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- Research Paper Format | APA, MLA, & Chicago Templates
Research Paper Format | APA, MLA, & Chicago Templates
Published on November 19, 2022 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on January 20, 2023.
The formatting of a research paper is different depending on which style guide you’re following. In addition to citations , APA, MLA, and Chicago provide format guidelines for things like font choices, page layout, format of headings and the format of the reference page.
Scribbr offers free Microsoft Word templates for the most common formats. Simply download and get started on your paper.
APA | MLA | Chicago author-date | Chicago notes & bibliography
- Generate an automatic table of contents
- Generate a list of tables and figures
- Ensure consistent paragraph formatting
- Insert page numbering
Table of contents
Formatting an apa paper, formatting an mla paper, formatting a chicago paper, frequently asked questions about research paper formatting.
The main guidelines for formatting a paper in APA Style are as follows:
- Use a standard font like 12 pt Times New Roman or 11 pt Arial.
- Set 1 inch page margins.
- Apply double line spacing.
- If submitting for publication, insert a APA running head on every page.
- Indent every new paragraph ½ inch.
Watch the video below for a quick guide to setting up the format in Google Docs.
The image below shows how to format an APA Style title page for a student paper.
If you are submitting a paper for publication, APA requires you to include a running head on each page. The image below shows you how this should be formatted.
For student papers, no running head is required unless you have been instructed to include one.
APA provides guidelines for formatting up to five levels of heading within your paper. Level 1 headings are the most general, level 5 the most specific.
APA Style citation requires (author-date) APA in-text citations throughout the text and an APA Style reference page at the end. The image below shows how the reference page should be formatted.
Note that the format of reference entries is different depending on the source type. You can easily create your citations and reference list using the free APA Citation Generator.
Generate APA citations for free
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The main guidelines for writing an MLA style paper are as follows:
- Use an easily readable font like 12 pt Times New Roman.
- Use title case capitalization for headings .
Check out the video below to see how to set up the format in Google Docs.
On the first page of an MLA paper, a heading appears above your title, featuring some key information:
- Your full name
- Your instructor’s or supervisor’s name
- The course name or number
- The due date of the assignment
A header appears at the top of each page in your paper, including your surname and the page number.
Works Cited page
MLA in-text citations appear wherever you refer to a source in your text. The MLA Works Cited page appears at the end of your text, listing all the sources used. It is formatted as shown below.
You can easily create your MLA citations and save your Works Cited list with the free MLA Citation Generator.
Generate MLA citations for free
The main guidelines for writing a paper in Chicago style (also known as Turabian style) are:
- Use a standard font like 12 pt Times New Roman.
- Use 1 inch margins or larger.
- Place page numbers in the top right or bottom center.
Chicago doesn’t require a title page , but if you want to include one, Turabian (based on Chicago) presents some guidelines. Lay out the title page as shown below.
Bibliography or reference list
Chicago offers two citation styles : author-date citations plus a reference list, or footnote citations plus a bibliography. Choose one style or the other and use it consistently.
The reference list or bibliography appears at the end of the paper. Both styles present this page similarly in terms of formatting, as shown below.
To format a paper in APA Style , follow these guidelines:
- Use a standard font like 12 pt Times New Roman or 11 pt Arial
- Set 1 inch page margins
- Apply double line spacing
- Include a title page
- If submitting for publication, insert a running head on every page
- Indent every new paragraph ½ inch
- Apply APA heading styles
- Cite your sources with APA in-text citations
- List all sources cited on a reference page at the end
The main guidelines for formatting a paper in MLA style are as follows:
- Use an easily readable font like 12 pt Times New Roman
- Include a four-line MLA heading on the first page
- Center the paper’s title
- Use title case capitalization for headings
- Cite your sources with MLA in-text citations
- List all sources cited on a Works Cited page at the end
The main guidelines for formatting a paper in Chicago style are to:
- Use a standard font like 12 pt Times New Roman
- Use 1 inch margins or larger
- Place page numbers in the top right or bottom center
- Cite your sources with author-date citations or Chicago footnotes
- Include a bibliography or reference list
To automatically generate accurate Chicago references, you can use Scribbr’s free Chicago reference generator .
Cite this Scribbr article
If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the “Cite this Scribbr article” button to automatically add the citation to our free Citation Generator.
Caulfield, J. (2023, January 20). Research Paper Format | APA, MLA, & Chicago Templates. Scribbr. Retrieved December 3, 2023, from https://www.scribbr.com/research-paper/research-paper-format/
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MLA Style Guide: Formatting Your Paper
- Get Started Here
- When, Why, & How to Cite
- Formatting Your Paper
- Citations & Bibliography
- OWL Purdue - MLA Sample Paper
How do I Format My Paper?
Let's say your professor wants you to format in MLA style, and you have no idea how to do it. Where do you start? And why do you need to use a format anyway?
There are a few reasons why professors ask you to use a specific format. One reason is to provide consistency between papers while grading. Can you imagine what it would be like to grade 150 papers, and every single one is formatted differently? It would take them quite a bit of time to grade your paper! On top of that, they may be looking for specific things like citations, page numbers, certain paragraphs or names, etc., and using a consistent format helps them find what they looking for quickly and easily, resulting in a faster grade for you!
Another reason to learn a format is to prepare you for upper-division classes in your major. It's worth noting that every discipline has its formatting style preference, and learning a citation style like MLA, APA, or Chicago will give you an understanding of how basic style rules work.
Let's get started on the basic rules:
Your paper should be written using a standard (8.5x11 inch) sheet of paper with a common font such as Times New Roman. Some professors may request a different font, but Times New Roman is the most commonly accepted.
The entire document should be double-spaced, including the header and bibliography. You can easily double-space a paper by highlighting the entire document, then pressing the Ctrl button on your keyboard and pressing the 2 (Ctrl + 2).
Margins on the page's sides, top, and bottom are 1 inch. The only exception is with the page number and your name on the right-hand side of the header, which is 1/2 inch from the top of the page.
Pages should be numbered, along with your last name, in the top-right header of the paper.
- Your Name, Professor's Name, Class Name, and Date should be double-spaced on the first page of your paper in the upper left-hand corner, with a 1-inch margin from the top and left sides.
- The title of your paper should be centered, with no boldface, underlining, or italics, unless you include a title within your title.
- Indentations should be 1/2 inch in from the 1-inch font.
Now that you've read this far and have an idea of what you need to do, there is a big shortcut you can use. Word has a few templates for various paper formats, including MLA, APA, and others. To locate these templates, select 'new' under file and type MLA in the search box . Then select the template you wish to use. Download the Word document to your computer, open the template, and begin typing.
MLA Style Resources
- MLA Formatting and Style Guide From OWL Purdue University Writing Lab One of the most popular websites regarding citations, bibliographies and plagiarism. Use the search bar on the site to find answers to any obscure question about MLA.
- MLA Style Center Direct from the Modern Language Association (MLA), this site offers help on how to do everything MLA. Offers tutorials, tips, and templates.
Other Useful Places
- Plagiarism by Vivian Harris Last Updated Nov 9, 2023 430 views this year
- Norco MLA 9th Style guide
- << Previous: When, Why, & How to Cite
- Next: Citations & Bibliography >>
- Last Updated: Dec 1, 2023 9:31 AM
- URL: https://norcocollege.libguides.com/MLAguide
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How to Format a College Essay: Step-by-Step Guide
Mark Twain once said, “I like a good story well told. That’s the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”
At College Essay Guy, we too like good stories well told.
