The Experience of Being a Graduate Counseling Student



The start of graduate school can feel intimidating; however, it is also exciting to begin travelling down a path that provides an opportunity for immense personal and professional growth. Upon graduation, you will not be the same person you were the first day you walked into your counseling classes. Whether we like it or not, graduate school changes us—almost always for the better.

Preparation can facilitate a smooth transition into graduate school, and it is an important precursor to long-term graduate school success. Students enter into graduate programs with varying degrees of preparation to adapt to graduate coursework. Some students who enter graduate school are transitioning directly from undergraduate coursework, while others may have been out of school for quite some time. As you begin to transition to graduate school, it is important that you ensure your life circumstance is conducive to success. As discussed in chapters 5 and 6, make sure that your competing demands are at a minimum and you are poised to be focused on, and successful with, your graduate studies.

Your Coursework

During the transition to graduate school, you may feel anxious and worried about expectations and the new demands that will be placed upon you. You may have questions such as:

  • • Will my coursework be more challenging than my undergraduate studies?
  • • Will I be able to be successful as I move to a higher level of education?
  • • Will I have any time at all to see my family and friends?
  • • Will I be able to work while I go to school?
  • • How will I pay my bills while living with a limited income?

All of these worries are normal, and these questions can be answered by speaking with counseling program faculty members, your university’s financial aid department, other students in the program, and planning out a plan of study that fits with your unique personal and professional needs.

One major difference between undergraduate and graduate educational experiences is the interaction between professors and students. The interaction between professors and students is a tremendous resource that may provide opportunities for students to seek out advice and assistance that can ease their transitions into graduate school and clarify expectations relative to coursework. Additionally, because some courses may vary in how often they are offered, it can be helpful to collaborate with professors to plan coursework several semesters in advance. You may find that you receive more individualized attention in graduate school. At the point students are admitted into a counseling program, the program faculty make a commitment to the students to help them be successful. It is important for you to remember that professors want to see students succeed; ask for help when needed.

It is common for incoming graduate students to feel overwhelmed and experience self-doubt. Reviewing thick course syllabi and considering the requirements for program completion can lead some students to question their ability to succeed. This fear of failure can be especially pronounced for first-generation college students. You can expect fewer assignments than in undergraduate courses, but the assignments you do have will typically be more intensive. Examinations also vary, and most courses may only require midterm and final exams, while others may require written assignments in place of formal testing. Having fewer assignments than in your undergraduate studies can allow for additional time to read your texts and prepare for your major assignments. You may also be expected to pass a comprehensive examination at the end of your graduate counseling program. Most programs that have a comprehensive exam require this for graduation.

Expectations, from institutions as well as professors, are often higher in graduate programs, and many programs require a final grade of a "B” or above for each course in order to continue in the program. This grade requirement is due to the fact that some states require a grade of "B” or higher as a part of their state licensure requirements for counselors. While these expectations may prove intimidating, you may find comfort in knowing that graduate programs require coursework related directly to the field of counseling; topics are those of interest to students, and electives outside of the counseling program are not typically required, thus increasing the odds of success in grades.

The scheduling of coursework may also vary from your undergraduate experiences. Oftentimes, graduate courses are offered once per week and may be longer in duration than undergraduate courses (e.g., 3 hours). A longer block of class time will require you to exercise extended attention and stamina, particularly if you are employed during the day and attend evening or weekend classes. Many programs offer courses during late afternoon and evening hours to accommodate those students who are employed during the day or are attending to family obligations.

The structure and format of graduate coursework is also different from most undergraduate experiences. For example, many courses utilize an experiential and interactive format, which may feel different from the familiar lecture-based style that is still the norm in many undergraduate programs. You can also expect to engage in a great deal of self-exploration and reflection regarding your own life experiences and personal characteristics (see Box 8.1). Rather than focusing assignments solely upon the regurgitation of concepts covered in coursework, you will be asked to apply many concepts to your own experiences and development, and openly share these insights in your assignments. Graduate counseling programs seek to facilitate the development of your professional and personal growth, and self-reflection is a key component in this process. You might revisit chapter 5 for more information and suggestions for engaging in continued self-reflection. You may even consider entering personal counseling as a way to prepare for the self-exploration and growth that graduate counseling studies invite.

