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How to write an APA research paper outline

Last updated on April 23rd, 2018 at 05:00 am

APA research paper outline

Let me guess: are you a student of psychology or of some subject connected with the social sciences and based in the US? How did I know this? The answer is obvious as APA stands for the American Psychology Association. This association has framed certain rules for the format of the papers submitted in these subjects. So, if you are searching for information on this style, then you must be planning to write a paper in psychology or allied subjects in the social sciences. And, you have come to the right place for more information on this material.

If, however, you still feel unsure of doing it on your own, just place your order here and we will provide you with an expertly written APA research paper outline.

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What is an outline?

Outlines are frameworks that can be compared to the frames put up when building a house.

Just as the basic structure of the building is made up of a rough timber or steel mounts that give the shape and form for the other material to be laid on it, the outline of a research paper consists of a logical sequence of headings and sub-headings that give the flow chart of the essay.

Why are outlines important?

Outlines are necessary so that the reader will be able to get an idea of what is written in the essay, without reading it line by line. Just as any other outline, the APA outline for research papers is also follows certain guidelines as laid down by the association and accepted by the universities. In fact, most universities provide a copy of the guidelines to the students and the tutor may even spend an hour or two explaining these before handing out the assignment.

Formatting instructions  for  APA outlines

But first, it is important to understand the basic formatting instructions for writing an APA outline/paper. The essentials are:

  • 1-inch margins all around

The margins can be preset in some word processors. But it is better to make sure of this.

  • The lines are double spaced

Double spaced lines make it easier on the eye and the tutor can read the assignment quickly and easily.

  • The font usually preferred is Times New Roman

This is a standard and commonly used font that is available on most word processors, and your paper can be read from most systems. Obscure or new fonts or special fonts may not be available on others’ systems. So, though they may look better, avoid them for the sake of accessibility.

  • The size of the font should be set at 12 for the normal paragraphs

This size fonts are neither too large nor too small and make easy reading, once again. You must consider that the tutors have a lot of papers to grade every day, and your consideration for their ease may pay off by earning better grades.

  • Cover page

A cover page with the necessary details like the name of the student, the course, the tutor’s name and so on, according to the university guidelines. Check out the necessary details with your tutor. Some universities insist on a roll number rather than the name for the sake of anonymity and fairness in evaluation.

  • An abstract

This abstract or summary has its place on a fresh page, right after the cover page and before the introduction. The abstract is nothing but a brief summary of 100 to 200 words of the contents of the essay/paper. This page should only contain the abstract, although in it often seen just after the title and precedes the introduction.

Types of APA Research paper outlines

There are two types of APA research paper outlines: The Alpha-numerical type and the Decimal type. Let us consider them one by one.

Alpha-numerical outline

The APA outline is also called the Alpha-numerical outline. This is because of the way in which the headings and sub-headings are numbered. The numbering is a mixture of uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as Roman and Arabic numerals in a specific sequence as explained below.

Essential features of Alpha-numerical outline

The Roman numbers such as I, II, III, IV and so on are used for the main sub-headings. As is obvious, these are written in the higher case. Also, the headings themselves are also written in capital letters.When these headings are divided into further sub-headings, they are numbered using capital alphabets like, A, B, C etc. If there are still more sub-divisions under these sub-headings, they are numbered using Arabic numerals 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on. Any further splitting up of these would be numbered using the lower-case alphabet vide, a, b, c, d etc.

As mentioned earlier, the main headings are written using capital letters or the upper-case alphabet. However, the heading of all the sub-divisions are written in sentence case, with only the first letter being capitalized.

Example of alpha-numerical outline

An example of an outline of an assignment on Colon Cancer is given below, for quick reference and to make the guidelines clear on these aspects of numbering the headings and sub-headings. Note the staggering of the headings and the indenting. Please note that the 4 types of headings and the numbering systems used for them is given only for the first chapter.



A. Colon

B. Cancer

C. Colon Cancer

D. Metastasizing mechanisms

E. Types of Colon Cancer

1. Colon cancer

  • a. HNPCC
  • b. FAP

2. Rectal cancer

F. Colon Cancer Staging

  • 1. Stage 1
  • 2. Stage 2
  • 3. Stage 3
  • 4. Stage 4



A. Age

B. Family history/ genetic

C. Colorectal polyps

D. Personal cancer history

E. Ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease

F. Diet

G. Smoking



A. Stage

B. Lymph node involvement

C. Presence of carcinoembryonic antigen

D. General Health



Other Important aspects of APA Outlines

This should give a clear idea about how to set out the APA research paper outline now. However, there are other important aspects that must be considered also when writing an APA research paper outline: Full sentence outline format, Parallelism, Coordination, Subordination and Division.

Full sentence outline format

As the name implies, the headings in this type of format are expressing in complete sentences, including the punctuation and the in-line citations, if any. In fact, the headings and subheadings are actually the first sentences of the paragraphs/sections. A brief example is provided below on an essay on pollution:

  • Pollution is the contamination of the environment.
  • There are different types of pollution.
  • Air pollution is the contamination of the atmosphere(McMichael, 2000)
  • Water pollution involves the effluents polluting the water sources.


Parallelism is used to maintain a logical flow and a similarity to the headings. For instance, if the first main heading begins with a verb, the second also should have a similar starting word, as seen in the example below:(However, a word of caution – if you are using verbs, make sure that it in the present tense only).

  • Use keywords to search for material on the subject
  • Scan-read the content to select appropriate sources
  • Read the abstract
  • Search for the relevant passages

Using parallelism gives a continuity to the flow of the essay and helps in maintaining a balanced perspective.


Coordination can be achieved by making sure that the main headings have the same degree of importance. The sub-headings also follow this, although they can be less significant. For instance:

  • Find out the prices
  • Look for discounts


In this method, while the main headings are more general in nature, the sub-headings are more specific to the subject, like in the following example:

  1. Describe your favorite pastimes
    1. Music
    2. Painting


A division is nothing but the breaking down of the main heading into more practicable sub-divisions, to render the heading more clearly, as shown below:

  1. The courses taken in the year
    1. First term subjects

2. Second term subjects

3. Third term subjects

However, the list should not be too long to become difficult to follow easily.

The Decimal outline

The decimal outline is used in some universities and the tutor may provide guidelines on how to follow this method of writing. The decimal outline, as the name implies, uses whole numbers for the main headings and decimals of the same number for the subheadings. The smaller divisions also continue the same decimal sequence, as exemplified below:

  1. Introduction
    • Background
    • Research Questions
      • Research question one
      • Research question two

By now you should have some idea about how APA research paper outlines are written. If you think that you are still not clear about which exact format to choose, the best advisor would be your tutor. There are also other aspects of APA format that have not been touched upon in this article, such as the referencing style that is unique to this format. When the outline has been written and you start filling un the information in the paragraphs, the ideas or theories that are taken form other sources that you have referred, have to be cited. The APA referencing style guidelines is very handy in providing a practical view of the different ways to cite and reference different sources like books, journal articles, websites, reports, multimedia files and so on. But that is for another day.

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