The problem is that sometimes students have really good stories … that just aren’t well told.
They have the seed of an idea and the makings of a great story, but the essay formatting or structure is all over the place.
Which can lead a college admissions reader to see you as disorganized. And your essay doesn’t make as much of an impact as it could.
So, if you’re here, you’re probably wondering:
Is there any kind of required format for a college essay? How do I structure my essay?
And maybe what’s the difference?
Good news: That’s what this post answers.
First, let’s go over a few basic questions students often have when trying to figure out how to format their essay.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- College essay format guidelines
- How to brainstorm and structure a college essay topic
- Recommended brainstorming examples
- Example college essay: The “Burying Grandma” essay
College Essay Format Guidelines
Should I title my college essay?
You don’t need one. In the vast majority of cases, students we work with don’t use titles. The handful of times they have, they’ve done so because the title allows for a subtle play on words or reframing of the essay as a whole. So don’t feel any pressure to include one—they’re purely optional.
Should I indent or us paragraph breaks in my college essay?
Either. Just be consistent. The exception here is if you’re pasting into a box that screws up your formatting—for example, if, when you copy your essay into the box, your indentations are removed, go with paragraph breaks. (And when you get to college, be sure to check what style guide you should be following: Chicago, APA, MLA, etc., can all take different approaches to formatting, and different fields have different standards.)
How many paragraphs should a college essay be?
Personal statements are not English essays. They don’t need to be 5 paragraphs with a clear, argumentative thesis in the beginning and a conclusion that sums everything up. So feel free to break from that. How many paragraphs are appropriate for a college essay? Within reason, it’s up to you. We’ve seen some great personal statements that use 4 paragraphs, and some that use 8 or more (especially if you have dialogue—yes, dialogue is OK too!).
How long should my college essay be?
The good news is that colleges and the application systems they use will usually give you specific word count maximums. The most popular college application systems, like the Common Application and Coalition Application, will give you a maximum of 650 words for your main personal statement, and typically less than that for school-specific supplemental essays . Other systems will usually specify the maximum word count—the UC PIQs are 350 max, for example. If they don’t specify this clearly in the application systems or on their website (and be sure to do some research), you can email them to ask! They don’t bite.
So should you use all that space? We generally recommend it. You likely have lots to share about your life, so we think that not using all the space they offer to tell your story might be a missed opportunity. While you don’t have to use every last word, aim to use most of the words they give you. But don’t just fill the space if what you’re sharing doesn’t add to the overall story you’re telling.
There are also some applications or supplementals with recommended word counts or lengths. For example, Georgetown says things like “approx. 1 page,” and UChicago doesn’t have a limit, but recommends aiming for 650ish for the extended essay, and 250-500 for the “Why us?”
You can generally apply UChicago’s recommendations to other schools that don’t give you a limit: If it’s a “Why Major” supplement, 650 is probably plenty, and for other supplements, 250-500 is a good target to shoot for. If you go over those, that can be fine, just be sure you’re earning that word count (as in, not rambling or being overly verbose). Your readers are humans. If you send them a tome, their attention could drift.
Regarding things like italics and bold
Keep in mind that if you’re pasting text into a box, it may wipe out your formatting. So if you were hoping to rely on italics or bold for some kind of emphasis, double check if you’ll be able to. (And in general, try to use sentence structure and phrasing to create that kind of emphasis anyway, rather than relying on bold or italics—doing so will make you a better writer.)
Regarding font type, size, and color
Keep it simple and standard. Regarding font type, things like Times New Roman or Georgia (what this is written in) won’t fail you. Just avoid things like Comic Sans or other informal/casual fonts.
Size? 11- or 12-point is fine.
Going with something else with the above could be a risk, possibly a big one, for fairly little gain. Things like a wacky font or text color could easily feel gimmicky to a reader.
To stand out with your writing, take some risks in what you write about and the connections and insights you make.
If you’re attaching a doc (rather than pasting)
If you are attaching a document rather than pasting into a text box, all the above still applies. Again, we’d recommend sticking with standard fonts and sizes—Times New Roman, 12-point is a standard workhorse. You can probably go with 1.5 or double spacing. Standard margins.
Basically, show them you’re ready to write in college by using the formatting you’ll normally use in college.
Is there a college essay template I can use?
Depends on what you’re asking for. If, by “template,” you’re referring to formatting … see above.
But if you mean a structural template ... not exactly. There is no one college essay template to follow. And that’s a good thing.
That said, we’ve found that there are two basic structural approaches to writing college essays that can work for every single prompt we’ve seen. (Except for lists. Because … they’re lists.)
Below we’ll cover those two essay structures we love, but you’ll see how flexible these are—they can lead to vastly different essays. You can also check out a few sample essays to get a sense of structure and format (though we’d recommend doing some brainstorming and outlining to think of possible topics before you look at too many samples, since they can poison the well for some people).
Let’s dig in.
STEP 1: HOW TO BRAINSTORM AN AMAZING ESSAY TOPIC
We’ll talk about structure and topic together. Why? Because one informs the other.
(And to clarify: When we say, “topic,” we mean the theme or focus of your essay that you use to show who you are and what you value. The “topic” of your college essay is always ultimately you.)
We think there are two basic structural approaches that can work for any college essay. Not that these are the only two options—rather, that these can work for any and every prompt you’ll have to write for.
Which structural approach you use depends on your answer to this question (and its addendum): Do you feel like you’ve faced significant challenges in your life … or not so much? (And do you want to write about them?)
If yes (to both), you’ll most likely want to use Narrative Structure . If no (to either), you’ll probably want to try Montage Structure .
So … what are those structures? And how do they influence your topic?
Narrative Structure is classic storytelling structure. You’ve seen this thousands of times—assuming you read, and watch movies and TV, and tell stories with friends and family. If you don’t do any of these things, this might be new. Otherwise, you already know this. You may just not know you know it. Narrative revolves around a character or characters (for a college essay, that’s you) working to overcome certain challenges, learning and growing, and gaining insight. For a college essay using Narrative Structure, you’ll focus the word count roughly equally on a) Challenges You Faced, b) What You Did About Them, and c) What You Learned (caveat that those sections can be somewhat interwoven, especially b and c). Paragraphs and events are connected causally.
You’ve also seen montages before. But again, you may not know you know. So: A montage is a series of thematically connected things, frequently images. You’ve likely seen montages in dozens and dozens of films before—in romantic comedies, the “here’s the couple meeting and dating and falling in love” montage; in action movies, the classic “training” montage. A few images tell a larger story. In a college essay, you could build a montage by using a thematic thread to write about five different pairs of pants that connect to different sides of who you are and what you value. Or different but connected things that you love and know a lot about (like animals, or games). Or entries in your Happiness Spreadsheet .
How does structure play into a great topic?
We believe a montage essay (i.e., an essay NOT about challenges) is more likely to stand out if the topic or theme of the essay is:
X. Elastic (i.e., something you can connect to variety of examples, moments, or values) Y. Uncommon (i.e., something other students probably aren’t writing about)
We believe that a narrative essay is more likely to stand out if it contains:
X. Difficult or compelling challenges Y. Insight
These aren’t binary—rather, each exists on a spectrum.
“Elastic” will vary from person to person. I might be able to connect mountain climbing to family, history, literature, science, social justice, environmentalism, growth, insight … and someone else might not connect it to much of anything. Maybe trees?