Coursework Preparation Strategies

Being aware of personal strengths and potential areas for growth is important for graduate study in counseling. Basic competencies in the use of library databases to complete counseling literature searches, applying APA style in your writing, and utilizing technology to complete assignments (e.g., PowerPoint, word processing software, email) are expected of graduate

Box 8.1


My entry into a graduate counseling program proved to be a life-changing experience, and it was a catalyst to my personal and professional growth. While I drew upon information about expectations from my past personal experience, I also learned about the expectations of a graduate program in counseling through the lens of several different entities, namely peers, faculty, and my university. As I entered graduate school, I learned to be more reflective of my tone, my appearance, and my communication with others. In an age dominated by technology and social media, I also learned that it is important to be cautious of how I portray myself in social media outlets. Something else I quickly learned is that when you enter a counseling program, you embark on a journey of continuous growth and development; we are basically required to become lifelong learners. What I did not expect out of graduate school was the way it would grow me as a leader ... not just a leader in terms of professional matters, but the way it grew me, personally, as a leader in all aspects of my life. There are so many opportunities and ways to get professionally involved if you just reach out!

Christian D. Chan, Student, The George Washington University

students. If you think you might need assistance in enhancing these basic competencies, it is important to reach out for help prior to encountering problems during your studies. It is important to remember that seeking extra help does not imply that you are not "fit” for graduate coursework. Because students enter into graduate school with diverse backgrounds and experiences, it is quite normal to need help strengthening your skills in one or more areas associated with your graduate coursework. Campuses are rich with resources that can be used to develop these skills. Campus libraries may offer training to increase proficiency in searching online databases, and writing centers may offer tutoring and other services to enhance APA style writing skills. Counseling programs may also offer in-house trainings in these areas to assist students in succeeding in their programs. Be sure to take advantage of these supplemental learning opportunities, because they can ease your transition into graduate school.

It is also beneficial to make connections with professors and peers within the program. Professors can offer advice, support, and referrals to resources that you can use to promote your academic success. You may wish to meet with program professors to discuss course expectations and any anticipated challenges to academic success. You can also work with your professors to collaboratively develop a plan of action to assist in addressing challenges. Additionally, peers can provide support and normalize feelings of self-doubt and anxiety. Reaching out to current graduate students who are further along in the program can also be helpful in developing realistic expectations of coursework and in soliciting advice regarding program navigation. Many graduate counseling programs emphasize the importance of mentoring, with both students and faculty serving as mentors. Mentoring opportunities can demystify the graduate school experience and promote your professional growth and development.

Another very important preparation strategy for students is to engage in regular meetings with assigned academic advisors. Because some graduate courses may not be offered every semester, you must plan accordingly so as to not delay your intended graduation date. We suggest you lay out your plan of study during your first semester so that you can prevent surprises later in your program. Planning out each semester’s coursework can be helpful in balancing course load and in ensuring that program completion is congruent with your goals and abilities.

Know the expectations of the courses and the program and be proactive in asking questions when clarification is needed, whether in class or in scheduled meetings with academic advisors or other program faculty. Some of the expectations for professional behavior among graduate students are described in Box 8.2. Reach out to professors and peers—they

Box 8.2


Professional behavior begins by following the guidelines outlined by the university, the counseling program, and the ACA Code of Ethics. Beyond following minimum standards, I expect students to display a commitment to personal and professional growth, and seek opportunities to prepare themselves to become highly effective professional counselors. A commitment to excellence requires motivation to engage in activities beyond the minimum requirements of the counseling program. I encourage students to assume responsibility for their learning by identifying educational opportunities through professional associations and mentorship. In their interactions with faculty, supervisors, and peers, students should exhibit professional dispositions (e.g., collaboration, respect for diversity, openness to feedback). As students complete their program, I expect students to effectively demonstrate counseling skills and receive positive feedback from their fieldwork supervisor.

Jake J. Protivnak, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LSC, Associate Professor and Department Chair, Youngstown State University

are valuable resources that can provide support and guidance. During times of self-doubt, it may be helpful to remind yourself that you have been accepted to a master’s program based on the program’s belief that you are capable of successfully completing the degree requirements and becoming a competent counselor. Professors want to see you succeed, so use them as a support.

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