Getting Comfortable with APA Style: Part 2 – Tips & Recommendations

In my last post, I shared some handy resources that available to UB students for free. I hope that it might lessen that sense of dread we can feel sometimes after being assigned a paper in APA style. In this post, I’ll provide some suggestions around employing the characteristics of APA style in your writing, with help from Dr. Courtney Gasser, director of UB’s graduate program in counseling psychology.

Many students struggle with the specific requirements of APA style. It can feel intimidating to have to adapt your personal writing style to fit within these guidelines and rules – especially if you’re unfamiliar with the requirements. Compared with other disciplines, APA style can seem rigid and boring, yet there is still room for creativity within these confines.

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For example, your unique voice can shine through in the introduction and discussion sections of an APA style paper. Dr. Gasser says, “pretty much everything you know about good writing applies” for APA style. She remarks that proper grammar, clearly articulated ideas, good organization or structure, and proper citations are key for writing well. Dr. Gasser encourages students to consider that “APA style is intended to put one’s paper in a format that lends itself to future publication.” So even though you are likely writing your paper for a class assignment, it can be helpful to imagine that it could be published. Publication may seem like a lofty goal, but you can think of it as inspiration fuel. It can also influence the way you think about the intended audience of your writing. With this in mind, consider these tips when writing in APA style.


1.) Cover Page

APA style requires a specific format for the first page, which provides important information at-a-glance for the reader. First, the header should include the words “Running head:” before an abbreviated version of the title. For example, this post might have a header like “Running head: APA STYLE TIPS.” Next, the title of the piece, author’s name, and author’s school/affiliation should be centered and double-spaced on the first page. Check out Purdue OWL (link) for an example.

2.) Header

After the first page, the header should include an abbreviated version of the title in all caps on the left side without “running head” (e.g., APA STYLE TIPS). The page number should be on the top right side of the page. Often when starting the header, the font type and size might change. Make sure that the font in the header matches the font in the body of the page. Dr. Gasser claims that she is notorious for docking points for such differences in font. She urges students: “Above all, be consistent!”

3.) Subheadings

The guidelines about subheadings in APA style can be confusing at first, but their purpose is to add clarity and help the audience understand the structure of the paper. The first level of subheadings is centered, bolded, and the first letter of the words are capitalized. The second level is similar, but left-aligned. The third level is indented and bolded with only the first letter being capitalized and ending with a period. Level four is the same as three plus italics. The fifth level is indented, italicized, and ends in a period. This intense level of specificity is used keep the paper and format organized. There is no need for a subheading for the first introductory paragraph. For the page after the cover page, you should include the full title of the paper centered. Then, start the body of your first paragraph. Check some sample papers for examples of these different subheading formats.

4.) In-text citations

Whenever you quote, paraphrase, or summarize ideas from another work, APA readers expect to see you give credit to the author and provide a citation.  In-text citations show where the concept or evidence came from. In APA style, in-text citations come in the form of the name(s) of the author(s) and date of publication inside parentheses. For example, if I quote some lines from an article by John Q. Smith that was published in a journal in 1989, the citation would look like (Smith, 1989). When there are two authors, list both separated by an ampersand (e.g., Smith & Johnson, 1989).  If there are three to five authors, list all the last names in the first in-text citation and for later uses abbreviate with et al. (e.g., first use – Smith, Johnson, Williams, & Jones, 1989; later – Smith et al., 1989). If the work has six or more authors, only use the first author’s last name followed by et al. (e.g., Smith et al., 1989). This may seem unfair to the other authors, but this is done to keep the citations short.

5.) Reference Page

Each in-text citation must have a corresponding full citation on the reference page.  The reference page is reserved for the last page in APA style. On this page, “References” should be centered at the top of the page with no italics, bolding, underlining, or other formatting. Each source should be organized alphabetically by the author’s last name. Citations should be formatted with a hanging indent, which means that all of the lines after the first one are indented. For example:




These tips and recommendations should help you feel more prepared to tackle any assignments that require the use of APA style and formatting. And remember – if you’re in the library, you can always stop by the Writing Center for support.  

Contributions by Courtney Gasser, Ph.D.

Graduate student in UB's Counseling Psychology program

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