“Uncommon” —every year, thousands of students write about mission trips, sports, or music. It’s not that you can’t write about these things, but it’s a lot harder to stand out.
“Difficult or compelling challenges” can be put on a spectrum, with things like getting a bad grade or not making a sports team on the weaker end, and things like escaping war or living homeless for three years on the stronger side. While you can possibly write a strong essay about a weaker challenge, it’s really hard to do so.
“Insight” is the answer to the question “so what?” A great insight is likely to surprise the reader a bit, while a so-so insight likely won’t. (Insight is something you’ll develop in an essay through the writing process, rather than something you’ll generally know ahead of time for a topic, but it’s useful to understand that some topics are probably easier to pull insights from than others.)
To clarify, you can still write a great montage with a very common topic, or a narrative that offers so-so insights. But the degree of difficulty goes up. Probably way up.
With that in mind, how do you brainstorm possible topics that are on the easier-to-stand-out-with side of the spectrum?
Spend about 10 minutes (minimum) on each of these exercises.
Essence Objects Exercise
21 Details Exercise
Everything I Want Colleges To Know About Me Exercise
Feelings and Needs Exercise
If you feel like you already have your topic, and you just want to know how to make it better…
Still do those exercises.
Maybe what you have is the best topic for you. And if you are incredibly super sure, you can skip ahead. But if you’re not sure this topic helps you communicate your deepest stories, spend a little time on the exercises above. As a bonus, even if you end up going with what you already had (though please be wary of the sunk cost fallacy ), all that brainstorming will be useful when you write your supplemental essays .
The Feelings and Needs Exercise in particular is great for brainstorming Narrative Structure, connecting story events in a causal way (X led to Y led to Z). The Essence Objects, 21 Details, Everything I Want Colleges to Know exercises can lead to interesting thematic threads for Montage Structure (P, Q, and R are all connected because, for example, they’re all qualities of a great endodontist). But all of them are useful for both structural approaches. Essence objects can help a narrative come to life. One paragraph in a montage could focus on a challenge and how you overcame it.
The Values Exercise is a cornerstone of both—regardless of whether you use narrative or montage, we should get a sense of some of your core values through your essays.
How (and why) to outline your college essay to use a good structure
While not every professional writer knows exactly how a story will end when they start writing, they also have months (or years) to craft it, and they may throw major chunks or whole drafts away. You probably don’t want to throw away major chunks or whole drafts. So you should outline.
Use the brainstorming exercises from earlier to decide on your most powerful topics and what structure (narrative or montage) will help you best tell your story.
For a narrative, use the Feelings and Needs Exercise, and build clear bullet points for the Challenges + Effects, What I Did About It, and What I Learned. Those become your outline.
Yeah, that simple.
For a montage, outline 4-7 ways your thread connects to different values through different experiences, and if you can think of them, different lessons and insights (though these you might have to develop later, during the writing process). For example, how auto repair connects to family, literature, curiosity, adventure, and personal growth (through different details and experiences).
Here are some good example outlines:
Narrative outline (developed from the Feelings and Needs Exercise)
Domestic abuse (physical and verbal)
Controlling father/lack of freedom
Prevented from pursuing opportunities
Cut off from world/family
Lack of sense of freedom/independence
What I Did About It:
Pursued my dreams
Traveled to Egypt, London, and Paris alone
Explored new places and cultures
Developed self-confidence, independence, and courage
Grew as a leader
What I Learned:
Inspired to help others a lot more
Learned about oppression, and how to challenge oppressive norms
Became closer with mother, somewhat healed relationship with father
Need to feel free
And here’s the essay that became: “ Easter ”
Values: Family, tradition, literature
Ex: “Tailgate Special,” discussions w/family, reading Nancy Drew
Perception, connection to family
Chinese sword dance
Values: Culture/heritage, meticulousness, dedication, creativity
Ex: Notebook, formations/choreography
Nuances of culture, power of connection
Values: Science/chemistry, curiosity
Synthesizing plat nanoparticles
Joy of discovery, redefining expectations
Values: Exploration, personal growth
Knitting, physics, politics, etc.
Importance of exploring beyond what I know/am used to, taking risks
And here’s the essay that became: “ Home ”
When to scrap what you have and start over
Ultimately, you can’t know for sure if a topic will work until you try a draft or two. And maybe it’ll be great. But keep that sunk cost fallacy in mind, and be open to trying other things.
If you’re down the rabbit hole with a personal statement topic and just aren’t sure about it, the first step you should take is to ask for feedback. Find a partner who can help you examine it without the attachment to all the emotion (anxiety, worry, or fear) you might have built up around it.
Have them help you walk through The Great College Essay Test to make sure your essay is doing its job. If it isn’t yet, does it seem like this topic has the potential to? Or would other topics allow you to more fully show a college who you are and what you bring to the table?
Because that’s your goal. Format and structure are just tools to get you there.
Down the Road
Before we analyze some sample essays, bookmark this page, so that once you’ve gone through several drafts of your own essay, come back and take The Great College Essay Test to make sure your essay is doing its job. The job of the essay, simply put, is to demonstrate to a college that you’ll make valuable contributions in college and beyond. We believe these four qualities are essential to a great essay:
Core values (showing who you are through what you value)
Vulnerability (helps a reader feel connected to you)
Insight (aka “so what” moments)
Craft (clear structure, refined language, intentional choices)
To test what values are coming through, read your essay aloud to someone who knows you and ask:
Which values are clearly coming through the essay?
Which values are kind of there but could be coming through more clearly?
Which values could be coming through and were opportunities missed?
To know if you’re being vulnerable in your essay, ask:
Now that you’ve heard my story, do you feel closer to me?
What did you learn about me that you didn’t already know?
To search for “so what” moments of insight, review the claims you’re making in your essay. Are you reflecting on what these moments and experiences taught you? How have they changed you? Are you making common or (hopefully) uncommon connections? The uncommon connections are often made up of insights that are unusual or unexpected. (For more on how to test for this, click The Great College Essay Test link above.)
Craft comes through the sense that each paragraph, each sentence, each word is a carefully considered choice. That the author has spent time revising and refining. That the essay is interesting and succinct. How do you test this? For each paragraph, each sentence, each word, ask: Do I need this? (Huge caveat: Please avoid neurotic perfectionism here. We’re just asking you to be intentional with your language.)
Still feeling you haven’t found your topic? Here’s a list of 100 Brave and Interesting Questions . Read these and try freewriting on a few. See where they lead.
Finally, here’s an ...
Example College Essay Format Analysis: The “Burying Grandma” Essay
To see how the Narrative Essay structure works, check out the essay below, which was written for the Common App "Topic of your choice" prompt. You might try reading it here first before reading the paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown below.
They covered the precious mahogany coffin with a brown amalgam of rocks, decomposed organisms, and weeds. It was my turn to take the shovel, but I felt too ashamed to dutifully send her off when I had not properly said goodbye. I refused to throw dirt on her. I refused to let go of my grandmother, to accept a death I had not seen coming, to believe that an illness could not only interrupt, but steal a beloved life.
The author begins by setting up the Challenges + Effects (you’ve maybe heard of this referred to in narrative as the Inciting Incident). This moment also sets up some of her needs: growth and emotional closure, to deal with it and let go/move on. Notice the way objects like the shovel help bring an essay to life, and can be used for symbolic meaning. That object will also come back later.
