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Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

If you hope to become a counselor, there are many paths you can take. One of these is a career as a licensed professional counselor (LPC). This page will explain what an LPC does, the steps you must take to obtain your counseling license, and a bit about what to expect after earning your right to work as an LPC.

What is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)?

A licensed professional counselor is a mental health care provider trained to work with individuals and groups to provide care related to mental, behavioral, and emotional issues, including diagnosing and treating disorders.

As a licensed professional counselor, you’ll work with individuals, families, or groups to address issues like substance abuse, learning disabilities, mood disorders, and other mental health disorders, as well as the struggles that come with daily life.

Depending on your education and specialization, you might work in a mental health center, hospital, government agency, residential treatment facility, school, or for a community-based organization. You may also establish a private practice offering counseling services.

Like most other types of counselors, LPCs are highly educated, usually holding a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology or counseling. The state where you plan to practice sets the requirements for entering the career.

What Are Other Terms for a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)?

LPCs go by different titles in some states, which can be a bit confusing. These titles may sound similar but can have different education, testing, and supervised experience requirements.

Other common titles for this role include:

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC)
  • Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC)

So, what is the difference between these titles?

For starters, licensed and educational requirements can vary by state. In general, titles that include terms like “mental health” or “clinical” are licensed to diagnose and treat mental illnesses and disorders, while the others may not be. However, licensed professional counselors may provide a broader range of counseling in areas like career counseling or domestic violence.

What Does an LPC Do?

The exact tasks you may perform in your job as a licensed professional counselor vary based on where you work, your education, and whether you specialize in any specific area. However, most LPCs work with groups or individuals to diagnose mental health disorders and provide personalized treatment plans for recovery.

For example, an LPC might work with patients in a drug-addiction facility to help them understand the underlying issues contributing to their addictions and develop a plan to help them learn to live successful, fulfilling lives.

As with other types of counselors, LPCs can provide therapy and counseling but are not licensed to prescribe or recommend medications. In some states, they can diagnose issues as well.

In addition to counseling and diagnosis, day-to-day duties might include administrative tasks such as scheduling appointments and updating patient files.

Can You Be a Counselor Without a License?

The requirements for serving as a counselor vary by state. In general, if you wish to work with patients who live with mental health disorders, you must obtain licensure as an LPC or the equivalent in your state.

However, the mental health field offers a wide range of career options. Depending on your state, a few counselor positions that may not require licensure include career counselors, school counselors, peer counselors, and alcohol and drug counselors.

Unlicensed counselors may work in a variety of settings, including courtrooms, schools, drug treatment facilities, and domestic violence shelters.

How to Become a Licensed Professional Counselor

As a licensed professional counselor, you may take on a variety of roles related to helping people overcome obstacles and cope with mental disorders. However, preparing for the position requires several steps, including education, hands-on experience, and passing an exam to obtain licensure.

This section focuses on the steps toward getting your LPC license. The specific steps vary by state, so be sure to research the requirements in your state.

Educational Requirements for LPCs: Master’s or Doctoral Degree

The first step to working as an LPC is to obtain a bachelor’s degree—ideally in the field, though that is not necessary. A relevant master’s or doctoral degree is required to be an LPC, so you’ll  need to pursue a master’s degree and possibly a doctoral degree in mental health counseling or psychology from an accredited program.

Several specializations may be available, depending on the state where you plan to practice and the school you select. Common specializations include addiction, marriage, trauma, and forensic counseling.

Courses in a master’s or doctoral program cover a wide range of topics, including counseling theory, substance abuse, mental health diagnosis (in states where LPC can provide diagnoses), mental health therapy, and group therapy practices. If you plan to work in private practice, consider taking business courses to help prepare you to run a successful practice.

Hands-On Practice for LPC Licensure

In addition to completing a master’s or doctoral degree, LPCs must complete hands-on practice under a licensed practitioner’s supervision. During your supervised practice, you’ll likely work under a licensed psychiatrist, social worker, or clinical psychologist to evaluate and treat patients.

Hands-on practice is required before taking the exam to become licensed to practice, and the number of hours required varies by state. If you plan to earn your master’s degree online, talk to the school about your options.

Expect to work with your supervisor to understand how to work with different types of patients, what treatments are most successful, and how to navigate difficult counseling situations.

LPC Examinations

After completing your required supervised practice and classroom training, the next step is to apply and take one of the two exams required for licensure: the National Mental Health Counselor Examination (NMHCE) or the National Counselor Examination (NCE).

If your state requires the NMHCE, expect to be tested using 10 clinical simulations designed to ensure your competency in various situations. The simulations look at several areas, including diagnostic skills, counseling experience, administration skills, and supervision abilities. This exam is offered twice a year—spring and fall—and costs $275. You’ll take it on a computer.

Some states require LPCs to pass the NCE, a 200-question, multiple-choice test taken on paper. Out of the 200 questions, 160 are scored 40 questions are unscored questions used to evaluate potential questions for future versions of the test. The NCE exam’s topics include ethics, assessment, diagnosis, treatment planning, counseling skills, and interventions.  The cost to register and take the NCE exam is $275.

Out-of-State Licensure Applications for LPCs

LPC education requirements vary drastically by state. Therefore, it’s best to obtain your education and licensure in the state in which you plan to practice. If you choose to move states or practice in a neighboring state, there are several out-of-state licensure options.

Several states offer licensure reciprocity, though LPCs may find their new states have different requirements than their previous homes did.

This doesn’t mean you need to retake the NMHCE or NCE; in most cases, you can ask the board to send your test results to the state you wish to practice in. However, you may be required to show you meet all their other requirements and apply and pay for licensure in that state.

What is the Difference Between Counselor Board Certification and Licensure?

Board certification helps employers and potential patients recognize mental health professionals who meet the counseling profession’s standards. Licensure, on the other hand, is a legal requirement to use specific titles and provide treatment in a particular state.

Licensure requires meeting specific education requirements, completing supervised practice, and passing the National Mental Health Counselor Examination. Board certification requires completing a master’s degree (or higher), 3,000 hours of counseling experience, and 100 hours of supervised work over two years.

Continuing Education Requirements for LPCs

Even once you’ve finished your formal education, you’ll likely be expected to keep learning via continuing education (CE) to maintain your licensure. The number of CE hours required vary by state, and some have different requirements for first renewals versus later ones. A few examples include:

  • California: 36 hours for renewal, with six in law and ethics; depending on your exact license, other requirements may exist
  • Kansas: 30 credit hours per two-year renewal, with three in ethics and six in diagnosis and treatment
  • Louisiana: 40 hours per renewal period, with three in ethics and six in diagnosis; board-approved supervisors need three in supervision, and those engaging in telehealth need three in that area
  • New York: 36 hours per three-year renewal period
  • Wisconsin: 30 credit hours per renewal, with four in ethics and professional boundaries

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) can help find places to earn these credits, and many state sites also list accepted continuing education options.