How to Write an Essay in APA Format: Step-by-Step Guide with Examples

Correct formatting and citation are crucial for academic writing. A particular referencing style must be followed throughout the document. College students often ask how to write an essay in APA format, as accurate academic referencing is critical to achieving high grades. In addition to understanding APA format, it is equally important to grasp how to write a profile essay effectively. This article provides the APA 7th edition guidelines and best tips. 

What is APA format for an essay?

In almost every case, you'll need to use the APA format when writing a publication for academic journals or completing an assignment on Education, Psychology, Economics, Business Studies, or Social Sciences. This formatting style was developed by the American Psychological Association and is one of the academic referencing formats along with MLA, Vancouver, and Chicago/Turabian formats. 

The APA 7th essay format specifies the presentation elements of your paper, such as margins, spacing, and content structure. It also uses an "author-date" system, requiring a brief reference to the author and publication date in the main body of the text and a complete reference list at the end.

General APA requirements

Particular guidelines should be followed to ensure the proper formatting of an essay in APA style. The text should be typed double-spaced (including headings) with margins of at least one inch on each side of the page. It is important as it allows professors to leave feedback and make notes while reading the document. The preferred font for APA format is Times New Roman (12pt), Georgia (11pt), or Arial (11pt).

The use of numbers

According to APA recommendations, expressing numbers below 10 requires using words.  When expressing numbers 10 and above, it’s necessary to employ numerals. Still, there are some instances when utilizing numerals is preferable:

  • Numbers are mentioned in a table or abstract;
  • Numbers immediately precede a unit of measurement (e.g., 5 cm, 2 gals);
  • Numbers represent mathematical or statistical functions, percentages, ratios, quartiles, and percentiles (e.g., divided by 5, 8%, a ratio of 8:1);
  • Numbers represent dates, time, scores, ages, point values on a scale, numerals, and exact sums of money (e.g., 10:15 am, $5, a 10-point scale), except for approximate numbers of years, months, weeks, or days (e.g., roughly 5 weeks ago);
  • Numbers indicate a particular place in parts of tables and books, a numbered series (e.g., photo 1, illustration 5).


APA format requires particular types of punctuation, including commas, periods, semi-colons, colons, parentheses, quotation marks, hyphens, and dashes. Each punctuation mark has a specific use, for example:

  • Commas to detach clauses and list items; 
  • Periods after abbreviations or to end sentences; 
  • Semi-colons for items with commas; 
  • Colons to introduce a list or explanation; 
  • Parentheses to enclose complementary information; 
  • Quotation marks to indicate direct quotes, titles or sarcasm; 
  • Hyphens and dashes for linking words or indicating a break in thought. 

Following APA guidelines and consulting a reliable APA style guide for specific rules about using these punctuation marks are important.

APA alphabetization guidelines

When writing an essay in APA format, references should be listed alphabetically by the first author's last name. It’s also possible to order the reference entry by the first word of the title (excluding “a”, “an”, or “the”) if the author is unknown. If a source has many authors, it’s necessary to list them in the same order they appear on the title page. If several authors have the same last name, write their first initials to differentiate them. If you use several sources of the same author, indicate them chronologically, beginning with the earliest work. By following these guidelines, writers can ensure that their reference list is correctly organized and readers can easily locate the sources used in research.

Paragraph alignment and indentation

Proper paragraph alignment and indentation are crucial in ensuring the readability and consistency of your written work. When you learn how to write an APA essay, you shouldn’t disregard the rules about the placement of the text within the margins of your document. 

According to APA standards, the text should be aligned to the left margin, with a "ragged" right margin that creates an uneven or jagged edge. This approach provides a professional appearance to your document and enhances its readability.

Indentation pertains to the distance between the left margin and the beginning of a new paragraph. In APA format, the first line of each paragraph should be indented by 0.5 inches (or one tab key press). This technique serves to separate paragraphs visually and assists readers in distinguishing between different ideas or sections in your writing.

Correct paragraph alignment and indentation are essential formatting elements in APA style that contribute to a polished form of your work. Additionally, these features aid in presenting your ideas in a clear and organized manner.

APA outline format guidelines

The structure of an essay using APA outline format typically includes the following main parts: 

  1. Title page or cover page; 
  2. Abstract, introduction, or outline; 
  3. The main body, essential arguments, or analysis; 
  4. Conclusions, discussions, or recommendations; 
  5. Reference list. 

The sections included in an essay may vary depending on the specific topics and individual university requirements. The arguments a student intends to present in the essay and how they are explained in the main body of the text will also impact the structure. However, these five components must be included in every APA format essay. In the following sections, we will examine the requirements for each of these parts in detail.

