A Beginner’s Guide to APA Citations and Formatting

Over the past three weeks, I have had a lot of appointments that have centered around APA formatting and citations. Many students have had questions (and frustrations!) around this illusive style and the rules behind it. Therefore, I have put together a beginner’s guide to understanding APA and identifying the major mistakes that most writers make.

What is APA Style?

APA stands for the American Psychological Association, the organization that publishes a formatting and style guide. This guide is utilized by most science-based disciplines such as Psychology, Sociology, Business, Nursing, and many other social science disciplines.

Why does APA style exist?

APA style provides a specific format for writers to follow in a discipline for publishing. This means that every paper published in APA Style will look the same and have the same sections. Writing in APA Style helps a paper be more efficient and streamlined, while establishing credibility for the writer.

This style is beneficial for both the writer, who will have a specific format to follow, and the reader, who will be able to clearly comprehend and follow along in the paper.

What are the main rules of APA Style?

Courtesy of PurdueOWL


To make this section a bit easier to read, I have broken it down into the sections of the paper: basic formatting, title page and headers, and citations

 Basic Formatting:
  1. Paper should be double-spaced with 1″ margins on ALL sides (some word processors default it to 1.25″)
  2. Paper should be written in 12 pt. Times New Roman font
  3. Paper should include a running header and page number.
    • On the title page, your header should read, “Running head: TITLE OF PAPER (IN ALL CAPS)   Page #”
    • On the rest of the pages, your header should read, “TITLE OF PAPER (IN ALL CAPS) Page #”
    • To have a different first page header for your title page, you must click this option under the “header and footer” section of Microsoft Word


Title Page and Headers
  1. The Title page of your paper is the first page of your paper, and is sometimes referred to as a cover page. The title page should look like this:

Title of Paper in Title Caps (Articles and Conjunctions are not Capitalized)

Name of Author

University Affiliation

This should be center-justified and located in the upper third of the paper.

2. Headers (section headers) are used to denote the different sections of a paper, and they have specific formatting rules to follow. Headers can denote different sections of your paper (such as Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion) or sub-sections of a paper (such as the different parts of your main body). Here is a table that shows the formatting of headers in APA style.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 3.16.03 PM

Courtesy of PurdueOWL

An example of how this might look for a specific paper is below. This is an outline for a research paper about teachers and their spatial and kinesthetic ability.

            Method (Level 1)

Site of Study (Level 2)

Participant Population (Level 2)

Teachers. (Level 3)

Students. (Level 3)

Results (Level 1)

Spatial Ability (Level 2)

Test one. (Level 3)

Teachers with experience. (Level 4)

Teachers in training. (Level 4)

Test two. (Level 3)

Kinesthetic Ability (Level 2)



Content courtesy of DeVry University


Citations are the biggest concern that writers have while writing a paper in APA style; however, they are much easier to master than most writers think. There are 5 main things to keep in mind while citing sources in APA style:

  1. The basic format for an in-text citation (also known as “parenthetical citations” because they are located within parentheses) is as follows: (Last Name, year of publication). In-text citations occur at the end of a sentence, inside the period (in almost all cases).
    • If there are two authors, list them in the same order as they are listed on the publication with an ampersand in between (NOT the word “and”)     (Author One & Author Two, year).
    • When there are three to five authors, it gets a bit confusing. For the first time you cite the source, you will follow the same formatting as two authors. (Author One, Author Two, Author Three & Author Four, year) All other times you cite, it will look like this: (Author One et al., year).
    • Once you get past six authors, you will simply state the first author and use “et al.” for all citations (Author One et al., year), including the first one.
  2. Sources can also be cited within the sentence by stating the author(s) and the year when introducing the information you retrieved from them:
    • In Brenner and Brenner’s (2010) work….
    • According to Jones, Smith, West, and Brown (2011)……
    • Research by the American Psychological Association (1989) shows that ….
  3. If there is more than one source that you need to cite in one sentence, you simply need to separate them with a semi-colon, but include them in the same set of parentheses:
    • (Source Author One, year; Source Author Two, year).
  4. The only time you need to cite a page number in APA Style is when you are directly quoting from a source.
    • According to Jones (1998), “Students often had difficulty using APA style, especially when it was their first time” (p. 199).
    • However, APA strongly encourages that you quote only when ABSOLUTELY necessary, since paraphrasing ideas and converting them into your own words shows better understanding of the topic. Below is a demonstration of how my direct quotation from the previous bullet could be changed into a paraphrase:
    • According to Jones (1998), APA style is a difficult citation format for first-time learners.
  5. Your References list should be located at the end of your paper, starting on a separate page, and only include the sources that you have cited in your paper. It should include the following:
    • A title (“References” is most commonly used in APA, however whatever your professor indicates is fine) that is centered on the page but NOT bolded or underlined.
    • A list of all sources in Alphabetical order, double-spaced and formatted as “hanging” (this can be found under the paragraph options, under ‘special’)

I hope that this can help quell some of the myths around APA style and help with future papers and assignments. However, if you have any further questions, remember that there are great resources out there available to you: