged 45-64 and 65 and over. Of these groups, the CDC states that both men and women were more likely to receive mental health treatment compared to previous years. Additionally, this increase occurred among both cities and more rural areas, which differs from previous years.

These numbers could have increased due to a number of factors, but it’s clear that licensed professional counselors are one of many types of mental health professionals that are needed to help address the many varying needs of the population. Statistics show that mental health care needs keep rising. This may be a factor in why LPCs will experience a high job outlook in the future, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Steps to Become an LPC

Most states require individuals to earn a master’s degree to become a licensed professional counselor along with completing several post-master’s experience hours under the supervision of a licensed practitioner. Additionally, one must pass the national exam. The full steps to become an LPC are laid out below.

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree. This is an important first step to complete if you are at the very beginning of your educational journey. To lay down a strong foundation for the future, you will want to earn your bachelor’s degree in subjects such as sociology, psychology, social work, counseling, or other related fields. The reason for this is that many counseling master’s degree programs have prerequisite requirements that may include the courses that those subjects will likely cover.
  2. Earn a Master’s Degree in Counseling. When deciding where to earn your graduate degree, you will want to choose a master’s program that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). The reason to choose a CACREP accredited program is that the organization ensures that the program has demonstrated that they meet certain quality standards for the profession of counseling. It also ensures stability of the program on both the financial and professional level. Additionally, CACREP accreditation is also beneficial because it also qualifies counselors, upon licensure, to be able to apply or qualify for a license in other states more easily.
    To earn a master’s degree, students typically must complete 60 credits, which takes about two to three years depending on if you are attending school full time. A master’s degree counseling program accredited by the CACREP covers a variety of topics that will help you prepare for licensure and subsequent counseling practice. These subjects can include, but are not limited to:
    • Addiction Counseling
    • Social and Cultural Diversity
    • Assessment and Testing
    • Program Evaluation and Research
    • Ethical Practice in Counseling
    • Human Growth and Development
    • Career Development
    • Counseling and Helping Relationships
      An additional part of earning your master’s degree is completing both practicum and an internship before graduating. Practicum is essentially putting what you have learned into real world experience. Master’s degree counseling students in CACREP accredited programs typically must complete a 100 hour practicum of which 40 hours are direct service to clients. After that requirement is fulfilled, you will then complete a 600 hour supervised internship that involves 240 hours of working directly with clients.
  3. Complete Supervised Field Experience As Required by Your State. By this point, you will have graduated with your master’s degree. The next step is to complete a certain number of hours of supervised clinical work experience. This means that you will be working under a licensed and experienced supervisor to provide services to clients. Typically, this takes about two years to complete, and is between 2,000-4,000 hours. Also, to complete this step, it’s important that you apply for a provisional license from your state. The provisional license allows you to provide services to clients on a temporary basis while you are completing the requirements to earn your license. Once this experience is completed, your supervisor will turn in verification with the state’s counseling board. You will then be able to register for the national counseling exam.
  4. Take the NBCC Exam. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) is the organization that offers two exam options for licensure for those interested in LPC licensure. Individual states may require candidates to pass both exams or just one. The first exam is the National Counselor Examination (NCE), and the second is the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).
  5. Apply for Licensure. Once you have passed the exam, you can then submit the license application and fee to the board in your state. When they have issued you your license, you may begin practicing in the state where you have been issued the license.

How to Get Your LPC License

The requirements to getting your LPC license involve multiple steps that can take several years. The amount of time it takes depends on what kind of education you may already have when you begin exploring the career of a licensed professional counselor. The steps for earning your LPC license are outlined below

  1. You will need a master’s degree. To be admitted into a master’s degree program, you will need to have met the prerequisites for the for which you are applying. You can do so by earning a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. The total time it takes for your education, assuming you are starting without a bachelor’s degree, may be about six years. A master’s degree program can take about two to three years.
  2. After graduation, you will complete supervised clinical hours of experience. This can take around 2,000-4,000 hours depending on your state’s requirements. For example, the state of California requires 3,000 hours to be completed to qualify for licensure.
  3. The next step is to take one or both licensing exams depending on your state. These exams are given by the NCE or the NCMHCE.
  4. If you pass the above exam(s), you can apply for licensure and begin practicing once the license has been issued.
  5. After you have been issued a license, you will need to maintain it. To do so, you need to follow your individual states renewal requirements, which usually involve taking continuing education courses and paying a renewal fee every couple of years.

LPC Pay and Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that the median annual wage for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $48,520 in 2021. It is important to note that the median pay for solely licensed counselors may skew higher, however, the information in the BLS compiles information for other types of counselors that are not licensed and have up to a bachelor’s degree along with the information for LPCs. The career types that require a bachelor’s degree may have a lower rate of pay than careers requiring a master’s degree and license due to lower educational requirements.

The job outlook for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is projected to be 22% over the next decade, which is much higher than average. There are expected to be 77,500 job openings each year

Careers That Are Similar to LPCs

There are several other careers that sound somewhat similar to licensed professional counselors, but vary in duties and priorities in some small but important ways. A few of these careers are listed below.

  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT): A LMFT is a professional in the mental health field, like an LPC. However, they are more likely to work with families, couples, and those struggling with relationship issues. Their education helped them develop the skills needed to assist their clients in navigating complex issues surrounding mental health and relationships. LMFTs may also take on supervisory, directorial, or administrative roles at various agencies.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): A LCSW is another type of mental health professional, but in this role, they provide intensive case management services alongside therapeutic interventions to help improve the lives of their clients. While other mental health professionals (such as LPCs and LMFTs) may also provide case management services, an LCSW is specifically trained to explore resources with clients. In school, they are taught factors that impact a clients life, both socially and in their environment.
  • Psychologist: Both psychologists and LPCs can provide therapy and diagnose clients. However, the careers differ because LPCs try to prevent certain mental health conditions or life issues from worsening, and try to empower clients to make positive change. Psychologists, on the other hand, have a more specialized job. Their approach to mental health care is scientific and they conduct studies of behavior by observing clients. They also identify patterns of behavior. Then, they assess their findings. Often, these studies are used to educate others in the field as well.

Resources for LPC Candidates

National Board for Certified Counselors
American Counseling Association
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
LPC Programs