All students have had this thought at least once in their lives:

Citation styles are just another cruel way for professors to make my life difficult.

Sure, when you’re in the middle of writing several long research papers at the same time, it may be hard to understand the need for different reference styles, whether APA or MLA.

But think back to the original purpose of quoting and citing: to encourage researchers to back up their claims with sufficient evidence to give more credibility to their work.

And why do we need that? Can we write our best essays without proper referencing?

Ultimately, proper referencing ensures that all published research is of the highest quality.

And the truth is:

You should be flattered that your professors expect you to follow the same high professional standard. Your educators recognize the value of your work and treat it with respect.

Each academic discipline follows a particular citation style. So what about the APA citation format?

This format was developed by the American Psychological Association, and it is most widely used in the social sciences. Chances are, if you have to write a paper in the APA essay format, it’s for a subject such as psychology, political science, or anthropology. Like most style guides, the APA formatting rules are always changing—right now they come from the latest 6th edition manual, which is where we got these guidelines.

In a nutshell, the APA research paper format requires a certain page layout, in-text citations, and a bibliography (called a reference list). Your APA-style paper will have the following elements: a title page, an abstract, a main body, a reference list, and, if your instructor requests it, an outline.

Scroll down to learn everything you need to know to ace the APA formatting requirements!

📖  General Format

Before writing your essay or research paper, make sure to follow these guidelines:

  • Type on standard-sized paper (8.5” x 11”) with 1-inch (2.54 cm) margins on all sides;
  • Use an easy-to-read font like 12 pt. Times New Roman;
  • Double-space throughout the entire paper;
  • Avoid inserting any extra lines between paragraphs; and
  • Insert a left-aligned header with a short title of your essay in all caps (max. 50 characters, including spaces) and a right-aligned page number on the same line.

Easy, right?

Let’s move on to the content of your paper.

📄  Titile Page

Here’s the deal:

Your title page is the easiest part of your paper—but it is also the very first. That means that you want to get it right because it sets the tone for the rest of your paper.

Keep the following tips in mind to make your title page look super professional.

  • Modify the header you created to contain a “different first page.” Keep the short title in all caps, but add the words “Running head:” before it. It may sound strange, but your title page’s header is supposed to look like this: Running head: SHORT TITLE.
  • Keep the page number only if your instructor told you to do so.
  • About halfway down the page, type your full title again, but capitalize only the first letters of important words (that is, don’t capitalize articles and prepositions). Try to keep your title shorter than 12 words, although you are allowed to type it on two lines.
  • On the next two lines, include your name (without any titles such as Dr.) and the name of your university.

That wasn’t too hard, was it?

Now let’s take a look at the next elements.

✏️  Outline

Although this part of the paper is optional, it is always a good idea to structure your thoughts and ideas by making an outline.

The APA style is not particularly strict about the outline format—the main rule here is consistency.
Two rules of thumb:

  • For numbering, use decimals (regular numbers) or a combination of Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, etc.) and capital letters.
  • For wording, use either all phrases (for instance, adjectives and nouns) or all full sentences.
  • Not good with math and grammar?
  • It’s easier than it sounds. Take a look at these two outline examples.
  • See how neat and uniform they look? These outlines are both effective because they
  • Use parallel constructions (only nouns in the phrasal outline and only sentences in the full-sentence outline);
  • Keep consistent numbering logic; and
  • Will be easy to follow when writing the actual essay.

Got it? Let’s create your abstract then.

📜  Abstract

The thing is:

Nobody has time to read anything longer than a page these days. This is pretty much the reason abstracts were created.

But what is an abstract?

Essentially, an abstract is a very condensed summary of your paper that briefly mentions all of its main points, from your choice of research topic to your methodology, research results, and conclusion.

The secrets to nailing your APA abstract?

  • Start writing it on a new page.
  • Write the word “Abstract” as one plain word in the middle of the first line of the page. Do not use any punctuation or italics, underlining, or bolding.
  • On the next line, type your abstract. Do not indent it! This will be the only non-indented paragraph in your essay.
  • Limit your abstract to 150-250 words. It should not exceed 10% of the paper’s word count.

Now that we’re done with the small things, let’s tackle the main body of your essay.

🏁  Main body

Every professor you’ve ever had has probably told you a million “rules” to follow for the main body of your paper.

The best thing about the APA style?

There are only two things you need to know about the main part of your essay!

  1. Know how to use headings and subheadings to mark different sections.

    The APA style encourages the use of section headings to make reading easier for your audience. This is how you format different levels’ headings:

    Level heading in APA citation style.

