How do I Choose the Best Term Paper Format?

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When choosing the best term paper format, the first consideration is whether your instructor requires a specific style. If it has been left up to you, try to use the style most appropriate for the class in which the paper was assigned. While there are a variety of styles, schools in the United States rely largely on three formats. Modern Language Association (MLA) is often used in writing, language, and literature courses; American Psychological Association (APA) is typically used in the social and behavioral sciences; and Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is generally followed in the fine arts and some humanities disciplines. The paper’s citations and appearance will change with the format, but there are style guides available with detailed instructions.

Professors often ask for a particular style, either on the assignment sheet or in class. Most disciplines have a preferred format that is widely used, and the instructor may expect you to adhere to that. Some disciplines have their own formats, such as the American Chemical Society (ACS) format for chemistry papers. If you are comfortable with a certain citation style, you can always ask the instructor if that style is acceptable. When in doubt about the term paper format, the instructor who will grade the assignment is always the best person to ask for confirmation.


MLA style is used primarily in composition, language, and literature classes. This format emphasizes the writer of the source rather than the source itself. Quotes, paraphrases, and summaries should all refer to the author and include a page number at the end of the cited material. MLA uses present tense to refer to the author’s work, so a citation might be introduced with “As Shakespeare says” rather than “said.” MLA does not use footnotes, and the list of sources at the end is called a “Works Cited” list.

The APA term paper format is used mainly in social and behavioral science classes and occasionally in business or geography classes. This documentation method emphasizes currency of the source, asking for the year of publication along with the author’s last name and using page numbers only with direct quotes. In the text, writers should use past tense for citations, such as “Darwin claimed,” but present tense for results or established knowledge, as in “the study shows” or “high cholesterol is dangerous.” The list of sources is called “References” and placed at the end. APA allows for an occasional explanatory footnote and asks for an abstract with the paper.

Chicago is the style typically preferred by the fine arts and some humanities fields, such as history and philosophy. CMS is the most general term paper format, as it was not designed for any particular discipline. It requires footnotes with superscript numerals in the text corresponding to the note at the bottom of the page. Some instructors, though, will accept endnotes, placing all the notes together at the end of the paper. The tense used for citations is up to the writer’s preference, as long as all essential information can be found in the note or on the “bibliography” page for sources at the end.

The look of the paper changes depending on the format used. For example, APA and CMS generally use title pages, but MLA does not. MLA and CMS number pages in the upper right corner with the author’s last name and a numeral, while APA uses a shortened version of the paper’s title with the page number. APA places an abstract before the essay and can break up the text with subheadings. CMS sometimes includes an outline before the body of the paper.

Since these formats have numerous small differences, changing your format once you’ve started can be time consuming. You should determine your format before you begin the the writing process to spare yourself headaches later on in the project. Manuals are available for all these styles to walk you through the process of setting up the correct term paper format. A properly executed format is worth more to your grade than putting the final draft in a fancy folder.


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