When my parents finally revealed to me that my grandmother had been battling liver cancer, I was twelve and I was angry--mostly with myself. They had wanted to protect me--only six years old at the time--from the complex and morose concept of death. However, when the end inevitably arrived, I wasn’t trying to comprehend what dying was; I was trying to understand how I had been able to abandon my sick grandmother in favor of playing with friends and watching TV. Hurt that my parents had deceived me and resentful of my own oblivion, I committed myself to preventing such blindness from resurfacing.
In the second paragraph, she flashes back to give us some context of what things were like leading up to these challenges (i.e., the Status Quo), which helps us understand her world. It also helps us to better understand the impact of her grandmother’s death and raises a question: How will she prevent such blindness from resurfacing?
I became desperately devoted to my education because I saw knowledge as the key to freeing myself from the chains of ignorance. While learning about cancer in school I promised myself that I would memorize every fact and absorb every detail in textbooks and online medical journals. And as I began to consider my future, I realized that what I learned in school would allow me to silence that which had silenced my grandmother. However, I was focused not with learning itself, but with good grades and high test scores. I started to believe that academic perfection would be the only way to redeem myself in her eyes--to make up for what I had not done as a granddaughter.
In the third paragraph, she starts shifting into the What I Did About It aspect, and takes off at a hundred miles an hour … but not quite in the right direction yet. What does that mean? She pursues things that, while useful and important in their own right, won’t actually help her resolve her conflict. This is important in narrative—while it can be difficult, or maybe even scary, to share ways we did things wrong, that generally makes for a stronger story. Think of it this way: You aren’t really interested in watching a movie in which a character faces a challenge, knows what to do the whole time, so does it, the end. We want to see how people learn and change and grow.
Here, the author “Raises the Stakes” because we as readers sense intuitively (and she is giving us hints) that this is not the way to get over her grandmother’s death.
However, a simple walk on a hiking trail behind my house made me open my own eyes to the truth. Over the years, everything--even honoring my grandmother--had become second to school and grades. As my shoes humbly tapped against the Earth, the towering trees blackened by the forest fire a few years ago, the faintly colorful pebbles embedded in the sidewalk, and the wispy white clouds hanging in the sky reminded me of my small though nonetheless significant part in a larger whole that is humankind and this Earth. Before I could resolve my guilt, I had to broaden my perspective of the world as well as my responsibilities to my fellow humans.
There’s some nice evocative detail in here that helps draw us into her world and experience.
Structurally, there are elements of What I Did About It and What I Learned in here (again, they will often be somewhat interwoven). This paragraph gives us the Turning Point/Moment of Truth. She begins to understand how she was wrong. She realizes she needs perspective. But how? See next paragraph ...
Volunteering at a cancer treatment center has helped me discover my path. When I see patients trapped in not only the hospital but also a moment in time by their diseases, I talk to them. For six hours a day, three times a week, Ivana is surrounded by IV stands, empty walls, and busy nurses that quietly yet constantly remind her of her breast cancer. Her face is pale and tired, yet kind--not unlike my grandmother’s. I need only to smile and say hello to see her brighten up as life returns to her face. Upon our first meeting, she opened up about her two sons, her hometown, and her knitting group--no mention of her disease. Without even standing up, the three of us—Ivana, me, and my grandmother--had taken a walk together.
In the second-to-last paragraph, we see how she takes further action, and some of what she learns from her experiences: Volunteering at the local hospital helps her see her larger place in the world.
Cancer, as powerful and invincible as it may seem, is a mere fraction of a person’s life. It’s easy to forget when one’s mind and body are so weak and vulnerable. I want to be there as an oncologist to remind them to take a walk once in a while, to remember that there’s so much more to life than a disease. While I physically treat their cancer, I want to lend patients emotional support and mental strength to escape the interruption and continue living. Through my work, I can accept the shovel without burying my grandmother’s memory.
The final paragraph uses what we call the “bookend” technique by bringing us back to the beginning, but with a change—she’s a different, slightly wiser person than she was. This helps us put a frame around her growth.
… A good story well told . That’s your goal.
Hopefully, you now have a better sense of how to make that happen.
For more resources, check out our College Application Hub .
Want to create or adapt books like this? Learn more about how Pressbooks supports open publishing practices.
13.1 Formatting a Research Paper
- Identify the major components of a research paper written using American Psychological Association (APA) style.
- Apply general APA style and formatting conventions in a research paper.
In this chapter, you will learn how to use APA style , the documentation and formatting style followed by the American Psychological Association, as well as MLA style , from the Modern Language Association. There are a few major formatting styles used in academic texts, including AMA, Chicago, and Turabian:
- AMA (American Medical Association) for medicine, health, and biological sciences
- APA (American Psychological Association) for education, psychology, and the social sciences
- Chicago—a common style used in everyday publications like magazines, newspapers, and books
- MLA (Modern Language Association) for English, literature, arts, and humanities
- Turabian—another common style designed for its universal application across all subjects and disciplines
While all the formatting and citation styles have their own use and applications, in this chapter we focus our attention on the two styles you are most likely to use in your academic studies: APA and MLA.
If you find that the rules of proper source documentation are difficult to keep straight, you are not alone. Writing a good research paper is, in and of itself, a major intellectual challenge. Having to follow detailed citation and formatting guidelines as well may seem like just one more task to add to an already-too-long list of requirements.
Following these guidelines, however, serves several important purposes. First, it signals to your readers that your paper should be taken seriously as a student’s contribution to a given academic or professional field; it is the literary equivalent of wearing a tailored suit to a job interview. Second, it shows that you respect other people’s work enough to give them proper credit for it. Finally, it helps your reader find additional materials if he or she wishes to learn more about your topic.
Furthermore, producing a letter-perfect APA-style paper need not be burdensome. Yes, it requires careful attention to detail. However, you can simplify the process if you keep these broad guidelines in mind:
- Work ahead whenever you can. Chapter 11 “Writing from Research: What Will I Learn?” includes tips for keeping track of your sources early in the research process, which will save time later on.
- Get it right the first time. Apply APA guidelines as you write, so you will not have much to correct during the editing stage. Again, putting in a little extra time early on can save time later.
- Use the resources available to you. In addition to the guidelines provided in this chapter, you may wish to consult the APA website at http://www.apa.org or the Purdue University Online Writing lab at http://owl.english.purdue.edu , which regularly updates its online style guidelines.
General Formatting Guidelines
This chapter provides detailed guidelines for using the citation and formatting conventions developed by the American Psychological Association, or APA. Writers in disciplines as diverse as astrophysics, biology, psychology, and education follow APA style. The major components of a paper written in APA style are listed in the following box.
These are the major components of an APA-style paper:
Body, which includes the following:
- Headings and, if necessary, subheadings to organize the content
- In-text citations of research sources
- References page
All these components must be saved in one document, not as separate documents.
The title page of your paper includes the following information:
- Title of the paper
- Author’s name
- Name of the institution with which the author is affiliated
- Header at the top of the page with the paper title (in capital letters) and the page number (If the title is lengthy, you may use a shortened form of it in the header.)
List the first three elements in the order given in the previous list, centered about one third of the way down from the top of the page. Use the headers and footers tool of your word-processing program to add the header, with the title text at the left and the page number in the upper-right corner. Your title page should look like the following example.
The next page of your paper provides an abstract , or brief summary of your findings. An abstract does not need to be provided in every paper, but an abstract should be used in papers that include a hypothesis. A good abstract is concise—about one hundred fifty to two hundred fifty words—and is written in an objective, impersonal style. Your writing voice will not be as apparent here as in the body of your paper. When writing the abstract, take a just-the-facts approach, and summarize your research question and your findings in a few sentences.
