What to Expect in Cosmetology School
Featuring Q&A with Marti Klingler, beauty professional and cosmetology student
Cosmetologists help clients look and feel their best by providing various personal services—including hair cutting and styling, manicuring, pedicuring, makeup application, hair removal, and skin care. If you want to pursue a career as a cosmetology professional, you’ll need to attend some form of cosmetology school or training.
All U.S. states require that cosmetologists train for a certain number of hours and pass licensing exams to work in the profession. This is where formal training comes in. Reputable cosmetology school programs offer at least the number of education hours required by the state. They also follow the state-approved cosmetology curriculum and cover the material included in the state’s written and practical skills exams.
A few states, such as Washington and Michigan, allow aspiring cosmetologists to complete apprenticeships instead of school. An apprenticeship typically includes both on-the-job hours and related supplemental instruction under the supervision of a licensed instructor.
Although apprenticeships may allow you to earn money while training, they aren’t accepted in every state and have more required hours to complete—which is one reason many students choose to attend cosmetology school to get the training they need.
Cosmetology School Curriculum
A cosmetology program typically leads to a certificate (or in some cases, especially with lengthier community or technical college-based programs, an associate degree) and comprises both classroom learning and hands-on training with mannequins or real clients. Though every cosmetology program is different, you can generally expect to learn several core subjects.
Introduction to Cosmetology
This general introductory course usually provides an overview of human anatomy and physiology, proper use of the tools of the trade, personal grooming, ethical concerns involved in working with clients, and hygiene and sanitation practices.
Hair Cutting, Coloring, and Styling
You’ll learn the essentials of shampooing and hair care, as well as how to cut, shape, color, perm, and style various types and lengths of hair.
Your program should provide a solid overview of skin types, cleansing techniques, and skin care treatments, from waxing and hair removal to facial treatments such as peels, microdermabrasion, masks, moisturizers, and makeup application. Most states offer a specific esthetician license that requires full training in esthetics topics, but a cosmetology program may include some basic esthetics education.
Manicuring and Pedicuring
You will learn the art of nail treatments, from filing and polish applications to hand and foot wraps, massages, paraffin dips, acrylic or gel tips and forms, nail repair methods, and nail art. Most states offer a speific nail technician license for those who are pursuing that job type specifically, but cosmetology is an all-encompassing beauty education that will likely include some nail coursework.
With 43% of cosmetologists self-employed or operating salon businesses, many programs address the business aspects of running a salon, such as marketing and labor issues.
Applying for Cosmetology School
Each cosmetology school has its own unique requirements and applications you’ll need to submit, so be sure to check each prospective school’s application requirements and deadlines. However, below we list typical requirements of cosmetology schools.
You may also need to provide a copy of your driver’s license and proof of high school graduation through a diploma, transcripts, or GED documentation. Some schools require that you submit a personal essay, complete an aptitude test, or provide answers to questionnaires.
With cosmetology school, there usually aren’t many prerequisites involved before you can apply and be accepted. Typically, if you’re at least 16 to 18 years old and have a high school diploma or GED, you are eligible to apply.
However, every state and school is different so make sure you consult any prospective school about its enrollment requirements before applying.
How to Choose a Cosmetology School
The decision about what cosmetology school to choose is a highly personal one. It should be based on your lifestyle, career goals, scheduling needs, financial situation, and preferred academic setting—not to mention the quality of the school or program.
Here are some specific factors to consider:
Accreditation is a process in which a third party conducts an unbiased review of an academic institution’s quality. Certain type of accreditation are required for the school that you attend for you to receive federal or state financial aid, and states may not accept your training hours for licensure if your school isn’t accredited or state-approved.
Be sure you know your state’s training requirements and that any program you consider aligns with them. If, for instance, your state requires 1,500 hours of training and the school you’re looking at only offers 1,000, it probably isn’t the best school for your career goals.
If there’s an area of cosmetology you’re interested in exploring in more depth (for example, manicuring, esthetics, natural hair, or makeup artistry), make sure the school offers specific training in that specialty.