    When writing your headings, pay attention to these elements:

    • Capitalization (every word is capitalized at levels 1 and 2);
    • Bold text (all headings except for level 5 are bolded);
    • Alignment (only level 1 is centered; the rest are left-aligned);
    • Indentation (headings at levels 3, 4, and 5 are indented by 0.5”);
    • Italics (level 4 and 5 headings are italicized); and
    • Punctuation and text positioning (headings at levels 3, 4, and 5 end with a full stop and are immediately followed by text).
      Additionally, make sure that every heading is followed by at least 3 lines of text.
  1. Master your use of in-text citations.

    Remember the following rules when citing in text.

    • Always provide the last name(s) of the author(s) and the year of publication for each in-text citation. Normally, you separate these elements with a comma and put them in parentheses at the end of your sentence before the period.
      Example: Citing sources in the APA format is easy (Black, 2015).
    • If you mention the author(s) by name in the sentence, then include only the publication year in parentheses right after the name.
      Example: Black (2015) notes how easy it is to cite sources in the APA format.
    • If you quote directly or paraphrase a specific page, you must also include the page number, preceded by “p.” for a single page or “pp.” for multiple pages.

    Example: It is “incredibly easy” to cite sources in the APA format (Black, 2015, p. 11). Black (2015) describes the citation process and notes that it is “incredibly easy” to cite sources in the APA format (pp. 11-12).

Open book - in-text citations.

As a bonus, here are some general tips for your in-text citations.

  • As you write your paper, cite your sources appropriately right away. Writing “long PDF article” or “book” is not going to save you time in the end.
  • Avoid using too many direct quotations in your essay; try to paraphrase and summarize instead. This way the professor will see that you know what you’re talking about.
  • Citations, including paraphrases, should not make up more than 30% of your paper. Arrive at your own conclusions—otherwise, why should anyone read your essay instead of just looking at the original articles?

❓  Other Question

What If My Source Was Written by Multiple Authors?

If there are two authors, always include both names separated by an ampersand like this: (Smith & Black, 2015). If there are three to five names, cite them all by name the first time like this: (Smith, Black, Jones, & Anderson, 2015). In all consequent citations, use the first author’s name followed by “et al.” like this: (Smith et al., 2015). If there are six or more authors, use the “et al.” approach from the very first citation.

What If There Is No Author?

For sources with no author, write the italicized name of the source instead of the author’s name like this: (APA Guide, 2015).

What If I Cite More Than Two Sources in the Same Sentence?

To cite two or more sources in the same sentence, just put both sources in the same parentheses in alphabetical order, separated by a semi-colon like this: (Black, 2015; Smith, 2008).

Can’t Find the Answer You Need?

Check out the APA style blog – it’s written by its creators so they’d better have an answer. Otherwise, the OWL Purdue Writing Lab is probably the most comprehensive and easy-to-understand guide to APA in-text citations.

📝  Reference List

If You Had to Find a Source Based Only on the Information Provided in the In-Text Citations, Would You Be Able to Find It?


That’s why every APA paper also needs to include a reference list.

Essentially, the reference list is a place to put all of the bibliographical information that someone would need to find your original sources.

Here are some guidelines for creating your APA-style reference list:

  • Start your reference list on a new numbered page, after the last page of text.
  • Use the heading “References” in the center of the first line.
  • Start each entry with the author’s last name, followed by a comma and his or her initials. If there is more than one author, list all author’s names in the same inverted form separated by commas, and finish the list with a period. Next, include the publication date (YYYY, Month DD) in parentheses, and close with a period.
  • After the authors’ names and date of publication, finish the reference with the remaining information. The format varies slightly depending on the type of source.
  • For books and articles, capitalize only the first word of the title or subtitle and any proper nouns. Italicize the titles of books, but not of articles.
  • For magazines and journals, italicize the publication name and the volume number.
  • Give page numbers using full numbers and complete page spans (“251-259”).
  • Do not number the entries. Instead, arrange them alphabetically by the primary author’s last name.
  • Indent every line (except the very first) of each entry.
  • Make sure to use at least one in-text citation for every entry and to include all sources that you cite in text in the reference list (use Ctrl + F to double check).
  • List only works you have cited (quoted, summarized, paraphrased, or commented on) in the text of your paper, not everything you have read.

The Easiest Way to Make a Flawless Reference List?

Check out an example of a reference list in the APA citation format.

Take a look at this sample reference list for citations of a journal article, book, film, and online newspaper article, respectively.

Reference samples.

Don’t Want to Do It Yourself?

There are several ways to make a reference list without much effort.

Don’t Want to Bother with Formatting Your Paper?

You can receive a FREE template of the APA format essay. Click here to download your APA paper template right now!
Would rather format your paper yourself? Check out this step-by-step tutorial for detailed MS Word instructions:

For more useful advice, check out our blog posts on other citation formats including MLA, Harvard, and Chicago!