In Chapter 12 “Writing a Research Paper” , you read a paper written by a student named Jorge, who researched the effectiveness of low-carbohydrate diets. Read Jorge’s abstract. Note how it sums up the major ideas in his paper without going into excessive detail.
Write an abstract summarizing your paper. Briefly introduce the topic, state your findings, and sum up what conclusions you can draw from your research. Use the word count feature of your word-processing program to make sure your abstract does not exceed one hundred fifty words.
Depending on your field of study, you may sometimes write research papers that present extensive primary research, such as your own experiment or survey. In your abstract, summarize your research question and your findings, and briefly indicate how your study relates to prior research in the field.
Margins, Pagination, and Headings
APA style requirements also address specific formatting concerns, such as margins, pagination, and heading styles, within the body of the paper. Review the following APA guidelines.
Use these general guidelines to format the paper:
- Set the top, bottom, and side margins of your paper at 1 inch.
- Use double-spaced text throughout your paper.
- Use a standard font, such as Times New Roman or Arial, in a legible size (10- to 12-point).
- Use continuous pagination throughout the paper, including the title page and the references section. Page numbers appear flush right within your header.
- Section headings and subsection headings within the body of your paper use different types of formatting depending on the level of information you are presenting. Additional details from Jorge’s paper are provided.
Begin formatting the final draft of your paper according to APA guidelines. You may work with an existing document or set up a new document if you choose. Include the following:
- Your title page
- The abstract you created in Note 13.8 “Exercise 1”
- Correct headers and page numbers for your title page and abstract
APA style uses section headings to organize information, making it easy for the reader to follow the writer’s train of thought and to know immediately what major topics are covered. Depending on the length and complexity of the paper, its major sections may also be divided into subsections, sub-subsections, and so on. These smaller sections, in turn, use different heading styles to indicate different levels of information. In essence, you are using headings to create a hierarchy of information.
The following heading styles used in APA formatting are listed in order of greatest to least importance:
- Section headings use centered, boldface type. Headings use title case, with important words in the heading capitalized.
- Subsection headings use left-aligned, boldface type. Headings use title case.
- The third level uses left-aligned, indented, boldface type. Headings use a capital letter only for the first word, and they end in a period.
- The fourth level follows the same style used for the previous level, but the headings are boldfaced and italicized.
- The fifth level follows the same style used for the previous level, but the headings are italicized and not boldfaced.
Visually, the hierarchy of information is organized as indicated in Table 13.1 “Section Headings” .
Table 13.1 Section Headings
A college research paper may not use all the heading levels shown in Table 13.1 “Section Headings” , but you are likely to encounter them in academic journal articles that use APA style. For a brief paper, you may find that level 1 headings suffice. Longer or more complex papers may need level 2 headings or other lower-level headings to organize information clearly. Use your outline to craft your major section headings and determine whether any subtopics are substantial enough to require additional levels of headings.
Working with the document you developed in Note 13.11 “Exercise 2” , begin setting up the heading structure of the final draft of your research paper according to APA guidelines. Include your title and at least two to three major section headings, and follow the formatting guidelines provided above. If your major sections should be broken into subsections, add those headings as well. Use your outline to help you.
Because Jorge used only level 1 headings, his Exercise 3 would look like the following:
Throughout the body of your paper, include a citation whenever you quote or paraphrase material from your research sources. As you learned in Chapter 11 “Writing from Research: What Will I Learn?” , the purpose of citations is twofold: to give credit to others for their ideas and to allow your reader to follow up and learn more about the topic if desired. Your in-text citations provide basic information about your source; each source you cite will have a longer entry in the references section that provides more detailed information.
In-text citations must provide the name of the author or authors and the year the source was published. (When a given source does not list an individual author, you may provide the source title or the name of the organization that published the material instead.) When directly quoting a source, it is also required that you include the page number where the quote appears in your citation.
This information may be included within the sentence or in a parenthetical reference at the end of the sentence, as in these examples.
Epstein (2010) points out that “junk food cannot be considered addictive in the same way that we think of psychoactive drugs as addictive” (p. 137).
Here, the writer names the source author when introducing the quote and provides the publication date in parentheses after the author’s name. The page number appears in parentheses after the closing quotation marks and before the period that ends the sentence.
Addiction researchers caution that “junk food cannot be considered addictive in the same way that we think of psychoactive drugs as addictive” (Epstein, 2010, p. 137).
Here, the writer provides a parenthetical citation at the end of the sentence that includes the author’s name, the year of publication, and the page number separated by commas. Again, the parenthetical citation is placed after the closing quotation marks and before the period at the end of the sentence.
As noted in the book Junk Food, Junk Science (Epstein, 2010, p. 137), “junk food cannot be considered addictive in the same way that we think of psychoactive drugs as addictive.”
Here, the writer chose to mention the source title in the sentence (an optional piece of information to include) and followed the title with a parenthetical citation. Note that the parenthetical citation is placed before the comma that signals the end of the introductory phrase.
David Epstein’s book Junk Food, Junk Science (2010) pointed out that “junk food cannot be considered addictive in the same way that we think of psychoactive drugs as addictive” (p. 137).
Another variation is to introduce the author and the source title in your sentence and include the publication date and page number in parentheses within the sentence or at the end of the sentence. As long as you have included the essential information, you can choose the option that works best for that particular sentence and source.
Citing a book with a single author is usually a straightforward task. Of course, your research may require that you cite many other types of sources, such as books or articles with more than one author or sources with no individual author listed. You may also need to cite sources available in both print and online and nonprint sources, such as websites and personal interviews. Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting” , Section 13.2 “Citing and Referencing Techniques” and Section 13.3 “Creating a References Section” provide extensive guidelines for citing a variety of source types.
Writing at Work
APA is just one of several different styles with its own guidelines for documentation, formatting, and language usage. Depending on your field of interest, you may be exposed to additional styles, such as the following:
- MLA style. Determined by the Modern Languages Association and used for papers in literature, languages, and other disciplines in the humanities.
- Chicago style. Outlined in the Chicago Manual of Style and sometimes used for papers in the humanities and the sciences; many professional organizations use this style for publications as well.
- Associated Press (AP) style. Used by professional journalists.
The brief citations included in the body of your paper correspond to the more detailed citations provided at the end of the paper in the references section. In-text citations provide basic information—the author’s name, the publication date, and the page number if necessary—while the references section provides more extensive bibliographical information. Again, this information allows your reader to follow up on the sources you cited and do additional reading about the topic if desired.
The specific format of entries in the list of references varies slightly for different source types, but the entries generally include the following information:
- The name(s) of the author(s) or institution that wrote the source
- The year of publication and, where applicable, the exact date of publication
- The full title of the source
- For books, the city of publication
- For articles or essays, the name of the periodical or book in which the article or essay appears
- For magazine and journal articles, the volume number, issue number, and pages where the article appears
- For sources on the web, the URL where the source is located
The references page is double spaced and lists entries in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. If an entry continues for more than one line, the second line and each subsequent line are indented five spaces. Review the following example. ( Chapter 13 “APA and MLA Documentation and Formatting” , Section 13.3 “Creating a References Section” provides extensive guidelines for formatting reference entries for different types of sources.)
In APA style, book and article titles are formatted in sentence case, not title case. Sentence case means that only the first word is capitalized, along with any proper nouns.
