Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Your APA Reference Page Will Be a Disaster If You Don't Follow These 11 Rules

If you are in a university program focusing on the social sciences, it is likely you'll become very well acquainted with APA (American Psychological Association) style. APA is a specific guideline for formatting your research writing, including everything from the font to use to how to create a reference page of your sources.

This style is most often used in fields such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and education, so if you're in (or plan to be in) one of these areas of study and research, you'll eventually need to learn APA style—or at least, need to learn where to find information about it. To help you do that, here are 11 rules that will help keep your APA reference page from being a disaster.

APA is an academic writing style most often used in fields such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and education
APA is an academic writing style most often used in fields such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and education. Photo by Tookapic on Pexels.

Rule #1: Put your references at the end of your paper but before your appendix

Part of the reason different fields use consistent styles is to make sure researchers know where to look in a paper to find the information they need. If someone wants to know a source for a quote, figure, statistic, or finding you've used as evidence, they can always remember that the reference page—otherwise known as your list of sources—can be found at the end of the paper (but before the appendix).

Rule #2: Start your reference list at the top of a new page, with "References" centered

You can always tell a fresh-out-of-high-school college student by the various ways he or she will format the reference page of a research paper. Some will put REFERENCES in all caps, bold it, italicize it, put it in quotation marks or underline it—but all of them will be wrong in doing so.

The correct way to being your reference list in an APA paper is to place the References heading at the top center of a new page, without any other font styles added. You can go to this link to see an example of this if you're still unsure of what to do.

Rule #3: Be sure that each source used is included

A common mistake made by research writers, newbie and experienced alike, is to mention a fact taken from a source—even cite it in the text—but then forget to include the full citation for that source in the reference page section of an APA paper.

There's a way to avoid this but it requires a bit of forethought and planning on your end. First, as you write the paper, be sure to include the in-text citation for each quote, statistic, figure, finding, or reference to a study that you use. As soon as you do that, include it on a "master sheet" of references. This master sheet, which can be handwritten, will then be alphabetized, organized, and formatted to become your official APA reference page.

Rule #4: Double-space your reference list with a hanging indent on the second and subsequent lines of each entry

This rule is a hard rule to remember—mostly because when you see a citation at the back of a textbook or footnote of an article, it's typically single spaced. However, APA format requires that the entire paper be double-spaced, including the references list.

The hanging indent part takes a little practice. If you're a whiz on Microsoft Word, you can adjust the style and Word will automatically create the hanging indents for you on each reference entry.

Rule #5: Invert all authors' names and include their full last name plus first name initial

On your reference list, you'll alphabetize all sources based on the name of the author(s) who published them. In order to do this easily, you should invert all authors' names to list their last name first, then the initial of their first name and middle name (if known).


Montcastle, V. B. (1997, April). The columnar organization of the neocortex. Brain Journal, 120, 701-722.

This particular example is for citing a journal article and follows the following format:

Author, A. A., Author B. B., & Author C. C. (1994, January). Title of article. Title of Magazine, volume number(issue number), xxx-xxx.

Rule #6: If there are more than seven authors, list the first six then use ellipses before listing the last author's name

Some studies are conducted and published by more than seven authors. While these studies might be rare, you will likely run into one at some point in your academic writing experience. APA has a specific format for citing such a study—list the first six in standard format (last name, A.A.) then the final author following the sixth one and separated by ellipses. If you're citing a journal article, your citation will look like this:

Miller, F. H., Choi, M. J., Angeli, L. L., Harland, A. A., Stamos, J. A., Thomas, S. T., . . . Rubin, L. H. (2009). Web site usability for the blind and low-vision user. Technical Communication, 57, 323-335.

Rule #7: Alphabetize by the last name of the first author of each entry and chronologically if the same author

In cases where you have multiple authors, always use the name that is first listed on the study as the first author, and therefore, the name you'll eventually alphabetize in your reference list when completed. Follow that author's name with the other authors in the order they are listed—not in alphabetical order within the citation.

In cases where you have multiple citations for the same author, as in several books and/or articles written by the same person, list the citations in chronological order—from the earliest to the most recent.


Berndt, T. J. (1981).

Berndt, T. J. (1999).

However, it gets a little more complicated if you're citing an author who has published on their own as well as with other authors. In these cases, always put the citation for the solo work first (regardless of chronology), then the collaboration next.


Berndt, T. J. (1999). Friends' influence on students' adjustment to school. Educational Psychologist, 34, 15-28.

Berndt, T. J., & Keefe, K. (1995). Friends' influence on adolescents' adjustment to school. Child Development, 66, 1312-1329.

If an author is listed as the first author on several studies with other authors, list the citations based on alphabetizing the second author.


Wegener, D. T., Kerr, N. L., Fleming, M. A., & Petty, R. E. (2000). Flexible corrections of juror judgments: Implications for jury instructions. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 6, 629-654.

Wegener, D. T., Petty, R. E., & Klein, D. J. (1994). Effects of mood on high elaboration attitude change: The mediating role of likelihood judgments. European Journal of Social Psychology, 24, 25-43.

Aphabetizing citations with multiple authors can be one of the most tricky parts of writing an APA reference list.
Aphabetizing citations with multiple authors can be one of the most tricky parts of writing an APA reference list. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.

Rule #8: Don't abbreviate the journal title or use the ampersand, and maintain its capitalization

While some formatting styles allow both of these, APA does not. When writing out the journal citation in your reference list, write the whole journal name (without abbreviation) and don't use an ampersand (&) to replace "and" unless the journal itself prints it that way. Also maintain the capitalization for the Journal in title case.


Journal of Education and Curriculum

Rule #9: Capitalize the first word and the first word following a colon or dash, as well as proper nouns in books, chapters, articles, dissertations, speeches or webpages

Capitalization rules in APA follow a standard format that applies to most writing. You need to capitalize the first word of the sentence, as well as the first word that follows a colon or dash. You'll also need to capitalize all proper nouns. Note that the title of a book or article should not be in title case, only the journal name should be.

Rule #10: Italicize titles of longer works such as books and journals

As with most writing, you'll need to italicize titles of books and journals (the name of the journal, not the article). Do not italicize, underline, or put quotes around the title of the article.

Rule #11: Use the manual or OWL at Purdue for specific rules relating to entries based on type of source

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University is one of the most accessible and thorough APA resources available online. In fact, most of the examples I used throughout this article were taken from that website.

The site is organized (in the left-hand column) by APA general format, in-text citations, footnotes/endnotes, reference list, stylistics, headings, tables and figures, and FAQs. It also provides sample papers written in APA format to allow you to see the style rules applied to writing. On the sample papers page, it even offers an automatic generator where you can plug in information about your source and the website will make the APA citation for you.

Since there are so many rules related to citing and organizing an APA paper, and some complicated ones (multiple works by the same author, we're looking at you!) you're likely not going to memorize every detail of the style—even if you write in it often. That's why knowing where to go for a solid source online is helpful. I have the OWL site saved in my laptop's bookmarks to access easily whenever I need to look up a formatting rule.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.