SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

The 3 Popular Essay Formats: Which Should You Use?

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Dec 3, 2019 3:00:00 PM

General Education

 

feature_canyonstars

Not sure which path your essay should follow? Formatting an essay may not be as interesting as choosing a topic to write about or carefully crafting elegant sentences, but it’s an extremely important part of creating a high-quality paper. In this article, we’ll explain essay formatting rules for three of the most popular essay styles: MLA, APA, and Chicago.

For each, we’ll do a high-level overview of what your essay’s structure and references should look like, then we include a comparison chart with nitty-gritty details for each style, such as which font you should use for each and whether they’re a proponent of the Oxford comma. We also include information on why essay formatting is important and what you should do if you’re not sure which style to use.

 

Why Is Your Essay Format Important?

Does it really matter which font size you use or exactly how you cite a source in your paper? It can! Style formats were developed as a way to standardize how pieces of writing and their works cited lists should look. 

Why is this necessary? Imagine you’re a teacher, researcher, or publisher who reviews dozens of papers a week. If the papers didn’t follow the same formatting rules, you could waste a lot of time trying to figure out which sources were used, if certain information is a direct quote or paraphrased, even who the paper’s author is. Having essay formatting rules to follow makes things easier for everyone involved. Writers can follow a set of guidelines without trying to decide for themselves which formatting choices are best, and readers don’t need to go hunting for the information they’re trying to find.

Next, we’ll discuss the three most common style formats for essays.

 

MLA Essay Format

MLA style was designed by the Modern Language Association, and it has become the most popular college essay format for students writing papers for class. It was originally developed for students and researchers in the literature and language fields to have a standardized way of formatting their papers, but it is now used by people in all disciplines, particularly humanities. MLA is often the style teachers prefer their students to use because it has simple, clear rules to follow without extraneous inclusions often not needed for school papers. For example, unlike APA or Chicago styles, MLA doesn’t require a title page for a paper, only a header in the upper left-hand corner of the page.

MLA style doesn’t have any specific requirements for how to write your essay, but an MLA format essay will typically follow the standard essay format of an introduction (ending with a thesis statement), several body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

One of the nice things about creating your works cited for MLA is that all references are structured the same way, regardless of whether they’re a book, newspaper, etc. It’s the only essay format style that makes citing references this easy! Here is a guide on how to cite any source in MLA format. When typing up your works cited, here are a few MLA format essay rules to keep in mind:

  • The works cited page should be the last paper of your paper.
  • This page should still be double-spaced and include the running header of your last name and page number.
  • It should begin with “Works Cited” at the top of the page, centered.
  • Your works cited should be organized in alphabetical order, based on the first word of the citation.

 

APA Essay Format

APA stands for the American Psychological Association. This format type is most often used for research papers, specifically those in behavioral sciences (such as psychology and neuroscience) and social sciences (ranging from archeology to economics). Because APA is often used for more research-focused papers, they have a more specific format to follow compared to, say, MLA style.

All APA style papers begin with a title page, which contains the title of the paper (in capital letters), your name, and your institutional affiliation (if you’re a student, then this is simply the name of the school you attend). The APA recommends the title of your paper not be longer than 12 words.

After your title page, your paper begins with an abstract. The abstract is a single paragraph, typically between 150 to 250 words, that sums up your research. It should include the topic you’re researching, research questions, methods, results, analysis, and a conclusion that touches on the significance of the research. Many people find it easier to write the abstract last, after completing the paper.

After the abstract comes the paper itself. APA essay format recommends papers be short, direct, and make their point clearly and concisely. This isn’t the time to use flowery language or extraneous descriptions. Your paper should include all the sections mentioned in the abstract, each expanded upon.

Following the paper is the list of references used. Unlike MLA style, in APA essay format, every source type is referenced differently. So the rules for referencing a book are different from those for referencing a journal article are different from those referencing an interview. Here’s a guide for how to reference different source types in APA format. Your references should begin on a new page that says “REFERENCES” at the top, centered. The references should be listed in alphabetical order.

 

body_bookshelves

 

Chicago Essay Format

Chicago style (sometimes referred to as “Turabian style”) was developed by the University of Chicago Press and is typically the least-used by students of the three major essay style formats. The Chicago Manual of Style (currently on its 17th edition) contains within its 1000+ pages every rule you need to know for this style. This is a very comprehensive style, with a rule for everything. It’s most often used in history-related fields, although many people refer to The Chicago Manual of Style for help with a tricky citation or essay format question. Many book authors use this style as well.

