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What format should I write my essay in

Formatting may seem like a minor thing compared to all the hard work that goes into writing and editing a decent essay. But it’s actually quite important. Most professors allocate at least 10%, if not 20%, of the grade to the format. What’s more, failure to cite correctly often results in unintentional plagiarism, which may cause the student serious problems with the Academic Integrity Committee. To avoid losing points or risking academic repercussions, you should pay attention to what referencing style you are using and whether you’re using it correctly. Here are some of the basics.

How to choose the right format?

Normally, a professor or TA is supposed to mention the correct referencing style in the instructions. The most common ones are the American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago, and Harvard. But some colleges and professors may prefer something more obscure. In such cases, they usually include not just the format students are expected to use in their papers but also a link to detailed style guidelines.

Sadly, though, this isn’t always the case. Some instructors neglect to mention what format students are expected to use in their papers. When this happens, it means that either it doesn’t matter what referencing style a student will use, or the professor has simply forgotten to mention it. If possible, email them to clarify what format to use. But if the deadline is too close (which happens to students all too often), or your professor isn’t particularly responsive, you’ll have to choose the proper referencing style yourself.

A rule of thumb is to choose the format based on the discipline. Humanities (such as literature, languages, philosophy, and the likes) typically call for the MLA referencing style. APA is more common in social sciences (psychology, sociology, economics, and so on). Nursing papers are also supposed to be written in APA in 99% of cases. So if you’re wondering, “what format should I write my essays in” and have no specific instructions, rely on this tip. Choose the one most common for the discipline you’re writing a paper for.


The APA referencing style is the most common one. It’s the default format for the widest range of disciplines, from psychology to nursing to communications and beyond. It’s also most students’ favorite referencing style. The thing is, unlike MLA, APA doesn’t require you to include the page number in the in-text citation unless the sentence contains a direct, word-by-word quote from the source. So if your question is, “how do I write my essay in APA format,” the first answer is, “much more easily than you would have in MLA.”

Other peculiarities of the APA referencing style are also very straightforward and easy to memorize. APA implies a cover page with the title of the paper, your name, institution, and date. Also, the bibliography page is called “References” in APA. Interestingly, even if you only have one source there, the title still has to be in plural. As to in-text citations, they follow the common Author-date format, for example, (Brown, 2017). For more detailed instructions, consider checking the official Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th edition.


MLA is another very common referencing style, especially in the U.S. If you’re wondering, “how do I write my essay in MLA format,” you won’t have much trouble. If nothing else, there’s no need for a cover page in MLA papers, just a header (with the names of the student and instructor, the course, and the date). It’s pretty convenient. You’ll also have to include your last name at the top of every page next to the page number, but this doesn’t take much time or effort. The bibliography page in MLA is called “Work(s) Cited,” depending on the number of sources you put there.

However, MLA’s major downside, at least according to students, is that you need to include the page number in each in-text citation, even if you’re paraphrasing the source. This means that you’ll have to be very meticulous while researching. It’s a good idea to use helpful note-taking apps, such as Evernote, One Note, or Simplenote. Most of them aren’t free, but their positive impact on the convenience and ease of your note-taking is well worth the money.


Chicago isn’t as typical as APA or MLA, yet still common enough for most students to face it at least once during their academic journeys. Chicago is a little more complicated and has quite a few nuances you need to be aware of. Similarly to APA, Chicago belongs to the Author-date group of referencing styles. However, unlike the case with APA, writers are encouraged to include the page number in all in-text citations even if the quote in the sentence isn’t direct. The common in-text citation formatted according to The Chicago Manual of Style looks like this: (Brown 2017, 67). As you can see, there’s no need to include “p.” (meaning “page”) before the page number.

There’s one more Chicago-specific thing that not all students know of. When you ask, “how do I write my essay in Chicago format?”, the answer will depend on the discipline. If the paper’s for your political studies class, you’re lucky because you’ll have to use regular in-text citations. But if it is for something arts-related, say music, you’ll have to include footnotes instead. Ideally, not only check The Chicago Manual of Style but also ask your professor whether they prefer footnotes or in-text citations. But read the instructions thoroughly first. Most instructors do specify which version of the Chicago format students are supposed to use.

An afterword

As you can see, choosing the right citation style isn’t all that difficult. What’s a little more challenging, though, is using it correctly. If your professor is kind enough to allow you to use the format of your choice, stick to APA. It’s the easiest one. But you can definitely master MLA and even Chicago too. Just don’t neglect to consult the relevant style manual whenever you’re writing a paper.

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