Dear College Mamma, 

This is my first semester on campus. My teachers are all asking for papers to be written in APA citation style, but in high school, I only learned MLA. I’m wondering if this is very different from MLA. Also, is the teacher going to take off a lot of points?

-Sight Tashon

Dear Sight,

I’ve often found that APA is the most commonly used citation style in colleges and universities. However, the use of one citation style over another is due to the subject matter of the course. For example, MLA (Modern Language Association) is used mostly for liberal arts, language arts courses, English studies, and foreign language studies. On the other hand, APA (American Psychological Association) is used for psychology, linguistics, sociology, economics, criminology, business, nursing, public health, or any subject matter related to social sciences.

Since I worked as an ESL writing professor who prepares adult students for college writing, I’ve discussed this topic with other professors preparing students for college study. They are also often under the assumption that they should just stick to teaching MLA as preparation. However, I have to say from experience in tutoring students in college writing, that I’ve only encountered MLA citation styles a handful of times, such as taking English 101/102.

Is APA Citation Different to MLA?

As per your question about the differences between APA and MLA, they are quite different. In MLA you don’t cite the year of publication in-text. However, there are further differences. It can be aggravating to learn each nuance in the style. However, I have a couple of tips that can help.

Tip 1: Get the Reference Book

First, you might think about becoming an expert in APA by purchasing a reference manual. See recommendations below. FYI, you are not the only one in this situation. You can easily make money by learning the rules yourself in one of these books and then becoming a writing tutor for your classmates and other students on campus. I made a great deal of money doing this and this was a great contributing factor to paying off all my school loans. The nuances to APA are too many that simply using an online resource will not make your citations 100% perfect.

I love having a reference book. So many past professors of mine have recommended buying a book, but here’s the truth: a lot of them don’t actually own the book. So, by owning it myself, I was able to prove myself correct many times and earn the respect of the teacher.

Have you ever been in a situation where you found a source but can’t figure out a way to cite it? Using the reference manuals, I can quickly find what I need to cite YouTube videos, podcasts, authorless blog postings, and more. Moreover, an APA reference book will also go into detail on writing tips, grammar, and more to help you write and earn the best marks (not to mention the respect of your classmates and professor).

In many cases, if you are taking English 101 or 102, your syllabus might instruct you to purchase a book like this. However, you might not use this book in class, so a lot of students will not purchase it. In my opinion, it’s a big mistake to miss out on a writing reference book as you will most likely use it up until you graduate. It’s well worth its price.

Tip 2: Use an Online Resource

There are some great online resources that you can use for free. One of the most often used, even by Grammarly, is Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL).  At the beginning of my studies, I used this resource but found it difficult to refer to.


Microsoft Word templates have sample APA papers, but they may confuse you if you use them when you first start out because they will contain abstracts and cover pages which your professor may not require. If you cannot find them, open MS Word select File –> New, type in “APA Style,” and click Enter. There you will find a couple of templates to use. However, these are really meant for scientific papers or assignments where your teacher has requested a cover page and abstract.

Citethisforme, formerly known as Refme, is a useful resource that can take a lot of frustration out of the actual typing up of your references. I love that it is free to use, and has a Chrome plug in that you can use to cite almost any page you land on. Its app will scan a barcode and allow you to cite books as well with little typing on your part. I often recommend this to my writing students who are just learning about citation styles, and they find it pretty easy to use. Not only will you be able to write in APA, but Citethisforme’s interface will support many other citation styles! This is one reference to bookmark!

Will I Lose a lot of Points if I make Mistakes in APA?

Whether you will lose a lot of points in your APA citation style assignments really depends on your professor. If they are a stickler for perfection, you might see their rubric (score system) put up to 25% (if not more) on APA citation. If your teacher has not sent out a rubric for your assignment, don’t be shy to ask for one. I owe a lot of my good grades to simply following a rubric. On the other hand, I’ve had teachers who will simply not hand out a rubric and do a holistic grade. In this case, you might have to gauge how much your teacher cares about APA citation style. They might mention it a lot in which case a lot of emphasis will be put on it in your grade.

I know a grad student whose professor took off 5 points from an otherwise perfect paper (no other feedback) just for a missing paragraph indentation! I can’t stress enough how each professor differs from the next. Get to know your teacher as best as you can.

My advice is to know APA citation as best as you can and get a reference manual so that you can always prove to your teacher you followed it correctly.

Anyway, all of the best to you in your writing assignments this semester.

college mamma


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Author: College Mamma

College Mamma is a professor who blogs for students. She is also a mother of two and a lover of coffee.