- Following proper citation and formatting guidelines helps writers ensure that their work will be taken seriously, give proper credit to other authors for their work, and provide valuable information to readers.
- Working ahead and taking care to cite sources correctly the first time are ways writers can save time during the editing stage of writing a research paper.
- APA papers usually include an abstract that concisely summarizes the paper.
- APA papers use a specific headings structure to provide a clear hierarchy of information.
- In APA papers, in-text citations usually include the name(s) of the author(s) and the year of publication.
- In-text citations correspond to entries in the references section, which provide detailed bibliographical information about a source.
Writing for Success Copyright © 2015 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
Purdue Online Writing Lab Purdue OWL® College of Liberal Arts
Welcome to the Purdue OWL
This page is brought to you by the OWL at Purdue University. When printing this page, you must include the entire legal notice.
Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.
Please use the example at the bottom of this page to cite the Purdue OWL in APA.
You can also watch our APA vidcast series on the Purdue OWL YouTube Channel .
General APA Guidelines
Your essay should be typed and double-spaced on standard-sized paper (8.5" x 11"), with 1" margins on all sides. Include a page header (also known as the “ running head ”) at the top of every page. For a professional paper, this includes your paper title and the page number. For a student paper, this only includes the page number. To create a page header/running head , insert page numbers flush right. Then type "TITLE OF YOUR PAPER" in the header flush left using all capital letters. The running head is a shortened version of your paper's title and cannot exceed 50 characters including spacing and punctuation.
The 7th edition of the APA Publication Manual requires that the chosen font be accessible (i.e., legible) to all readers and that it be used consistently throughout the paper. It acknowledges that many font choices are legitimate, and it advises writers to check with their publishers, instructors, or institutions for guidance in cases of uncertainty.
While the APA Manual does not specify a single font or set of fonts for professional writing, it does recommend a few fonts that are widely available. These include sans serif fonts such as 11-point Calibri, 11-point Arial, and 10-point Lucida Sans Unicode as well as serif fonts such as 12-point Times New Roman, 11-point Georgia, 10-point Computer Modern.
Major Paper Sections
Your essay should include four major sections: the Title Page , Abstract , Main Body , and References .
Note: APA 7 provides slightly different directions for formatting the title pages of professional papers (e.g., those intended for scholarly publication) and student papers (e.g., those turned in for credit in a high school or college course).
The title page should contain the title of the paper, the author's name , and the institutional affiliation . A professional paper should also include the author note . A student paper should also include the course number and name , instructor name , and assignment due date .
Type your title in upper and lowercase letters centered in the upper half of the page. The title should be centered and written in boldface. APA recommends that your title be focused and succinct and that it should not contain abbreviations or words that serve no purpose. Your title may take up one or two lines. All text on the title page, and throughout your paper, should be double-spaced.
Beneath the title, type the author's name : first name, middle initial(s), and last name. Do not use titles (Dr.) or degrees (PhD).
Beneath the author's name, type the institutional affiliation , which should indicate the location where the author(s) conducted the research.
A professional paper should include the author note beneath the institutional affiliation, in the bottom half of the title page. This should be divided up into several paragraphs, with any paragraphs that are not relevant omitted. The first paragraph should include the author’s name, the symbol for the ORCID iD, and the URL for the ORCID iD. Any authors who do not have an ORCID iD should be omitted. The second paragraph should show any change in affiliation or any deaths of the authors. The third paragraph should include any disclosures or acknowledgements, such as study registration, open practices and data sharing, disclosure of related reports and conflicts of interest, and acknowledgement of financial support and other assistance. The fourth paragraph should include contact information for the corresponding author.
A student paper should not include an author note.
Note again that page headers/page numbers (described above for professional and student papers) also appear at the top of the title page. In other words, a professional paper's title page will include the title of the paper flush left in all capitals and the page number flush right, while a student paper will only contain the page number flush right.
Student APA title page
Title page for a student paper in APA 7 style.
Professional paper APA title page
Title page for a professional paper in APA 7 style.
Begin a new page. Your abstract page should already include the page header (described above). On the first line of the abstract page, center and bold the word “Abstract” (no italics, underlining, or quotation marks).
Beginning with the next line, write a concise summary of the key points of your research. (Do not indent.) Your abstract should contain at least your research topic, research questions, participants, methods, results, data analysis, and conclusions. You may also include possible implications of your research and future work you see connected with your findings. Your abstract should be a single paragraph, double-spaced. Your abstract should typically be no more than 250 words.
You may also want to list keywords from your paper in your abstract. To do this, indent as you would if you were starting a new paragraph, type Keywords: (italicized), and then list your keywords. Listing your keywords will help researchers find your work in databases.
Abstracts are common in scholarly journal articles and are not typically required for student papers unless advised by an instructor. If you are unsure whether or not your work requires an abstract, consult your instructor for further guidance.
APA Abstract Page
Abstract page for a student paper in APA 7 style.
Please see our Sample APA Paper resource to see an example of an APA paper. You may also visit our Additional Resources page for more examples of APA papers.
How to Cite the Purdue OWL in APA
The page template for the new OWL site does not include contributors' names or the page's last edited date. However, select pages still include this information.
In the absence of contributor/edit date information, treat the page as a source with a group author and use the abbreviation "n.d." for "no date":
Purdue Online Writing Lab. (n.d.). Title of resource. Purdue Online Writing Lab. http://Web address for OWL resource
Purdue Online Writing Lab. (n.d.). General Writing FAQs. Purdue Online Writing Lab. https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/general_writing_faqs.html
The generic APA citation for OWL pages, which includes author/edit date information, is this:
Contributors' names. (Last edited date). Title of resource . Site Name. http://Web address for OWL resource
Note: This page reflects the latest version of the APA Publication Manual (i.e., APA 7), which released in October 2019. The equivalent resource for the older APA 6 style can be found here .
MLA, APA, & CMS: How to Properly Format Your Papers
Knowing the styles and when to use them.
In academic writing, how you present your information (technically) is often seen as important as the ideas you are putting forth. Proper citing, quoting and referencing of source material allows you to convey your breadth of research in a language commonly shared by others in your discipline. Giving others a chance to review and compare your work under these established guidelines enables your instructors to better see the work on its own merits, opposed to getting sidetracked by technical inefficiencies.
You MUST follow the rules like every other student: this is not an area where you want to stand out for doing things your own way. Writing for any academic purpose carries with it certain expectations and formatting consistencies, and a failure to properly understand how or why you cite your sources in a specific way can have negative effects on your written projects and communications.
The Big Three: APA, MLA, and CMS
There are three main "Schools of Style" used to properly format an academic paper, referred to as APA, MLA, or CMS.
- APA style : These are the official guidelines put forth by the American Psychological Association, now in its sixth edition. This is the preference of the social sciences, so if you are studying sociology, psychology, medicine, or social work you are going to know APA style.
- MLA style : The Modern Language Association provides guidelines you will be familiar with if you are focused on the Humanities: so artists, English majors, and theatre students will know MLA as they have used this style now for more than half a century.
- CMS style : These are the style guidelines put forth in the Chicago Manual of Style , now in its 16th edition. CMS style is predominantly seen in the humanities, particularly with literature students and those who study advanced segments of history and/or the arts.
While these formatting methods will share many characteristics such as margins and spacing, how they attribute references to source materials is the main differentiator. For example, APA lists "references" while MLA calls the same thing "works cited" - a small but important distinction that might actually affect your grade.
