APA Formatting Guidelines for College Papers

APA Formatting Guidelines for College Papers

Colleges and universities require papers to be formatted according to specific guidelines. There are, however, several different sets of guidelines, for example, those established by the Modern Language Association (MLA), the American Chemical Society (ACS), and the American Psychological Association (APA). Many institutions, though, have decreed APA the preferred formatting method, except perhaps in chemistry, where ACS remains the norm.

The American Psychological Association

The American Psychological Association provides rules that were originally developed to govern manuscripts submitted for publication in journals. As stated in The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2003), “These rules introduce the uniformity necessary to convert manuscripts written in many styles to printed pages edited in one consistent style” (p. xxiii). In other words, these rules provide consistency in written submissions.

APA Formatting Guidelines

To help ensure that papers are formatted correctly, students should be able to answer “yes” to each of the following statements:
The entire paper is double-spaced, including the cover page, reference list, and block quotes.

Font styles are 12-point Times New Roman, Arial, or Courier and consistent throughout the paper, including the reference page. (If a reference is copied and pasted from a website, the font matches that in the rest of the paper.
Margins are 1 inch on each side of the page. (A 1.5-inch left margin is used only when a paper is being submitted for publication.)

Except for the cover page and the title on the first page of text, where text is centered, the entire paper is “aligned left,” not aligned right or justified.
Paragraphs are indented five spaces, and extra spacing is not used between paragraphs.

Beginning on the cover page, a header has been automatically inserted that contains an abbreviated form of the paper’s title and the page number.
The cover page information is centered in the top half of the page, not the exact middle.

If an abstract is required, it is no longer than 120 words.
Direct quotes of 40 or more words are blocked and indented 10 spaces.
Titles of longer works, for example, books, journals, plays, films, etc, are italicized.

Ellipsis points (…) are used to indicate words omitted from quotes.
There are no slang or nonstandard words, for example, “ain’t, kinda, oughta, gonna,” etc.

There are no contractions, for example, can’t, won’t, don’t, etc; instead, all words are spelled in their entirety, for example, cannot, will not, do not, etc.

Formatting the Reference Page

References are alphabetized by authors’ last names. The first line of each reference is flush with the left margin while subsequent lines are indented five spaces (hanging indents). Moreover, the reference page contains full biographical data about utilized sources:

The author’s last name and first-name initial, not his or her entire first name (if there is no author, use the editor’s name or, in the event of no editor, the name of the publisher)

Date of publication in parenthesis (2009)
Title of publication (See the APA Manual regarding rules for capitalization of words within titles since APA requirements are a bit different than those established by MLA.)

Place of publication


For information from a website, provide the author’s name, but if no author is given, use the name of the organization that published the material, for example, American Red Cross, followed by the year of publication. If no publication year is available, however, use the year the information was retrieved. Finally, conclude the reference by providing the retrieval date, for example: “Retrieved October 3, 2009 from” Plus, for direct quotes, provide the page number for articles longer than two pages and, for short articles, the paragraph number.

Note: Providing only the URL (Web address) of a source is not sufficient.

Formatting In-text Citations

For every source on a reference page, there must be at least one corresponding citation and vice versa; moreover, anytime information is not “common knowledge” but has been gained through research, the source must be cited within the paper. (The purpose of the citation is to refer readers to the actual source, which is on the reference page.) Normally, a citation includes the author’s name, if not mentioned in the text; publication date; and page or paragraph number for a direct quote (see above).

There are, however, several ways to cite a source:

The psychologist Matthew Overstreet contends there is a definite link between violence in media and violence in today’s society (1989). (Note: This is a paraphrase, not a direct quote)

There is an “unequivocal link” between violence in the media and violence in today’s society (Overstreet, 1989, p. 23). (Only two words are quoted)

According to psychologist Matthew Overstreet (1989), “There is an unequivocal link between increased violence in society and people’s exposure to violence through movies, music, television, and other forms of entertainment” (p. 23). (This is an entire quote)

There are additional APA formatting requirements, specifically those that apply to citing various types of sources; however, these requirements are too numerous to address in this article, so students are advised to keep a copy of the APA Manual nearby when writing papers and to consult the Manual on as as-needed basis.