Note: This post discusses APA 6th edition. I have since written an updated version on the 7t edition, which you can read here.

When I told a friend and fellow PhD Candidate I was writing a post on APA headings, he responded with, “I won’t lie, APA headings are not a hill I would die on.” And while I perhaps don’t love them that much, I would definitely be in their fan club if one existed. As I mentioned in my 10 Tips for Writing a University Paper post, I find headings helpful in structuring my papers. They also make it easy to find what I’m looking for when I’m reading an article or grading a paper.

In a lot of the papers I’ve graded over the years, I’ve seen many students use headings incorrectly. Heck, I still mess them up (not surprising given how many sub-, sub-sub- and sub-sub-subsections I like to use). So I thought I’d take a few minutes to explain and show how they can be used in APA papers. Below I explain how each level is formatted with the title of each level in its APA format. At the end there’s a picture of how this might look in a paper.

Disclaimer: if you are submitting to an academic journal, double-check the requirements on the journal’s website. Some journals will have specific instructions for the formatting of the paper, and the instruction to use APA may just apply to the style used for references.

First Level of Heading

Heading level one is centered, boldface, and uses uppercase and lowercase letters. There is no period after it, and the paragraph begins on the following line of text. I’ve seen some places say that you can use this level of heading to write “Introduction” on page one. However, the APA manual says otherwise:

“The introduction to a manuscript does not carry a heading that labels it as the introduction. (The first part of a manuscript is assumed to be the introduction)” (APA, 2010, p. 63).

Second Level of Heading

The second level of heading is similar to the first level, except it is flush left. It is boldface, uses upper and lowercase letters, does not contain a period, and the paragraph begins on the following line.

       Third level of heading. Now this is where things start to get exciting! Unlike the previous two levels, we are using a lowercase paragraph heading here (although the first letter is capitalized). This means that the heading is on the same line as the paragraph, is indented, and there is a period at the end of it.

       Fourth level of heading. This level of heading follows the same rules as the third level of heading, except it is italicized.

       Fifth level of heading. Now this level is just next level (har har)! Here you’re following the same rules as the level above, except this level is not bolded. In my experience this one isn’t used a lot, but never say never!

Now, how do we put this all into practice? Each section of your writing starts with the highest level of heading that you can, and then you use different levels of subheadings for any subsections. You can see an example of this in the image below, which draws inspiration from my recently (and successfully!) defended thesis proposal.

APA headings

Want to know more about headings? Check out page 62 of your 6th edition APA manual!


American Psychological Association (APA). (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.