Typically, you are going to use one style for most of your classes and communications, but there is certainly the possibility that you'll need to know how to use any one of these three common styles. The good news is it is not hard to get up-to-speed on any one of them and use them properly.
Get the Latest Updates Regardless of which style you are using, it is imperative to get the most recent version of the guidelines to ensure your paper is as accurate as it can be. Each of the sources have updated their guidelines multiple times over the years, so working with the current standards is goal one.
- APA style guidelines: http://www.apastyle.org
- MLA style guidelines: http://www.mla.org/style
- CMS style guidelines: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/
APA and MLA are the most common styles to use, but CMS is not unheard of - just not as common for undergrads. CMS is commonly used in traditional book publishing and academic publishing situations, so if you are doing post-graduate writing, it is good to know.
The main thing that seems to be changing in the rules for all of them is about the proper attribution of web-related sources, so you are going to want to re-check that you are working from the most recent versions of whichever style guide you need.
Beware the Pitfalls
The common mistakes being made in properly styling citations and references might be as simple as not downloading the most recent updates; however, it may also be a case where students are simply not understanding how to infuse referencing properly.
He continues: "While some common APA formatting errors may be issues due to changes in updated guidelines (APA 5 vs. APA 6), there are other, perhaps more common instances where a student fails to properly reference the source materials within writing assignments. This is particularly true when citing content from the Internet. Understanding how to properly reference and cite source materials adds power to any student paper, because the papers can be used to show a proper understanding and blending of source ideas - a critical concept in higher learning."
"Some of the changes to the guidelines seem very dubious and meticulous," he continues, "but standards are there so an evaluator can assess the weight of the material without bias. Many of my students might complain about it, but the ones that succeed are the ones who are actively trying to use citing resources to their own argument's advantage."
Common MLA Mistakes APA students are not the only ones who have common mistakes in formatting - as evidenced by the following insight offered from Dr. Margaret Walters of Kennesaw State University , where she and her students have used primarily MLA guidelines in their writing, editing and literature classes. Dr. Walters has taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate level writing courses at Kennesaw State University for over 15 years.
Dr. Walters said, "The most common problems I see with MLA style occur in the writing, meaning the text itself, not the bibliography or Works Cited...though there are often some problems to address there, too. In the text, the most common problems are:
- putting a period before and sometimes after the parenthetical citation, as in: ".... and this point is made early on." (Smith 127).
- placing the closing quotation mark after the citation in parenthesis instead of after the quote: " .... and this point is made early on (Smith 127)".
- placing quotation marks inside commas and periods instead of after them: Smith tells us that among the most important rules are the ones regarding use of commas", yet he does not explain how this happens". (127) [those writing British English use the opposite rule--quotation marks inside end punctuation]."
Dr. Walters continued: "In the Works Cited, the most common MLA-related problems are:
- not alphabetizing (even though this is the easiest rule to follow)
- mixing up MLA and APA style; e.g. using initials for first names when MLA says use full first names and middle initials
- leaving off the place of publication - it should be New York: Penguin, 2009 but will instead say Penguin, 2009
- not knowing rules for using quotations marks or when to underline / italicize
"Students get it right most of the time," Dr. Walters states. "I think the underlying problem is an unwillingness to use the style sheets, handouts, or even the MLA handbook. If they use the resources offered, most students are not going to struggle to meet the guidelines."
Get More Help
Both Dr. Walters and Professor Long advise students to use strong and verifiable resources to make your formatting job easier. Both instructors advise checking out the OWL (Online Writing Lab) Resources offered by Purdue in addition to the links to the sites listed above.
The writing center at your own university may hold lots of great information and people to help you understand what to do in each situation you face. Not every situation calls for the same style guide, so checking with the experts on your campus is always a smart idea.
For a quick reference, you can also use the handy visual aids created by Capital Community College on MLA and APA styled papers: ( http://www.ccc.commnet.edu/library/citing.htm ) or look at the MLA vs. APA comparison chart created by the University Writing Center at Appalachian State University .
The Bottom Line
The reality is, depending on your discipline, there may be only one type of style that you need to use, ever. However, this is not saying the rules for how to properly cite resources and references is not going to continue to change and evolve over time. You will be held responsible for being current.
As a student or in post-college academic writing, you want your work to shine and to always show your best efforts. This means checking on the rules to properly style and format your papers. Use the links and information above to help ensure you are forever properly dotting your I's and crossing your T's according to the latest and greatest rules.
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College Essay Format: Writing & Editing Tips
A good college essay format, with the right topic, goes beyond your academic accomplishments and extracurriculars.
You want to stand out in a crowd, particularly when you’re applying to the college of your choice. As part of the application process, many schools ask for an essay to accompany the standard academic and personal information they require. So it’s important to make it a good one.
Your college application essay is essentially a story you tell that offers a glimpse into who you are, beyond your admissions application, grades, activities, and test scores.
A college essay, often called a personal statement, is your opportunity to reveal your personality. It's a way for the admissions department to get to know you as a person and get an idea of the kind of student you'll be.
So how should a college essay be formatted? This article covers formatting best practices, how to choose a compelling topic for your essay, and writing and editing tips to help you craft an essay that captures the attention of the reader, gets your point across, and is free of errors.
Decide on a topic.
You'll often have a choice of topics for your essay provided by the college or university. Choose a topic that allows you to best highlight what you want the college to know about you.
A good start is to list three positive adjectives that describe you. Then, see if you can write two or three real-life examples of each trait that demonstrates that you possess that characteristic.
Also, think about the stories other people tell about you or the words they use to describe you. Ask people who know you well:
What do you think sets me apart from others?
What are my strengths?
How would you describe my personality?
What are my quirks?
These ideas can become the inspiration to develop material for a good college essay.
From the list of essay prompts you receive from the college, choose the topic that will give you the best chance to showcase who you are within the limited word count. You don't have to write about a major life-changing event. It can be a mundane or ordinary situation—like a dinner table conversation, day at school, or conversation with a friend. Often, slightly unusual topics are better than typical ones because they hold a reader's attention.
Regardless of the topic you choose, remember that the true topic of your college essay is you, and the purpose of it is to show how you are unique. It highlights an important piece of who you are and where you want to head in life.
Common college essay prompts
Over 900 colleges use Common App essay prompts, which means you may be able to write one essay for several college applications. Some past Common App college essay prompts—which are announced publicly each year—include the following topics:
Share a story about your background, interest, identity, or talent that makes you complete as a person.
Describe a time when you faced a setback, failure, or challenge and what you learned from it.
Tell about a topic, concept, or idea that is so captivating to you that you lose all track of time.
Write about something that someone has done for you that you are grateful for, and how gratitude has motivated or affected you.
Whether or not the school you're applying to uses Common App questions, it will publish required essay topics in its admissions materials. Or, you may be asked to write on a topic of your choice. Here are some additional common college essay prompts you might encounter:
Describe a person you admire and how that person has influenced your behavior and thinking.
Why do you want to attend this school?
Describe your creative side.
Name an extracurricular activity that is meaningful to you and how it has impacted your life.
Tell about what you have done to make your community or school a better place.
Consult your college application instructions to see how long your essay should be. Be sure to stay within the required word count or essay length, not going over the maximum or under the minimum.
Chances are, you'll be given a word limit. If none is specified, experts on the admissions process recommend you keep your word count between 500 and 650 words. Use the required essay length to help you determine what you will share. You won't be able to tell your life story within these few paragraphs, so choose the most impactful examples as your content.