What’s the school’s graduation rate? Where do its students go on to work? How does the school or program help graduates find employment? Be sure that a certificate or diploma from this school is respected in the field and that most students graduate and find work.
While you should always take reviews with a grain of salt, it’s smart to read reviews from former and current students to get a sense of whether students there are happy and feel prepared for the profession. Google, Facebook, Indeed, and Yelp can all provide valuable insight.
What are the program’s requirements for courses and practical training, and do they align with your scheduling needs? If you need to work while attending cosmetology school or have kids to take care of, finding a part-time program or one that offers some online courses can make it much easier to fit schooling into the rest of your life.
As Reno, Nevada, nail technician and salon owner Marti Klingler explains, the more practice you can get with actual clients during your schooling, the better. “You really learn when you actually get behind the chair and start working,” Klingler says. “If I were to go back to school, I would see how many clients the students actually get to work with, because you want to be working all day to get that experience.”
How Much Does Cosmetology School Cost?
How much you pay for your training depends on the school, your program hours and length, its location, and the amount of financial aid you receive (if any). According to the American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS), an independent beauty school in a major metropolitan area usually costs $10,000 or more for a full cosmetology program. In contrast, a similar program in a rural area could be closer to $6,500.
Typically, an esthetician or manicuring program will run anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000. These programs usually require fewer hours than a full cosmetology program.
Remember that cosmetology school grants and scholarships may be available to you. You might also be able to borrow the money you need through cosmetology student loans.
How Long Does Cosmetology School Take?
The amount of time it will take you to complete your training depends largely on whether you will be attending full- or part-time, as well as how many program hours your state’s licensing board requires, so be sure to check your state’s regulations. AACS’s reported national averages for the required number of training hours are:
- Cosmetology: 1,400 to 1,600
- Esthetics: 650
- Electrology (hair removal): 500
- Nail Technology: 300
If you attend school full-time, you can earn your certification or degree more quickly—usually in two years or less. For a shorter program (such as nail technology), you can usually complete it in six months or less. However, if you attend part-time, any cosmetology school program will take longer. Some states may require you to complete your hours within a certain time, so check state requirements before choosing part-time study.
Preparing to Attend Cosmetology School
Before you enroll in cosmetology school, be sure you’re ready for the demands of your courses, like working hard and arranging your schedule to accommodate classes, studying, and other obligations. It’s also essential to evaluate whether you have the necessary qualities to work in this profession.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), cosmetologists should demonstrate creativity, strong time-management skills, great communication and listening skills for working with customers, tidiness, and physical stamina. After all, you’ll likely be standing behind a chair or leaning over clients for extended periods.
Here are a few things you can do to set yourself up for success:
- Check your prerequisites. It’s true that cosmetology schools generally don’t have many prerequisites, but if they require a diploma or GED to get in, it’s worth knowing ahead of time, so you know what you need to do to prepare well in advance.
- Make sure you can pay for it. Ensure you have a plan to pay for school, whether using your own funds or financial aid. If money is tight, explore grants, scholarships, loans, or even consider delaying school until you can save enough money.
- Secure the supplies you’ll need. Check with the school about what supplies you’ll need (scissors, combs, etc.) and whether the school will provide you with a beauty kit as part of your tuition.
- Establish a support system. Be sure you have a network of supportive friends and family who can help you arrange childcare, set aside time and space to study, and offer encouragement or support.
- Have the right attitude. Cosmetology school is fun, but it’s also hard work. Make sure you’re mentally prepared to give it your all. Seek out inspiration, research trends, practice skills at home, attend student or networking events, and seize every opportunity for hands-on learning. As Klingler points out, “You get out of it what you put into it.”
Preparing for Licensure
The first step in preparing for cosmetology licensure is knowing what your state’s licensing board requires, as this will determine whether you’re able to work in this profession. Before you even begin cosmetology school, you should find out how many hours of coursework your state requires and whether the program you’re considering can help you meet that requirement. Ensure it will cover the required subject matter and prepare you for the licensing exam.
Additionally, if you plan to specialize in an area (such as hair coloring or makeup artistry), make sure you know what license is appropriate for that specialty and whether the school will provide sufficient training.