Like APA, Chicago style begins with a title page, and it has very specific format rules for doing this which are laid out in the chart below. After the title page may come an abstract, depending on whether you’re writing a research paper or not. Then comes the essay itself. The essay can either follow the introduction → body → conclusion format of MLA or the different sections included in the APA section. Again, this depends on whether you’re writing a paper on research you conducted or not.

Unlike MLA or APA, Chicago style typically uses footnotes or endnotes instead of in-text or parenthetical citations. You’ll place the superscript number at the end of the sentence (for a footnote) or end of the page (for an endnote), then have an abbreviated source reference at the bottom of the page. The sources will then be fully referenced at the end of the paper, in the order of their footnote/endnote numbers. The reference page should be titled “Bibliography” if you used footnotes/endnotes or “References” if you used parenthetical author/date in-text citations.

 

Comparison Chart

Below is a chart comparing different formatting rules for APA, Chicago, and MLA styles.

 
APA
Chicago
MLA
Font
Times New Roman (preferred)
Times, Palatino, or Times New Roman
Times New Roman or another easily legible serif font
Font Size
12-point
No less than 10-point
12-point
Header or Title Page Rules
Title page. Title page should be centered, double-spaced, and include:
  • Paper’s title
  • Your name
  • School or institution you’re affiliated with
Title page. The words should be centered and follow this format: 
Press Enter 7 times so you are one-third of the way down the page. 
Type the paper’s title in capital letters.
Press Enter 8 times.
Type your full name and press Enter.
Type the name of your course and press Enter.
Type the date.
Header. In the upper left-hand corner of the paper’s first page, the header should follow this format (double-spaced):
  • Your full name
  • Your instructor’s name
  • The name of the class
  • The date you are turning in the paper
After a double space is the paper’s title (center aligned)
In-Text Citations
Include the author’s last name and year of publication, such as (Williams 2015). If it’s a direct quote, include the page number as well, for example (Williams 2015, p.89).
Footnotes are generally preferred. If footnotes are used, include a full citation at the bottom of the page the first time a source is mentioned and an abbreviated citation [Author’s last name, page number] for subsequent citations of the same source.
 
If the author/date style is used, it includes the author’s last name and year of publication, for example (Williams 2015).
Include the author’s last name and page number, such as (Williams p.89).  Or, the author’s name can be mentioned in the text before the quote, and only the page number (in parentheses) will follow the quote.
Margins
At least 1” on all sides
1” to 1.5” on all sides
1” on all sides
Oxford Comma?
Only when needed for clarity
Yes
Yes
Numbers
Use words for numbers below 10 and digits 10 and above.
Use words for numbers 0 to 100 and digits for numbers above 100.
Spell out numbers that can be written as one or two words. Use digits for numbers that are more than words or that precede a measurement or label  (such as 6 tablespoons or 4 chapters). 
Paragraphs
All paragraphs indented ½ an inch
All paragraphs indented ½ an inch
All paragraphs indented ½ an inch
Quotes
Direct quotes that are 40 or more words should be in block format.
Direct quotes that are 100 or more words or longer than 5 lines of text should be in block format.
Direct quotes longer than 4 lines should be written in block format.
Running Header/Page Numbers
On the title page, should read “Running head: [TITLE OF PAPER]” On all subsequent pages, should read simply “TITLE OF YOUR PAPER” justified to the left-hand side.  Page number should also be included, justified to the right-hand side at the top of every page.
Include the page number in the upper-right hand corner of each page, not including the title page.
In the upper right-hand corner of each page should be a running header with your last name and the page number, such as “Williams 4”.
Spacing
Double-spaced
Double-spaced (except block quotations)
Double-spaced



How Should You Format Your Essay If Your Teacher Hasn’t Specified a Format?

What if your teacher hasn’t specified which essay format they want you to use? The easiest way to solve this problem is simply to ask your teacher which essay format they prefer. However, if you can’t get ahold of them or they don’t have a preference, we recommend following MLA format. It’s the most commonly-used essay style for students writing papers that aren’t based on their own research, and its formatting rules are general enough that a teacher of any subject shouldn’t have a problem with an MLA format essay. The fact that this style has one of the simplest sets of rules for citing sources is an added bonus!

 

feature_argumentativeessay-1

 

What's Next?

Thinking about taking an AP English class? Read our guide on AP English classes to learn whether you should take AP English Language or AP English Literature (or both!)

Compound sentences are an importance sentence type to know. Read our guide on compound sentences for everything you need to know about compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.

Need ideas for a research paper topic? Our guide to research paper topics has over 100 topics in ten categories so you can be sure to find the perfect topic for you. 

Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.



Get Free Guides to Boost Your SAT/ACT
100% Privacy. No spam ever.

Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!