How to format headings in APA Style?

Students encounter problems with formatting headings according to the APA Style surprisingly often. 9% of manuscripts of submitted to the Journal of European Psychology Students manifested a problem in that area (Vainre, 2011). Even though compared to the previous version of the manual, the APA has simplified its standards considerably, much confusion still seems to be there. Hopefully this post will clarify a thing or two.


Main principles

APA recognises 5 levels of headings which should be used in the order, beginning with level 1. This is how the levels are formatted:

Source: Lee, 2009

Some restrictions

There are some things to note as things are not that plain and simple. To begin with, even though we talk about levels of headings, the headings themselves do not have seriation (i.e., in your paper don’t write 2. Method and 2.1. Participants under it, it’s wrong). Secondly, Method, Results and Discussion are level 1 headings (if it’s otherwise in your paper, make sure you have followed the structure of your paper according to the APA Style).

In principle, you can use as many levels of headings as the structure of your paper requires, however, when adding subheadings (level 2 and further) make sure the subheadings have their same-level counterpart under a common higher level. This means that should you be using one 2nd level heading under Method (e.g., Participants), you should also have another 2nd level heading under Method (e.g., Procedure; see example below), otherwise dividing the section into subheadings is considered unjustified (and hence false). Should  there be no need for a second subheading, rearrange your text so that it fits all under the higher level of heading.

Special cases

Not all headings should be formatted according to this system. For example, although headings do not call for a page break, Abstract, Introduction and References require an exception of beginning a new page. Here are some more things to pay attention when formatting these three:

  • Abstract, as said, should begin from a new page. It’s the second page of the manuscript/paper. The title “Abstract” should be centered, not bold and should begin after the line under the running head.
  • Introduction starts on the 3rd page. In fact, its start on 3rd page is so fixed APA style regards writing the word “Introduction” unnecessary, also do not repeat the title of your paper (it’s shown in the running head!). Simply begin the page with the first sentence of your introduction. In fact, if you don’t use any subheadings in your introduction, your first first-level heading after abstract might be “Method”.
  • References also begin a new page and should not be bold.

An example

The following example (modified from Lee, 2011) should further illustrate how to apply the above-mentioned information, so that your headings are surely as they should be. Note how every level of heading has their counterpart under the higher level of heading.

Anxiety Made Visible: Multiple Reports of Anxiety and Rejection Sensitivity This is the running head
Our study investigated anxiety and rejection sensitivity. In particular, we examined how participant self-ratings of state and trait anxiety and rejection sensitivity would differ from the ratings of others, namely, the close friends of participants. This is the introduction. Note, that it has no title.
Method Level 1
Participants Level 2
Participants were 80 university students (35 men, 45 women) whose mean age was 20.25 years (SD = 1.68). Approximately 70% of participants were European American, 15% were African American, 9% were Hispanic American, and 6% were Asian American. They received course credit for their participation.
Procedure Level 2
Recruitment. We placed flyers about the study on bulletin boards around campus, and the study was included on the list of open studies on the Psychology Department website. To reduce bias in the sample, we described the study as a “personality study” rather than specifically mentioning our target traits of anxiety and rejection sensitivity. Level 3
Session 1: Psychiatric diagnoses. During the initial interview session, doctoral level psychology students assessed participants for psychiatric diagnoses. Eighteen percent of the sample met the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder according to the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM–IV Axis I Disorders (First, Gibbon, Spitzer, & Williams, 1996). Level 3
Session 2: Assessments. All participants attended a follow-up session to complete assessments. Participants were instructed to bring a friend with them who would complete the other-report measures. Level 3
Self-report measures. We first administered several self-report measures, as follows. Level 4
State and trait anxiety. Participants took the State–Trait Anxiety Inventory for Adults (STAI–A; Spielberger, Gorsuch, Lushene, Vagg, & Jacobs, 1983), a 40-item self-report measure to assess anxiety. Level 5
Rejection sensitivity. Participants took the Rejection Sensitivity Questionnaire (RSQ; Downey & Feldman, 1996), an 18-item self-report measure that assesses rejection sensitivity. Level 5
Other-report measures. We also included other-report measures to obtain independent sources of information about participants’ levels of anxiety and rejection sensitivity. Level 4
State and trait anxiety. We adapted the STAI–A so that questions referred to the target participant rather than the self. Level 5
Rejection sensitivity. We adapted the RSQ so that questions referred to the target participant rather than the self. Level 5
Results Level 1


American Psychological Association. (2009). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th Ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Lee, C. (2011, April 14). How to use five levels of heading in an APA Style paper. APA Style Blog. Retrieved from:
Lee, C. (2009, July 09). Five essential tips for APA Style headings. APA Style Blog. Retrieved from:
Vainre, M. (2011, Nov 20). Common mistakes made in APA Style. Journal of European Psychology Students Bulletin. Retrieved from:

Edited by: Sina Scherer