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How to Format Your College Essay. Complete Guide

Content how to format your college essay

There are two format styles that are the most common for college essays and papers – MLA and APA. Of course, there are some other less-used styles, but they are often in use for graduate studies in very specific research areas. Most college students will use the two most common.

Let’s take a brief look at these styles, so that you can use the correct format for writing an essay according to your instructors’ requirements.

MLA Style

This format was developed by the Modern Language Association. It determines the physical appearance of your essay and the way in which you will cite both in-text and end-of-text resources. In learning how to write an essay in MLA format, you will need to pay attention to detail. In addition to this guide, you may want to use some tutorials as a reference as you check your final piece for accuracy.

The Physical Look of Your Essay

You will not experience much difficulty with physical appearance.

  1. If you are wondering how to write the title of an essay in MLA format, be assured that it is easy. There is no separate title page - it is centered on the first page of your essay, and the text begins after a double-space.
  2. The first page looks like this:
  1. Upper left corner – you name, double-space, your instructor’s name, double space, the course title, double space, the date of submission.
  2. Double space after the date and center the title
  3. Double space after the title and begin your essay
  1. Margins must be one-inch all the way around; left margin is justified; right margin is not.
  2. The paper must be double-spaced.
  3. Each paragraph much be indented ½ inch
  4. Pagination: Your first page is obviously #1, and it should be placed in the upper right-hand corner. From that point forward each page is numbered in the upper right-hand corner, as a part of a header, with your last name followed by the page number.

It’s a good idea to have a sample MLA essay on hand so that you can remind yourself of physical appearance.

Citations – In-Text and End-of-Text Citations

Remember, quotes must always be cited for source. And, if you pull ideas or opinions from sources, you must cite them as well.

In-Text Citations

  1. Once you have included information or ideas from a source, at the end of your text, you will place the author and page number(s) in parentheses. Example: (Smith 16-18).
  2. You use the same format when you cite a direct quote. You need to also understand how to write a quote in MLA format in an essay, when that quote is three or more lines. These quotes should be indented and single-spaced, but the citation is the same format.
  3. If you have more than one author, separate their last names by commas.

End-of-Text Citations: Here are examples of each type of resource you might use.


Smith, Elise, The Destruction of the Coral Reef, New York, Prentice-Hall, 2014.

Journal Article

Smith, Elise, “The Destruction of the Coral Reef,” Eco News, Vol. 6, #8, January, 2014, pp. 47-62.

Web Resource

Smith, Elise, “The Destruction of the Coral Reef,” Eco News, January 23, 2014 (date it was accessed by you),

If you are using unique resources – speech, podcast, interview, etc. – it would be a good idea to use a citation tool or access the MLA guide.

An MLA format essay is not too difficult. The “rules” are pretty straightforward.

APA Style

If you are wondering what is APA format when writing an essay and where it came from, wonder no more. This format style was developed by the American Psychological Association and is updated every few years. It is now in its 6th edition. Originally developed for academic writing in psychology, it is now a very common style for most social science essays and papers. Just like the Modern Language Association, the APA publishes a style guide, and it is online for easy reference. Here is the ‘down and dirty” guide for APA essay format.

The Physical Look of Your Essay

  1. The title page is separate from the rest of the essay. The title is centered in the upper portion of the page, then double space, then your name, double-space, and the college/university.
  2. There is a running header in the upper left hand corner of your title page and every page thereafter; that header is the title of your essay. In the right upper corner is the pagination and your title page is page 1.
  3. An essay paper written in APA format has some specific “rules” for the title. Do not use abbreviations; and use upper and lower case letters as you would for any title.
  4. All of your text must be double-spaced.
  5. There should be one-inch margins all around.
  6. Paragraphs are indented ½ inch
  7. Left margin is justified; right margin is not.
  8. Long quotes are indented one inch and single spaced
  9. If you have an abstract requirement, it is placed right after that title page. Is has the running header and it is page #2.

In-Text Citations

The in-text citation method for APA format when writing an essay is very much like MLA. You place the author’s name in parentheses after the idea or concept you are citing. The only difference is you must put a comma between the author’s last name, and the date of publication. You do not put page numbers in unless it is a short quote housed within your text.

Example: (Jones, 2014) or (Jones, 2014, pp. 42-43).

Obviously, every source you cite in your text must be cited in the end-of-text reference page.

Long quotes should be indented one-inch and single spaced. You use the parentheses at the end of the quote and specify page number(s). Do not put quotation marks around long quotes. The general APA rule is that a long quote is 40 words or more.

If there is more than one author, separate their last names by commas.

End-of-Text Citations

Alphabetize the list by author’s last name. If there is no author, the title goes into the list based upon the alphabet letter of the first word.


Jones, E. (2014). The Destruction of the Coral Reef, New York, NY: Allyn and Bacon.

Journal Article

Jones, E. (2014). The Destruction of the Coral Reef, Eco News, 11, pp. 12-23.

Web Resource

Jones, E. (May, 2014). The Destruction of the Coral Reef. Eco News, 14. Retrieved from

Making Citations Easier

Getting College essay format styles correct is tedious work. The physical layout is pretty clear and easy. The citations can give you fits, especially when source materials are unique and complex. Fortunately, most schools now have a free citation generator. If you enter the details very carefully and select the required style, you should be a perfect citation.