What is APA Format? A Beginner’s Guide to Properly Citing Sources in Psychology Writing

One of the most widely used formatting styles is the American Psychological Association or APA format. Following a specific formatting style is crucial when writing academic papers in psychology, education, and the social sciences. 

APA format originated in a 1929 article published in Psychological Bulletin that laid out the basic guidelines. Since then, the APA style has been updated several times to reflect changes in how research is conducted and presented. The most recent APA format version is the 7th edition, published in 2019.

Using APA format correctly is essential because it ensures that your paper is organized, easy to read, and follows a consistent style. Additionally, using APA format properly allows readers to find the necessary information quickly and helps prevent plagiarism. In the following sections, we will explore the basic rules of APA format, including how to format your paper, cite sources, and create a reference list.

APA Format

Understanding APA Format

When it comes to academic writing, following a specific format is crucial. APA (American Psychological Association) format is one of the most commonly used formats in social science research papers. Understanding the APA format is essential for anyone who wants to write a research paper, thesis, or dissertation in psychology or other social science disciplines.

APA format provides guidelines for how to format the paper, including margins, font size, and spacing. It also outlines how to cite sources in the text and create a reference list at the end of the paper. The purpose of the APA format is to provide consistency and clarity in academic writing, making it easier for readers to understand and follow the research presented.

One of the most critical aspects of APA format is citing sources correctly. In-text citations should include the author’s last name and year of publication, and the reference list should include all sources cited in the paper. APA format also provides guidelines for citing different sources, including books, journal articles, and websites.

Another critical component of APA format is the title page. The title page should include the title of the paper, the author’s name, and the institutional affiliation. It should also have a running head, a shortened version of the paper’s title, and a page number in the top right corner.

Understanding the APA format is crucial for anyone writing in psychology or other social science disciplines. By following the guidelines provided by APA format, writers can ensure that their research is presented clearly and consistently, making it easier for readers to understand and follow the research presented.

History of APA Format

We all know that the APA format is a widely used writing style in social sciences, including psychology, education, nursing, criminal justice, and anthropology. But do you know when and how it originated?

APA Style® was first established in 1929 when a group of psychologists, anthropologists, and business managers convened and sought to establish a simple set of procedures, or style rules, that would codify the many components of scientific writing to increase the ease of reading comprehension. The goal was to create a style that would make it easier for readers to understand and interpret scientific literature.

Over the years, the APA format has evolved and expanded to cover a wide range of topics, including the proper citation of sources, the formatting of tables and figures, and the structure of research papers. The APA format is the standard writing style used in many academic and professional fields today.

In the early years, the APA was focused on promoting the new field of psychology. The organization was founded in July 1892 by a small group of men interested in what they called “the new psychology.” The group elected 31 individuals, including themselves, to membership, with G. Stanley Hall as its first president. APA’s first meeting was held in December 1892 at the University of Pennsylvania.

As the field of psychology grew and expanded, so did the APA. Today, the organization has more than 118,000 members. It is dedicated to advancing the understanding of psychology as a science, promoting the application of psychology to solve real-world problems, and improving people’s lives worldwide.

Components of APA Format

Regarding APA format, several components are essential to include in any academic paper. In this section, we’ll break down these components into sub-sections to better understand what’s required.

Title Page

The title page is the first page of your paper and should include the title of your paper, your name, and your affiliation (e.g., your university). It should also have a running head, a shortened version of your title that appears at the top of each page. The running head should be at most 50 characters in all capital letters.


The abstract is a summary of your paper that appears on the second page. It should be 250 words or less and include the purpose of your study, the methods you used, your results, and your conclusions. The abstract should be written in a single paragraph and should not include any references.

Main Body

The main body of your paper should include an introduction, a literature review, a methodology section, a results section, a discussion section, and a conclusion. Each of these sections should be clearly labeled and should include the relevant information.