Full cover page for an APA style essay

Your essay should start with a cover page (or title page) completed in APA essay format. Read the guide on how to write an essay in APA style beforehand and ensure you understand everything in it. The cover page is the first thing readers and an examiner will see and is considered the "face" of an essay. Therefore, ensuring its flawlessness is crucial. It’s also important to check with your department to see if there are any specific requirements for the cover page.

Some colleges or universities may provide a sample cover page that needs to be used for every essay submission. Essays should have concise titles that clearly describe the content. You can extend the title to two lines, but it should be at most 12 words. An APA format cover page typically includes the following:

  • A page header (or running head);
  • The essay title;
  • The author's name;
  • A page number;
  • The institution where the paper was submitted.

It may also contain additional information like the course title, your professor’s name, and date if required. The information should be centered on the page (except for a page header, we’ll consider it below) and have double spacing.

Correct page header

Whatever guide on how to write an essay in APA format you may come across, you’ll see recommendations to include a page header in academic works. Universities and colleges often mandate a page header on each page of an essay. This element includes the paper's title in all capital letters and should be left-aligned. It comes with a page number that is right-aligned.

A page header has to be present at the top of every page of an essay. Many novice students make the error of neglecting to include the running head on the title page. In academic writing, the ability to condense text is a valuable skill, and this also applies to the page header in APA format, which must not exceed 50 characters, including spaces. Authors frequently create brief versions of their titles exclusively for their page headers.

Headings and subheadings

In APA style, text must be divided into clear and logical parts using headings. There are typically five types of headings, with each style used consistently for paragraphs of equal importance. The first level is reserved for major sections like "Methods" or "Results," while levels two through five are applied for subheadings. Subheadings are useful for categorizing a section into subsections that logically follow one another. 

Let’s consider a heading and subheadings in an essay in an APA format example

Heading Level 1: The Effects of Climate Change on Biodiversity

Heading Level 2: Deforestation

Subheading Level 3: Causes of Deforestation

Subheading Level 3: Impact of Deforestation on Biodiversity

  • Level 1.

The text starts with a new paragraph and is formatted in Title Case, with uppercase and lowercase letters. It’s centered and written in bold font.

  • Level 2.

The text begins with a new paragraph and is formatted with uppercase and lowercase letters in Title Case. It’s written in bold font and left-aligned.

  • Level 3.

The formatting requires Title Case and bold font. The text is indented and ends with a period. It begins on the next line after the period.

  • Level 4.

The heading is formatted in Title Case with bold font and indented. It’s italicized. To separate the heading and the text, use a period and start writing the text on the same line.

  • Level 5.

The text is in Title Case and indented. It’s italicized and written in normal font. To separate the heading and the text, use a period and start writing the text on the same line.


The abstract is an informative yet concise paragraph that provides readers with essential information about the text before they delve into it. Typically, an abstract should be around 200 words or 10% of the essay's total word count if longer. Within this summary, the writer must present the primary idea of the text, its research question, objectives, methods, and main conclusions.

The abstract is formatted as a distinct section of the text, placed apart visually and contextually from the rest of the main body. It is typically written in plain text, without any formatting, and labeled with a simple "Abstract" title. Usually, researchers include a few keywords that reflect the paper's core content.

Key essay elements in APA: introduction, body, conclusion

The main body of an essay contains the main ideas, arguments, and thoughts the writer presents. It immediately follows the abstract page. Each main body page should be numbered, with the abstract page labeled as page 2. Professional academic writing also requires including a page header on every page. 

The main body is typically organized into sections, including the introduction, body (with research methods, discussions, or arguments), and conclusions. Depending on the subject and department requirements, additional sections may be necessary. So it’s important to consult the professor or course guidelines for specific instructions. 

According to an APA essay writing guide, the formatting requirements for this part of the text are the following:

  • Identical margins of at least one inch should be maintained on all sides of the paper;
  • The text should be written in Times New Roman 12pt;
  • Double spacing has to be used throughout the paper;
  • Every page should be numbered in the top right corner;
  • The first word of every paragraph must be indented by half an inch.

Each section of the main body, such as methods, discussions, and conclusions, should start with a new paragraph and a relevant title. The title can be as simple as "Methodology" or as descriptive as “Results of Analysis: Impact of Social Media on Body Image Perception.” The discussions or arguments may be further subdivided into subsections to present and elaborate on the results in an organized manner.

