The guidelines from the American Psychological Association (APA) are used for writing papers and doing assignments in the social sciences. The standard APA format provides guidelines for research papers from the initial title page to the final works cited page. The APA even provides format examples for outlines to be prepared before the paper is written.
When you look at the basic APA outline format example below, you will see that:
- Roman numerals are used for the main headings in your outline.
- Capital letters are used for the first level of subheadings.
- Arab numerals (1-9 type numbers) are used inside those subheadings.
- Lower-case letters are used below Arab numeral subheadings.
- Arab numerals in parentheses are used below those subheadings.
The full sentence outline follows exactly the same format. The only difference is that you will write a full sentence, rather than a sentence fragment, at each level of the outline.
The APA decimal outline is a rarer format, but by no means unknown. It's the simplest of the bunch. Just break your headings into paragraphs and number them using Arab numerals. The first number indicates the heading, the second number indicates the paragraph, and the third number indicates the point being made.
- The first heading is numbered 1.0.
- The first paragraph in the first heading is 1.1.
- The first point or sentence of your first paragraph is 1.1.1.
- The second sentence is 1.1.2.
- The second sentence of your second paragraph is 1.2.2.
- As you move on to the second heading, you progress to 2.0.
- The first sentence in the first paragraph under your second heading is indicated as 2.1.1.
Your professor should tell you which format they want you to use. If you don't know, ask!
The best way to gain an understanding of the three distinct forms of the APA outline format is to look at examples. We've provided one example of each:
- APA basic outline
- Full sentence format
- Decimal outline format
Note that the first example is a full-scale outline pattern for you to follow. The other two demonstrate the differences between the APA basic format and the full sentence and decimal outline formats. Always ask your instructor which format they prefer.
The following outline on the college application process illustrates the APA basic outline format. We've also created a downloadable PDF of all three approaches to APA outlines available at the end of this section. Just download and use it as a template, starting at the first Roman numeral.
I. Choose Desired Colleges
A. Visit and evaluate college websites
Identify tour dates and interesting on-campus events.
- Student/faculty ratio
- Retention rate
- Note important statistics
- Schedule time with heads of interesting departments
B. Visit and evaluate college campuses
- Take tour
Meet with heads of departments
- On- and off-campus housing
- Recreation (restaurants, sports, and music venues)
- Explore area around campus
II. Prepare Application
A. Write a personal statement
- Choose an interesting topic
- Describe an influential person in your life
- Favorite high school teacher
2. Include important personal details
- Volunteer work
- Participation in varsity sports
B. Revise personal statement
III. Compile resume
A. List relevant coursework
B. List work experience
C. List volunteer experience
- Tutor at foreign language summer camp
- Volunteer at suicide prevention hotline
As noted above, the only difference between APA basic and a full-sentence outline is that the headings are in full sentences. Again, just start at the first Roman numeral for an APA-compliant full-sentence essay outline.
I. Man-made pollution is the primary cause of global warming.
A. Greenhouse gas emissions are widely identified by the scientific community to be harmful.
1. The burning of coal and fossil fuels are the primary releasers of hazardous greenhouse gases.
2. Harmful greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.
Decimal outlines differ from other APA-compliant formats only in their numbering system. Follow that and you're set. Start at 1.0.
1.0 Choose Desired College
1.1 Visit and evaluate college campuses
1.2 Visit and evaluate college websites
1.2.1 Look for interesting classes
1.2.2 Note important statistics
A well-written outline is a valuable tool in crafting the best possible research paper. By building an outline, you establish a structure for what you will say and how you say it. Here are a few tips on creating a great outline:
- Coordination: Coordinating your headings is vital to a well-organized outline. Coordination means that each of your headings has the same amount of significance. That rule also applies to subheadings. If you find one of your headings is of less importance than another, try to incorporate it into a subheading instead.
- Division: Division is the simple rule of keeping your outline sections specific and splitting things up rather than letting them grow verbose. Make sure every subheading serves its heading. If it doesn't, put it elsewhere or delete it.
- Parallelism: Parallelism refers to keeping a consistent structure between headings and subheadings. Use parallelism to keep your outline organized and your writing on topic. If you start each heading with a verb, for example, then all your headings and subheadings should start with a verb.
- Subordination: Subordination is the relationship between the headings and subheadings. Use subordination to keep your headings and subheadings in the right order. Headings should start out general, with subheadings growing more and more specific the deeper they go.
After laying out all these specific guidelines, it may seem like the outline for a paper will be as much work as the paper itself. Not so. By using this structure, you establish a backbone for your paper. From there, all you need to do is build out. It makes the writing process much easier and produces a better result. Bibliography.com offers further guidelines on basic APA citation format.
For more help with formatting, particularly in other disciplines or contexts, take a look at our examples of MLA format and University of Chicago format. Be sure to stick with the style guide your instructor prefers.