In the introduction, provide some background information on your topic and explain why it’s essential. The literature review should summarize the research that’s been done on your topic and identify any gaps in the literature. The methodology section should describe the methods you used to conduct your study, including any participants, materials, or procedures. The results section should present your findings clearly and concisely. The discussion section should interpret your results and explain their significance. Finally, the conclusion should summarize your main findings and suggest directions for future research.


The references section should include a list of all the sources you cited in your paper. Each reference should be formatted according to APA guidelines, including the author’s name, the publication date, the title of the article or book, and the publisher’s name. The references should be listed alphabetically by the author’s last name.

By including these components in your paper, you’ll ensure that it meets APA format requirements and is easy to read and understand.

Citing in APA Format

When writing academic papers, citing all sources appropriately is crucial. This gives credit to the original authors and helps readers locate the sources for further reading. There are two main ways to cite sources in APA format: in-text citations and reference lists.

In-Text Citations

In-text citations are used when directly quoting or paraphrasing someone else’s work within the body of your paper. The basic format for an in-text citation includes the author’s last name and the year of publication, separated by a comma and enclosed in parentheses. For example: (Smith, 2022). If the author’s name is mentioned in the text, only the year must be included in the parentheses. For example, According to Smith (2022),…

If the source has multiple authors, list them all in the in-text citation, separated by commas. For example: (Smith, Johnson, & Doe, 2022). If the source has more than three authors, list the first author followed by “et al.” For example: (Smith et al., 2022).

If you cite a specific page or section of the source, include the page number or section heading after the year, separated by a comma. For example: (Smith, 2022, p. 45).

Reference List

The reference list is a separate page at the end of the paper that lists all sources cited in the paper. The basic format for a reference list entry includes the author’s last name, first initial, year of publication, title of the source, and publication information. The exact format depends on the type of source (e.g., book, journal article, website).

Here are some examples of reference list entries:

  • Book: Smith, J. (2022). The Psychology of Happiness. New York, NY: Random House.
  • Journal article: Johnson, R., & Doe, M. (2022). The Effects of Exercise on Mental Health. Journal of Health Psychology, 21(3), 45-56.
  • Website: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/index.htm

Following the specific formatting guidelines for each source type is essential to ensure your reference list is accurate and complete.

Formatting Guidelines

When formatting your paper in APA style, there are several guidelines to ensure consistency and readability. Here are the critical formatting guidelines that you need to keep in mind:


Margins should be set to 1 inch on all sides of the paper. This ensures enough white space around the text, making it easier to read. You can adjust the margins in your word processing program by going to the “Page Layout” or “Margins” tab.


The font used in your paper should be a standard, easy-to-read font such as Times New Roman or Arial. The font size should be 12 points. It is essential to use a consistent font throughout your paper to maintain readability.


Double-spacing is the standard for most APA papers. This includes the text of your paper, as well as the reference list and any appendices. However, this rule has some exceptions, such as block quotes and table titles, which may require single spacing.


Headings are used to organize your paper and make it easier to read. There are five levels of headings in APA style, each with a different formatting requirement. Level 1 headings are centered and bolded, while Level 2 headings are left-aligned and bolded. Levels 3-5 are indented and formatted differently, depending on the requirements of your paper.

Here is an example of how headings can be used to organize your paper:

I. Introduction

    A. Background

    B. Purpose

II. Literature Review

    A. Study 1

    B. Study 2

III. Method

    A. Participants

    B. Procedure

IV. Results

V. Discussion

    A. Implications

    B. Limitations

VI. Conclusion

Benefits of Using APA Format

When it comes to academic writing, using the correct formatting style is crucial. APA format is one of the most commonly used styles in the social sciences, and for good reason. Here are some benefits of utilizing APA format:

  1. Clarity: APA format provides a clear structure for your paper, making it easier for readers to follow your arguments and ideas. Using headings and subheadings helps organize your content and make it more readable.
  2. Credibility: Using APA format shows that you are a serious scholar who understands the importance of following established guidelines. This can enhance your credibility and reputation in your field.
  3. Consistency: APA format ensures that your paper is consistent in formatting, citation style, and reference list. This makes it easier for readers to locate the sources you have used and verify the accuracy of your information.
  4. Efficiency: APA format provides a standardized system for citing sources, saving time and effort when writing your paper. You only need to learn one citation style with APA format rather than multiple styles for different disciplines.
  5. Accessibility: APA format is widely recognized and used by scholars worldwide, making it easier for your work to be understood and appreciated by a global audience.

