6 Referral Skills

Referral skills are vital for tutors and are an important part of any session wrap-up. Making referrals, however, is easier said than done. In this section, let’s look at the topic in more depth and provide some strategies tutors can use to connect students with useful and appropriate services.

When to Refer

It’s tempting to think that referrals are only dependent on student need. In other words, a student needs emotional support, so we refer to a counselor. They need academic guidance, so we refer to an advisor. They need research assistance, so we refer to a librarian. However, this is an over-simplified way of viewing referrals.

Referrals can be preemptive or preventive. People see doctors regularly for check-ups, not just when they are chronically ill. The same is true for many of the support services around a college campus or in your community. A student does not need to be in crisis to see a counselor. They do not need to be confused about their academic goals to see a guidance counselor. They don’t need to be lost in the databases to consult a librarian. The same can be said for most supports on-campus. When do we make a referral? The answer is to refer early and often.

Referrals can be academic in nature, including recommendations to visit instructor office hours for additional support, to study groups for peer support, referrals to library resources, and similar educational resources. Referrals to non-academic resources are also important, as a student’s daily life can impact their schoolwork. A student who faces food insecurity will have trouble focusing on school if they are distracted by hunger. A student parent without adequate childcare might miss class because they need to stay home with their children. Again, try to think of these and other student scenarios with preventative referrals in-mind.

In the example of the student parent, let’s not wait until they miss an important exam. If the student mentions that they have kids, we can quickly mention “Oh, have you heard about our Student Parent Resource Center?” or “Did you know the Education Program has free child care Monday through Friday?” Of course, this is all contextual and based on the resources available at your campus. We need to do our research before we can refer. But a simple, casual remark about resources early on can go a long way in connecting students early, often, and before hidden barriers become chronic ones.

Quickwrite Exercise

Reflect on your educational journey. Was there ever a time when a teacher, tutor, or fellow student recommended a resource or service that helped you succeed in school? If you can’t think of an example from an educational context, consider any other instances when a person made a good referral—this could even be as simple as a friend recommending a restaurant or movie that you now enjoy. Ask yourself the following, and jot down your answers:

  • At the time, were you already aware of the resource or service that this person shared? Did the referral change your perception in any way?
  • What factors made you trust this person’s referral?
  • When this person offered their referral, was the recommendation individualized? If so, how did they connect the referral to your unique experience?
  • What parts of their referral approach can you use in tutorial sessions?

How to Refer

Some students may be reluctant to get more support. Others may face barriers that prevent access. Others might simply roll their eyes and think, “A library visit sounds boring. No way!” The best approach is one that shows we are familiar with the resource and that we genuinely believe it has value for a student. We want to make a referral personal, and emphasize why we think the resource is worth checking out. This kind of informed referral is only possible when we’re familiar with resources around campus or in our community.

Prior to making an informed referral, we need to take a campus tour, familiarize ourselves with services, and physically enter each support center. When it comes time to refer a student, we can leverage our familiarity to create a more personalized experience. We can give the student directions to the resource or share the name of a specific contact person.1,2 Or if we have time during a shift (and if the Tutoring Director allows tutors to venture off-site during work), then we can walk the student to the resource personally. Referrals should empower the student. Always ask or recommend a resource, and avoid telling a student that they must go somewhere. Students should retain their agency and ability to self-select the supports that meet their needs.

Below are some tips for how to refer gracefully and deliberately, emphasizing the importance of resources and normalizing their usage:

 Table 2.3: Example referrals and how tutors can make them persuasive and nonjudgmental.
Instead of this Try this
“You should go to the library for help with this paper.” “Have you contacted a librarian? For my last assignment, I used the library, and it made things much easier. I saved a ton of time during the research phase. I can introduce you to the reference librarian if you’d like to check it out.”
“The Queer Resource Center is down the hall. Go check it out sometime.” “The QRC is a good place to meet other students and find a sense of community. It’s a safe space, just like the Tutoring Center. They also have really comfy sofas and big tables for doing homework. Wanna check it out together?”

Informal Referrals

In addition to these formal referrals to academic and community resources, tutors can model tactful and thoughtful informal resources. Think about places, spaces, and people who can help students, even if these are not designated “support” services.

Example: An Informal Referral

Perhaps our campus has comfy study space with good light, or big windows. Maybe there are excellent spaces in the library to have a study group, or benches under the trees in a courtyard.

We may have a favorite place on campus, where we enjoy relaxing, doing homework, or even just enjoying the view to de-stress a little bit.

Spaces like these can be seen as a resources for students too, and we should feel free to recommend them!

Referrals to these resources can be unintimidating ways for students to engage more deeply with a campus community. If a student has an exam coming up, fend off some stress by asking if they want to go on a quick walk to or use the campus meditation room for five minutes before diving back into the homework. Simple, informal referrals like these go a long way in cultivating rapport and relieving student anxiety, leading to more productive tutorial sessions.

Something to Try

In order to make informed referrals you need information. Carve some time out of your schedule to gather all relevant resources.

If you work for a college or university, a good first stop is the campus information desk, or reach out to whatever department is in charge of campus tours. Ask what services are available, then visit each one personally. Take brochures and business cards when available, write your own notes, and make sure you leave each service with at least one point of contact—this could be a name, an email address, phone number, or even a Zoom link, as long is it offers a clear way for the learner to connect with the resource.

If you work as a private tutor, your best bet is an Internet search for public services in your community. Make sure you consider academic resources, like public libraries. But don’t ignore all the non-academic resources that can help a student succeed—food banks, housing services, childcare, and so on. Next, follow-up with a phone call or in-person visit to each service. Ask questions, jot down notes, and make sure you have a clear access point for students—that could be an email, phone number, Zoom link, or something similar.



  1. Wayne State University. Referral Skills. Advisor Training Academy. https://advisortraining.wayne.edu/handbook/referral-skills
  2. Rehfuss, M. C. & M. Mentzer (2006). How to Make Effective Referrals: A Three Step Framework. Academic Advising Today. https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/How-to-Make-Effective-Referrals-A-Three-Step-Framework.aspx


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