Create an outline.
An outline helps you plan your essay so you know how it will begin and end and identify key points you want to include in the middle. Use your outline to stay on topic and get the most use out of your word count.
Decide on a logical order.
The most effective outlines are usually the most simple ones. For instance, a good story has a beginning, middle, and end. Likewise, your essay will have an introduction, body, and conclusion.
Unless the college requests a specific admission essay format, use the format you've been using to write essays in high school that you're likely to be the most comfortable with. If you're stuck on how to open your essay, write the middle of your story first. Then, go back and write a compelling introduction and a concise conclusion.
Sample format for a college essay
While the format of your college essay is largely up to you, it can be helpful to have an example as a springboard to give you ideas. Consider the following college essay format as you organize your writing.
1. Think about using a title.
A title for your college essay is not necessary. However, including one can add interest. But if you're low on word count, you can skip it. You can also wait until after you write your essay to decide. It's often easier to come up with a fitting, compelling title after you've told your story.
2. Open with a hook.
Your opening sentence is one of the most important parts of your essay. It's what you'll use to capture the attention of the reader and give them a reason to read on. The start of your essay is your opportunity to make an impactful first impression, so make your opening a good one. Here are two examples of how you can open with an interesting hook:
Start in the middle of your story: Call out the most interesting point of your story, and then backtrack from there. For example, "And there I found myself, surrounded by baby sea turtles on the hazy shores of Virginia Beach."
Make a specific generalization: This is a sentence that makes a general statement on what your essay will be about, but gives a specific description. An example: "Each year on our family vacation out of the city, I contemplate the meaning of life as we cross the Golden Gate Bridge."
3. Continue with your introduction.
While your hook will spark the reader's curiosity, the rest of your introduction should give them an idea of where you're going with your essay. Set your story up in four to five sentences.
4. Tell your story in the body of your essay.
If your introduction and conclusion are roughly 100 words each, your body will end up being about 450 words. Think of that as three to five paragraphs, with each paragraph having its own main idea or point.
Write in a narrative style—more as though you're having a conversation as opposed to writing an instruction manual. While you should pay strict attention to using proper grammar and sentence structure, you have the freedom to make your essay a reflection of your personality.
If you are a humorous person, use humor. If you're an eternal optimist or love getting into the minute details of life, let that shine through. Tell your story in a way that’s logical, clear, and makes sense.
5. Wrap up with a conclusion.
Finish your story with a conclusion paragraph, and make sure you've made your main point. What is the main thing you want the college to know about you through this story? Is it what you've learned, a value that's important to you, or what you want to contribute to society? Finally, conclude your essay with the personal statement you want to make about yourself.
Writing tips on how to format a college essay
As you're writing your college essay, keep these tips in mind:
Be authentic. One of the most essential parts of how to format a college application essay is to be authentic. The college wants to know who you are, and they will be reading dozens of essays a day. The best way to make yours stand out is to just be yourself instead of focusing on what you think they want to hear.
Show you can write . While the most important part of your personal statement is showcasing who you are, you'll also be judged on your writing ability. That's because knowing the fundamental principles of writing is important to college success. Show that you understand the structure of an essay and proper use of the English language.
Give the answer right away. If you're using a specific question as your writing prompt, answer the question directly in the opening paragraph. Then, use the rest of the essay to elaborate on your answer.
Stay on topic. Make good use of your word count limit by being concise and coherent. Stay on topic and refrain from adding any information that doesn't add to the main idea of your essay.
Write in your voice. Imagine you’re speaking to an actual person as you write. Be honest and accurate, using words you normally use. Your essay is a personal statement, so it should sound natural to the reader—and to you too.
Use real examples. Add real-life events and vivid details from your life. This adds color and validity to your personal statement. Personal examples will show you embody the characteristics or values you claim to, rather than merely saying you do.
Keep the formatting simple. Opt-out of fancy fonts that can be hard to read. Stick to fonts like Times New Roman or Arial. Avoid using bolding (except for headings), italics, all caps, or exclamation points. Let your words speak for themselves instead.
Save your essay. Instead of writing your essay directly in the online application, draft and save your essay in a document like Google Docs or Word—or start out on paper and pen if that's what you're most comfortable with. That way you can make edits and use helpful online spelling and grammar checkers. And you won't risk losing your essay if the application times out or you navigate away from it by mistake. When you copy and paste your essay into the application, make sure your formatting, such as line spacing and bolding for headings, remains intact.
Follow directions. Read and understand the specific instructions set by the college. Review them again before you submit your essay to make sure you've met all of the requirements.
Editing tips on how to format a college essay
Finally, edit your essay until you’re satisfied it conveys the message you want it to and it’s free of errors. Let your first draft be as messy or pristine as it comes out. Then, go back later—several times if needed—to clean it up. Ask yourself these questions as you edit your essay:
Is my essay free of grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation errors?
Is it the proper word length assigned by the college?
Have I answered the question in the prompt?
Does the introduction make me want to read more?
Are there any vague statements I can replace with more specific details?
Do any parts drone on or feel boring?
Does it feel too formal?
Are any parts or words repetitive?
Have I misused any words (such as there, their, and they're)?
Are my sentences varied in length?
Have I shared with the college what I most want them to know about me?
It can also be helpful to ask someone you trust to read your essay and give you constructive feedback. This might be a trusted teacher, parent, school counselor, or college student. It's best to choose someone who is familiar with the purpose of a college essay.
Ask them to give feedback about your essay using the same questions as above. But they should never try to rewrite your essay. And never let others edit out your voice. Ask them to focus on grammar and mechanics and to give suggestions on items to add in or leave out.
Above all, ask your guest editor what point they think you were trying to make with your essay. If they get it right, you know you've crafted a college essay that reflects you and your intended message.
Enhance your writing skills
Bring out your best in your college essay with a course in Writing a Personal Essay from Wesleyan University. Learn how to find your voice, structure your essay, choose relevant details, and write in a way that pulls in your readers.
Bachelor’s Degree Guide: Resources for Your Undergraduate Education
College Essay Topics and Writing Tips
How Long Should a College Essay Be?
How to Write a Personal Statement
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.
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HOW TO FORMAT ESSAYS
Once your revisions are complete, it’s time to format your essay — or arrange the way it is presented.
The first rule to writing in College Essay format is simple: ask your professor. He or she may prefer a special format.
If they say “Use MLA” or “Use APA,” follow the instructions below.
MLA Format Essay
Title page: Usually no — check with professor Margins: 1 inch all around Font: Usually Times Roman, 11 to 12 point Heading: Yes — follow illustration below Page number: Yes — upper left hand, with last name.
Instructions on automatically setting up this information using Microsoft Word.
First, second and Works Cited page of MLA formatted essay.
MLA Format Page 1 See enlarged image (GIF)
MLA Format Page 2 See enlarged image (GIF)
MLA Format Work Cited See enlarged image (GIF)
Title page: Usually yes — check with professor Margins: 1 inch all around Font: Usually Times Roman, 11 to 12 point Heading: Yes — follow illustration below Page number: Yes — upper left hand, with last name.
Instructions on automatically setting up this information using Microsoft Word .
First, second and Works Cited page of APA formatted essay.
APA Format Page 1 See enlarged image (GIF)
APA Format Page 2 See enlarged image (GIF)
APA Format Page 3 See enlarged image (GIF)