You’ll also need to pay for the licensure application. This amount varies by state—in Delaware, for example, the fee for a cosmetology license is $128 (not including exam fees), but in Washington, it’s $25. Learn more about state-by-state licensure requirements on our cosmetology licensing page.
Continuing Education in Cosmetology
States often require continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain or renew your license. Check with your state board of cosmetology to determine whether your state requires CEUs for renewal, which subjects are required, and how frequently you should plan to earn them.
For example, the state of Ohio requires cosmetology license holders to complete one hour of continuing education on board laws and rules, one hour on personal wellness, three hours on safety and infection control, and three hours in a subject matter related to your scope of services. Licensees must complete these classes sometime during the two-year renewal period.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, cosmetologists must complete a minimum of six hours (four in your practice discipline and two in cosmetology law and sanitation) of CEUs before renewal.
Crossover and Advanced Cosmetology Training and Certifications
If you’ve earned your license in esthetics, manicuring, or another specialty, you’ll need to complete additional schooling to earn a cosmetology license. Some states have accelerated pathways to licensure if you already have some of the relevant schooling done—for instance, if you want to add a barbering license to a cosmetology license or vice versa.
Others who have a cosmetologist license may want to become a master cosmetologist, signifying that you’ve earned advanced training and experience. In that case, you’ll likely need additional work experience, education credits, and another licensing exam. Requirements vary by state, though not all states have an official master cosmetologist status available. CIDESCO is an international organization that offers advanced certifications.
Cosmetologists wishing to become cosmetology instructors will need further schooling and experience, including student teaching, before earning a cosmetology instructor license. Again, check your state’s requirements (or your local cosmetology school that offers cosmetology teaching coursework) for what it requires before you can teach cosmetology.
You can also pursue certifications within cosmetology that enable you to provide certain specialized services such as microdermabrasion or hair braiding. While gaining skills in these types of specializations may not necessarily lead to additional certificates or licensure, they can make you a more qualified and in-demand beauty professional.
Marti Klingler is a licensed nail technician and owner of Nails by Marti May in Reno, Nevada. Klingler earned her nail tech certificate from Prater Way College of Beauty in Sparks, Nevada, in 2006. In 2012, she returned to school to earn her cosmetology training from Redken International Academy of Style in Reno so she could include hair design and skin care in her professional offerings. She is currently studying for her cosmetology exam.
How has cosmetology school helped you pursue your career?
Cosmetology school teaches you to pass the test, which you need in order to get your license and practice. My school brought in professionals who were already working in the field to talk about what it was like or show you their work, and we got to practice working on clients to get a feel for that. Teachers are watching you the whole time, and they check in with you to make sure you’re doing things the right way. So it helped me understand what to expect and get enough knowledge to get started.
How did you choose a cosmetology school?
When I went to cosmetology school, there weren’t very many options in my area, so my school was basically the only one near me. When I chose Redken, I’d been in the industry for a while and had met several people who had gone there and really liked it, so I went on referrals.
Do you feel like your training prepared you for a career in cosmetology?
I feel like the classes really just get you through the test, but, honestly, you learn more during your practical training, when you’re actually behind the chair doing hair or giving 10 pedicures a day. When I went to school the first time, there weren’t very many clients coming to the school, and I’d have days when I didn’t have a single client all day, which meant I was working on a mannequin or on another student. The hands-on part was the most important. I wish I’d gotten more of that. These days, schools offer a lot more of those opportunities, which is great.
What were your favorite aspects of cosmetology school?
My favorite part about cosmetology school was that I learned about a lot of things—hair, skin, and nails—instead of just one area of focus. I also liked that I got to see real professionals come in and do live demos. Seasoned stylists would come in and show different hair-cutting techniques, which was always exciting.
What advice would you have for students looking to start cosmetology school?
In my experience, a lot of the students goofed off and didn’t take it very seriously. Most of those people I met while I was a student are not practicing cosmetology now. My advice would be to take every day seriously. Take on as many clients as you possibly can. The more hands-on stuff you do, the more you learn. Pushing a cuticle back on a fake hand is completely different from doing it on a real client’s hand, so that’s the kind of experience you need to have.