Table of contents

If you learn how to write an essay in APA format, you won’t find specific instructions for organizing the table of contents. It’s optional to include it in either professional or student papers. However, following some general instructions is recommended if your tutor requires a table of contents. To create a table of contents, insert a separate page between the abstract and introduction sections and label it as "Contents" in bold and centered format. Then, list the main headings along with their respective page numbers.

Reference page

An essay must include a reference list with all the sources cited. Place your reference page between your essay’s main body and appendices. On this page, you should indicate all the sources cited in your work using APA in-text citations. Start the reference page on a new page and label it "References" at the top, using bold and center alignment. References should be listed alphabetically below the label by the author's last name. Make sure they are double-spaced. To format references, employ a hanging indent whereby the initial line of each entry is flush left, while all subsequent lines are indented by 0.5 inches.

Tables and figures

Tables and figures in APA 7th edition share a common format, with a number and title preceding them. If required, they may be followed by explanatory notes. To make the table or figure stand out, use bold styling for the words "Table" or "Figure" along with the corresponding number. Place the title on a separate line below this, using italics and title case.

For tables, it's important to keep them uncluttered. Avoid using vertical lines, limit horizontal lines to a minimum, and ensure that row and column labels are short.

When designing figures, simplicity is what you should strive for. You may include labels and a legend as necessary, and use color only if it's essential for comprehension rather than for decorative purposes.

If you feel overwhelmed with all the requirements and find yourself thinking, "It's better to find someone to write an essay for me," consider seeking professional assistance.

Tips for successfully writing an essay in APA format 

Discover the essential step-by-step recommendations about how to write an essay in APA format and follow them to create a well-structured paper.

  • Learn the APA Style Guidelines. Before starting your writing, read about the APA style's basic formatting, citation, and reference rules. Refer to the APA manual or a reliable APA style manual for guidance.
  • Complete a Title Page. Your essay's title page should include the title, your name, and the name of your institution. It should also have a running head (a shortened version of the title) and a page number.
  • Create Headings and Subheadings. Use clear and descriptive headings to organize your essay into sections. The APA style requires the use of headings and subheadings.
  • Use In-Text Citations. Cite any ideas or information you borrowed from other sources using in-text citations. This gives credit to the original author and helps to avoid plagiarism.
  • Include a Reference List. At the end of your essay, include a reference list in alphabetical order, listing all the sources used in your research. Follow the proper formatting for each type of source.
  • Proofread Your Essay. Verify for errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Ensure that you’ve followed all formatting and citation rules correctly.
  • Seek Feedback. Request feedback from teachers, or tutors to help identify areas where you should polish your writing.


What is the running head, and how to format an essay in APA with this element? 

The running head (or a page header) is a short title on the top left corner of every page in an essay. Typically, it contains a brief version of the title (limited to 50 characters) and the corresponding page number. Its purpose is to help readers identify the paper's content and navigate through it.

To comply with APA style, you should place the running head in the header section of your paper, written in capital letters and aligned to the left margin. This element should be present on each page, even the title page. When you insert this element on the title page, the words "Running head" followed by a colon should precede the shortened title. However, on all subsequent pages, the running head should only contain the shortened title without the phrase "Running head".

How is APA different from MLA?

APA and MLA are both citation styles used in academic writing. Still, they differ:

  1. APA is commonly used in the Social Sciences, while MLA is more commonly used in the Humanities.
  2. In in-text citations, APA uses the author's name and publication year. In contrast, MLA only uses the author's name.
  3. The reference page in APA is titled "References" and uses a hanging indent, while in MLA, it is titled "Works Cited" and does not have a hanging indent.
  4. APA requires a running head on every page, while MLA does not.
  5. APA lists the author's last name followed by their first initial, while MLA lists the author's first name followed by their last name.

 How to cite in APA format? 

Many students asking how to format an essay in APA may need help citing sources in this format. To do it properly, you should include an in-text citation and a reference entry. Remember that different source types (web pages and books) require different citation formats. You can use APA Citation Generator to create perfect citations in seconds to save time and ensure accuracy.

 Is it necessary to have page numbers on every page?

Yes. This also concerns the title page, table of contents, and reference page. Ensure that the page numbers are right-aligned in the page header. To add page numbers in Google Docs or Microsoft Word, click the “Insert” tab and select “Page number”.

Who commonly uses the APA style?

Researchers, writing professionals, and students in the Behavioral and Social Sciences, such as Education, Business, and Psychology, frequently use this style and ask how to write an essay in APA format. However, it's essential to review the requirements of your university or the journal where you intend to publish your paper to verify the appropriate style to utilize.

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