How To Become a Cosmetologist

Have you always wanted to make a living providing hair styling, skin care, nail design, and/or makeup artistry services? A career as a cosmetologist may be your destiny. Deciding to enter the field of beauty and cosmetology is just the first step toward your future career, however. You'll need to go through the necessary steps to gain your education and pass your official exams before you can start practicing as a cosmetologist. Fortunately, there are a variety of accredited beauty and cosmetology schools located all over the United States, making it easy for students to find the right program to enroll in. A good cosmetology school will give you the training and guidance needed to pass your official licensure exams to practice as a cosmetologist.

Steps & Process to Become a Cosmetologist

  1. Enroll in a Cosmetology Program
  2. Pass Exams and Get Licensure
  3. Find Cosmetology Employment

Step 1: Enrolling in a Cosmetology Program

Selecting a cosmetology school is an important decision that will have a big impact on your future career. There are many beauty and cosmetology programs across the country, but it′s crucial that you select a school that provides solid instruction and hands-on training. Take the time to do some research before selecting a school. Ask to speak to current students and instructors, and find out if the school has a job placement program. Reputable schools will be happy to tell you about their programs and about career placement after graduation. It's important to note that cosmetology programs can be found at community colleges or private schools, and some use titles such as "academy", "institute", "school", "college", and more. These are all essentially the same type of establishment, so don't let the title dictate which one you choose; always do your due diligence to fully research any cosmetology or beauty school to make sure it's reputable, accredited, and offers the programs you desire.

Depending on your state, you will be required to complete between 1,000 and 2,300 training hours as part of your cosmetology program. Most programs are designed to be completed in about a year, more or less. Requirements to enroll in a cosmetology program may include:

  • Minimum age (some start as young as 16; check your state and school of choice for more info)
  • High school diploma or GED
  • Successful completion of assessment tests (to show competence in writing, reading, mathematics, and more)
  • Must fill out and submit an application and pay any required fees

Once enrolled in cosmetology school, the curriculum will typically consist of a mix of cosmetology courses to include hands-on training. Common topics covered may include:

  • Basics (tools, sanitation, hygiene, anatomy & physiology, etc.)
  • Hair treatments/chemical application (chemical safety, hair coloring, shampooing and toning, etc.)
  • Hair styling/dressing (cutting, trimming, curling, straightening, etc.)
  • Salon management (client relations, labor law, marketing, emergency first aid, etc.)
  • Esthetics (skin care, makeup, waxing, etc.)
  • Nail technology (grooming, polish application and removal, etc.)
  • Elective courses

Step 2: Exams and Licensure

Upon graduating from a cosmetology program, students are required to take and pass state board examinations to officially gain licensure. More than one exam may be needed if you wish to obtain a specialty permit in addition to your cosmetology license, so check your state's requirements for all the details. Testing may sound scary, but a good cosmetology program will prepare you to pass these important examinations.

Cosmetology license exams will vary depending on state, but are typically comprised of a written portion and a practical portion, where students demonstrate their skill to an evaluator. The written portion may take anywhere from 50 to 120 minutes to complete, while the practical portion can last several hours. These tests are usually offered in a variety of languages. There are typically separate licensing exams for cosmetology, esthetics, manicuring, and electrology, though again this can vary by state.

If you do not pass your license exam on the first try, you are allowed to re-take the exam, though a refresher course may be required. If you do pass your exam, your cosmetology license will be sent to you in the mail, and you will be eligible to practice cosmetology in a licensed salon or spa. Cosmetology licenses generally need to be renewed every other year.

Step 3: Finding a Cosmetology Job

So, you've graduated from a cosmetology program and passed your state board exams. Congratulations, you are to start work as a cosmetologist! Now it's time to put your skill to use and start earning money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects favorable employment for cosmetologists through the year 2026, with growth of up to 10%, which is faster than average. While pay can fluctuate depending on factors like location, employer, and types of services rendered, the national median pay for cosmetologists as of 2016 was $24,300 per year. See more about a cosmetologist salary.

To prepare to find a job as a cosmetologist, you should draw up a resume highlighting your skills, and tailor it to the type of role you are trying to fill (hairstylist, esthetician, nail tech, etc.). You should also put together a portfolio with photos of your work. Having a physical portfolio is handy, but many are also choosing to prepare an online portfolio as well, making it easy to share with potential employers. Letters of recommendation from your beauty school instructors and any previous satisfied clients are also helpful to have on hand.

There area many ways to find a job in the field, but the most common include:

  • Job placement services through your beauty school. Not all schools offer this, but many do, and taking advantage of the relationships your school has with area salons and spas is a great way to find employment.
  • Job boards. Indeed, Monster, LinkedIn, and even Facebook and Craigslist can help you browse job openings and find information about who's hiring in your area.
  • Ask friends and family for spa and salon recommendations and leads, and visit them to inquire about potential job openings and/or drop off a resume.