APA formatting is a set of rules and guidelines for styling your paper and citing your sources. For an overview of basic APA formatting visit our Introduction to APA page. For information about other APA style elements, see below.

Heading levels can be placed anywhere in your paper as a way to classify or organize your paper into sections. There are five levels; the first three levels are the most commonly used in course assignments. Levels four and five are typically used in longer papers (e.g., a master’s thesis or dissertation). Using level headings helps your reader understand the organization of your paper. To use proper APA level headings, follow these guidelines:

APA Level Headings

To see how level headings can be applied in an essay, see this example.

In general, use words to express numbers up to nine (i.e., one, two, etc.), and use numerals for numbers 10 and above (i.e., 11, 12, etc.). However, there are some other specifics to keep in mind:

  • Numerals (or numbers) should be used when they precede a unit of measurement.
    • Each desk was 3 ft. apart.
  • Numerals (or numbers) should be used when they represent time, scores, ages, dates, and points on a scale:
    • The meeting was at 3:00 p.m.
  • Numerals (or numbers) should be used when they represent points on a scale or scores:
    • The participant chose 3 on a 5-point Likert scale measure of satisfaction.
  • Use numerals (or numbers) when they suggest a place in a series:
    • More information is provided in Table 8.
  • Use numerals (or numbers) when they are used in an abstract.
  • Avoid beginning a sentence with a number, but when you cannot reword the sentence, use words to express a number that begins a sentence:
    • Fifty students attended the presentation.

Seriation, or a list, refers to organizing and sharing items in a series. When you have three or more complex items in a list, you can use seriation to improve the readability of the sentence. In APA style, separate the items using lowercase letters in parentheses:

  • The researchers examined relationships between (a) employee satisfaction, (b) personality types, (c) levels of anxiety, and (d) workplace policies

Use italics for the following:

  • For titles of journals, books, and videos
    • Journal of Online Learning
    • Citizen Kan
    • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's S
  • To introduce key term
    • Jones (2016) described user experience as building visually appealing materials that are user friendly
  • For anchors of scales
    • Scores ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).
  • For letters in statistical symbols
    • n =150

When listing items in a series of three or more, use a comma to separate each item:

  • Correct: I like to go running, walking, and hiking.
  • Incorrect: I like to go running, walking and hiking.

Because all authors you would be citing wrote their work at some point in the past, when you quote or paraphrase others, use past tense:

  • Jones and Fraenza(2016) found that giving attendees coffee increased engagement.
  • Sloan (2017) identified key areas where students need support in higher education.
  • Lekkerkerk (2015) argued that video tutorials were an effective tool for learning.

Et al. translates to “and others” and should be used in in-text citations as outlined in the table below:

et al. example


Active voice is a style of writing that follows the logical order of the action, from the subject (or doer) to the object (or receiver) of the action. Using active voice will make your writing clear and easy to follow. In active voice, your sentence should be in this order: subject, verb, and object.

Active voice

  • Sally drove the car off the road.

Passive voice

  • The car was driven off the road by Sally.

For more information on understanding active vs. passive voice, please visit our Active vs Passive page.

Anthropomorphism refers to giving human characteristics to a nonliving object or animal. In academic writing, avoid anthropomorphism as it can make sentences unclear and confusing.

  • Incorrect: The study concluded that sugar is correlated with being hyper.

In this example, the study cannot conclude anything, but people can.

  • Correct: The researchers concluded that sugar is correlated with being hyper.

For more information, visit our Anthropomorphism page.

Using tables, figures, and appendices can add useful information for your readers, while keeping your document easy to read. For detailed help with this, view our guide on Formatting Tables, Figures, and Appendices.