What is the APA Format? Comprehensive Guide to APA Style.

Yelena Skosyrskih

Whether you are writing a paper for a sociology or psychology class or planning to publish an article in social sciences, you need to use the APA format for writing, adding references, and listing citations. APA or American Psychological Association came up with this style to standardize research papers and studies for formal use all over the world.

If you’ve never seen the APA style before, it may look somewhat different from what you are used to. You may need to spend some time figuring out how to use the APA formatting and memorizing the rules. However, these skills can prove to be crucial when you want to publish your first article or turn in a paper during your social science course.

What is APA Format?

APA format is an official writing style accepted by the American Psychological Association. It’s a common writing style that students and professors of psychology, social sciences, and education use to cite sources.

The format appeared back in 1929. An article published in Psychological Bulletin Journal (a monthly peer-reviewed academic journal) outlined basic writing and citation guidelines that eventually turned into the APA Publication Manual.

New additions to the Publication Manual come out regularly. They are used by people all over the world, including writers, editors, researchers, professors, and students of social sciences, behavioral sciences, education, natural sciences, and more.

The goal of the APA format is to create a consistent style. If all students and professors of social sciences would use different writing styles, it would be hard to read and understand their materials quickly.

Besides, APA, other styles, such as MLA or Chicago styles exist as well. Depending on the field you are writing for, you may need to use different formats. It may seem overwhelming at first. However, learning the nuances of each style isn’t as complicated as it seems.

General APA Guidelines

When you start writing a paper, you need to review general APA guidelines that may seem slightly different from what you’ve seen before. The paper should have four key sections:

  • Title page
  • Abstract
  • Main Body
  • Reference page

All of these sections come with their own rules, especially the reference part. If you’ve already written the paper, you can adjust it to the guidelines. While time-consuming, such adjustments are rarely complicated, especially if you hire APA editors.

Title Page

A title page is a standalone page that contains:

  • Your (author’s) name
  • Institutional (college) affiliation
  • Course number and name (if applicable)
  • Professor’s name (if applicable)
  • Date of the paper

The main purpose of this page is to let the reader understand what the paper will be about it without diving into details.

The title page can come into two formats:

  • Student title page – pay special attention to recommended fonts, sizes, spaces, and name formats
  • Professional title page – this type of title page doesn’t have any student-related information. All it has to include are paper tile, authors, affiliations, author’s notes, page number, and running head. Here is how APA does it.

Keep in mind that the title page is page number “1” of your paper.


The abstract is a concise summary of your paper or article. It should be located on the page next to the title page.

  • The word “abstract” should be on the first line of the page. Formatting this word with bold or italics doesn’t come recommended.
  • Add a summary that contains the topic, research questions, methods, data analysis, and conclusions.

The abstract shouldn’t exceed 250 words. Ideally, it should be between 150 and 250 words. If you are planning an online publication, you can list keywords below the abstract. Start a new paragraph with the word “keywords” and list keywords separated by commas. This will help researchers find your paper or article in the future.

Main Body

The main body follows the abstract and contains the information you want to share in your paper. The body can be as long or short as you need it to be. The order of sections depends on the topic you choose. APA style doesn’t regulate the order of the main body.

You shouldn’t forget to include a page number on every page. The paper or article needs to be double space and have 1-inch margins.

  • Bold and center all headings
  • Type in 12-point Time New Roman font
  • Capitalize all major words

When you add subheadings, don’t center them. However, they should also be bold with capitalized major words.


References are an important part of your paper. It should cite all the sources you used in your work. If you cite something anywhere in the paper, it needs to be listed in this section.

The references page should be a new page. It should come right after the main body and have “references” stated on top of the page. Reference entries need to be double-spaced and listed alphabetically by the author. In case there isn’t an author, you can use the title.

You can find many APA reference generators online. Some of them are free. However, it’s important to look up the requirements before you copy-paste an automatically generated citation. It could contain errors.

Books, online publications, and articles in academic journals have different referencing formats. Here are a few general guidelines that you need to keep in mind.

  • Hanging indentations– after the first line of each reference entry, you need to make a ½ inch indentation from the left side margin.
  • Inverted names – when citing authors, you need to provide last names first. For example, Jon Snow is “Snow, J.”
  • Initials – first and middle names should be written as initials. For example, Jack Ronald Daniels will be “Daniels, J.R.” If there isn’t a middle name, just cite the last name and the first letter of the first name (e.g., Daniels, J.”)
  • List all authors – if the work you are citing has multiple authors, you need to list the first 20. All authors on your list should be separated by a comma. If there are more than 20 authors, use an ellipsis after the 19th author and then add the last author’s name.
  • Alphabetical order – all references on the reference page should be alphabetized using the last name of each work’s author.
  • Multiple works from one author – if this happens, you need to list their entries in chronological order.
  • Italics – you need to italicize longer works, such as names of newspapers, books, edited collections, and journal articles. However, shorter works such as chapters in books don’t have to be bolded, underlined, or italicized.

Before writing the paper, refresh referencing guidelines. Since APA rules change with time, make sure you are looking at the right edition. For example, according to the 6th edition, you only had to list up to six authors in a multiple-author publication. In the seventh edition, the number went up to 20.

In-Text Citations

If you are citing something within the main body of the text, you need to make sure to do it according to the required format. In-text citations refer to a direct quote or paraphrase of something from another source.

If you are using an exact quote, you need to put the reference directly after the quote. It should contain the author, year, and page number. For example, (Daniels, 1915, p.105).

The full citation can also look like this:

According to Daniels (1915), “It can be hard to identify the leader in a group of people who have only been together for 15 minutes.”

Organization Citation

If you are citing a group or organization, you need to use the full name of the organization first. Then you can shorten the name for easier use. For example, if you are citing the CDC, it can look like this:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022
  • CDC, 2022

Even if you are citing a well-known source, you can’t start with an abbreviation. You need to assume that the person reading your article doesn’t know any common abbreviations.

Why is APA Style Important?

While the APA format may seem complicated at first, it’s a much-needed guideline for work in the field of social science. Here are just a few reasons why you should stick to the APA format. It’s not just for a good grade or a chance of a publication.

Giving Proper Credit

Plagiarism is a serious issue that comes with severe punishment for all authors. If you want to use someone else’s ideas, you need to give them due credit. APA style allows you to cite another person’s work properly and avoid plagiarizing.

Professional Courtesy

Proper citations are a professional courtesy. You need to acknowledge another person’s work, especially if you deem it important enough to use in your paper.

By providing proper citations, you are also strengthening the credibility of your work and showing your expertise in a specific subject.


With so many people writing on different subjects, formatting consistency plays a major role. When formatting is familiar, it’s much easier to read a paper. Meanwhile, it helps authors organize their work and provide clear information to the reader.

The Takeaway

APA style allows you to standardize your paper according to the format accepted by social science students, professors, researchers, and other professionals.

While complex and diverse, the American Psychological Association format is a highly useful set of guidelines that helps people in the field of social scientists share information. By learning the format and using it successfully, you are improving your chances of getting published and recognized by colleagues.

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