Common Mistakes in APA Format

As we work on our papers, we want to ensure that we follow the APA format. However, it can be easy to make mistakes that can affect the quality of our work. Here are some common mistakes that we should avoid:

1. Incorrect In-text Citations

One of the most common mistakes in APA format is incorrect in-text citations. We need to ensure that we cite our sources properly, including the author’s name and the year of publication. We should also ensure that we use the correct format for multiple authors, such as “et al.” for more than two authors.

2. Improper Reference List

Another mistake that we often need to correct is an improper reference list. We must include all the necessary information, such as the author’s name, publication date, and work title. We should also ensure that we are using the correct format for different sources, such as books, journal articles, and websites.

3. Incorrect Formatting of Headings

Formatting headings is an essential part of the APA format. However, it is easy to make mistakes, such as using bold or italicized text for headings. We should ensure that our headings are formatted correctly, including using the appropriate headings and capitalization.

4. Incorrect Use of Abbreviations

Abbreviations can be helpful in APA format, but we need to use them correctly. We should define any abbreviations we use and not use ones that are not commonly known.

5. Incorrect Use of Punctuation

Finally, we need to ensure we use the correct punctuation in our papers. We should ensure that we use commas, periods, and other punctuation marks correctly, including using a comma before “et al.” in in-text citations.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do we properly format a reference page in APA style?

To correctly format a reference page in APA style, we must start with a new page and center the title “References” at the top. Then, we need to list all sources alphabetically by the first author’s last name. Each citation should have a hanging indent, meaning the first line of each entry should be flush left with subsequent lines indented. The format of each entry varies depending on the source type, so it’s essential to consult the APA guidelines for specific instructions.

What is the correct way to use in-text citations in APA format?

In APA format, we use in-text citations to give credit to the sources we used in our research. The basic format for an in-text citation is (Author’s Last Name, Year). We need to include the page number if quoting directly from a source. If there are multiple authors, we need to have their last names in the citation. We can use “et al.” after the first author’s name if there are more than three authors. It’s important to remember to include an entry on the reference page for every source we cite in our paper.

What are the benefits of using APA formatting style for research papers?

One of the main benefits of using the APA formatting style for research papers is that it provides a clear and consistent format for citing sources and formatting papers. This makes it easier for readers to follow our arguments and understand our research. Additionally, the APA style emphasizes the importance of using clear and concise language, which can help us communicate our ideas more effectively. Finally, using APA style can help us avoid plagiarism by ensuring that we give credit to the sources we used in our research.

How can the Purdue OWL APA citation generator be used to create accurate citations?

The Purdue OWL APA citation generator is a free online tool that can help us create accurate citations in APA format. To use the tool, we need to enter the information about the source we want to cite, such as the author, title, and publication date. The tool will then generate a citation in the correct format, which we can copy and paste into our paper. It’s important to double-check the generated citation to ensure it is accurate and complete.

What are the critical differences between the APA 7th edition and previous editions?

Some critical differences between the APA 7th edition and previous editions include changes to the format of in-text citations and reference pages and updates to guidelines for citing electronic sources. For example, in APA 7th edition, we use “they” as a singular pronoun instead of “he or she.” Additionally, we no longer include the publisher’s location in book citations and use “Retrieved from” instead of “Available from” for online sources. It’s essential to consult the APA guidelines for specific instructions on formatting our papers and citations in APA 7th edition.

Can you provide an example of a paper written in APA format?

Unfortunately, we cannot provide an example of a paper written in APA format. However, many online resources provide examples and templates for formatting papers in APA style. It’s essential to follow the guidelines for formatting and citing sources carefully to ensure our papers are accurate and professional.


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