Graduate Writing (APA Style): You Can Do It!

Graduate Writing: Normalizing Potential Apprehensions

So, you are thinking about embarking into a graduate program that requires APA writing style and are wondering exactly what that entails. You are not alone. Many students inquiring about a graduate counseling program mention their apprehension regarding the level of writing required compared to their perceived assessment of their current writing skills. This question is not only limited to prospective students, but also includes students at the beginning of their graduate writing journey and even some students who encounter a professor or a class where they need familiarity and proficiency in writing in an APA styled format. So, what does it take to write a graduate paper in APA style and for that matter what is APA writing style? I am so glad you asked.

*Note: this blog was updated in 2020 to reflect the revised version of the APA style manual.*

APA Writing Style: The Brief Overview

APA stands for the American Psychological Association, which has a publication manual now in its 7th edition (APA, 2020). I like to refer to it as my handy multicolored book. It has laid the foundation for how to write in a scholarly manner for the fields of psychology and counseling from 1929 to the present. Most graduate papers, theses, dissertations, and research and conceptual articles in these fields of study are written in APA style. This style provides the guidelines or rules which allow for a uniform means in which to convey information (whether it be a reflection, comparison, review/commentary, or research).

More specifically APA writing style provides guidelines for the preparation of publishing manuscripts. Most graduate programs require this style of writing in order to best prepare their students as competent in both their ability to write and comprehend the published materials that inform our counseling field. In the next few paragraphs, I will go over a few tips that will be helpful for writing future papers and will refer you to the specific chapters within the APA Manual (APA, 2020) where you can access more in-depth information.


Providing references in your writing is all about informing readers of your resources. This can be very important for your peers and even yourself when you want to go back and find the primary source for a topic you have written about. Chapter 10in the APA Manual (APA, 2020) is entirely devoted to providing examples of how to reference different sources (from books, to journal articles, and so much more). Usually it entails beginning with the name of the authors, followed by the year, and then the title of the article or book. Of course, this will vary depending on the resource you are using. For instance, when referencing books, you would write the name of author(s), year, title of the book, and end with the name of the publisher (if available you can also add the doi website… more on that later… see example below- note that the second and third lines should be indented, but that was not able to be reflected in the formatting of this blog).

APA (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). American Psychological Association.–000

This is different when referencing journal articles, where you would begin similarly with the name of the author(s), year, and title of the chapter. But, what makes this different from a book reference, is that what follows: the name of the journal, the volume and issue number, the pages of the article and the digital object identifier website (doi number; see example below- note that the second and third lines should be indented, but that was not able to be reflected in the formatting of this blog).

Jangha, A.G., Magyar-Russell, G., & O’Grady, K. (2018). Power within the counselor identity development of African American women in pastoral counseling. Counseling and Values, 63, 76–90.

The great thing about the APA manual is that it also gives examples and clear descriptions of what should be included. You will notice some nuances here and there (i.e. the title is italicized, the year is within parentheses, the second line & subsequent lines are indented, etc.) and it is important to check the manual to ensure you have the correct formatting for the resources you reference.

Helpful tip: The first word of the title of the article is capitalized and the rest begin with a lower case letter unless immediately after a colon, or unless it is a proper name, title, or indication of ethnicity… where as in the title/name of the journal itself each major word is capitalized (i.e. ‘Counseling and Values’ in the example above; APA, 2020).


Citations in papers lets the readers know where information comes from. Citations distinguish between content that is your original thought, your paraphrase of content from a resource, or a direct quote from a resource. They are located in the body of the paper that you write and come right after content that (for the most part) is from a source other than you (an exception is being able to cite yourself if you have previous work published in a different format/source). If the reader of your paper wants to know more about a point you make and sees the citation, they can then go to the reference page and find the reference for that primary source.

Citing your sources also provides support to the content of your paper. They indicate that research has been done on viewpoints similar to yours and can highlight studies that both support your point and are already acknowledged in the field of counseling. Normally citations are in parentheses and include the author’s last names along with the year of publication. If it is a quote it will have the specific page number(s) also included in the parentheses. There are varying rules for quotes (i.e. if 40 or more words, then it should be a block quote) and Chapter 8of the APA manual (APA, 2020) has more in depth information. Did you notice that I just cited the APA journal in that last sentence?

Here is another example of a quote, “If a quotation contains 40 words or more, treat it as a block quotation. Do not use quotation marks” (APA, 2020, p.272).

Helpful tip: When there are three authors or more, then as a handy way to save space you only cite the first author’s last name and use et al. to represent the other authors (an example would be: Jangha et al., 2018). When there are only two authors, both last names are listed at every citation. (APA, 2020).

Grammar & Structure

Remember your elementary school grammar lessons? Well, they may come in handy for your graduate writing. One in particular is that of the idea of a paragraph hamburger, where the top and bottom bun frame the burger & toppings. In this metaphor the top bun would be the introductory sentence that gives an idea about what the paragraph is about. The burger and toppings represent the focus of the paragraph (the burger could be considered the main topic and the toppings could be considered the additional detail that expound on that topic). The bottom bun would be considered to be the concluding sentence, that would summarize the content of the paragraph. Good paragraphs are at least 3 sentences (think burger with the bun) and can be longer… but they should not be too long. You want to avoid having page long paragraphs.

To expand the metaphor even more, the entire paper can be considered to be like a deluxe sandwich. It is helpful to start with an introductory paragraph, that frames what the paper will be about (i.e. the topics you will write about and/or the focus of the paper). In between, you can use headings as ways of giving specific focus on what each section will include. Headings serve as mini titles that guide the flow of the paper (i.e. the heading of this section is ‘Grammar & Structure’). And, it is always nice to have a concluding paragraph at the end, which summarizes the entire paper. The wrapping of the sandwich, would metaphorically be the title page (covers the top) and the Reference page (covers the bottom) which are usually a standard part of APA styled papers (see chapter 4 for more information; APA, 2020).

As far as the grammar and mechanics of writing, rather than go through a list of rules (chapters 4 through 6 in the APA manual go into more depth there), I have provided helpful tips for your future writing success.

Helpful tips:

~ It is good practice to avoid the use of contractions (for example, instead of ‘I’ve,’ write out ‘I have’).

~ Race and ethnicity descriptions should be capitalized (i.e. Black or African American).

~ If using parentheses at the end of sentence, the punctuation goes after the closing parentheses.

~Use of consistent tense (i.e. if using past tense, be consistent throughout the paper) helps with the flow of the paper.

~For use of acronyms, write it out fully and include the acronym in parentheses, then you can use the acronym thereafter (i.e. see the use of APA has been throughout the paper).

~ Avoid run on sentences whenever possible.

~ The last tip I will give has to do with editing and catching errors. Use of spell check is your friend, as is reading aloud. Often when we are writing and rereading we may overlook our errors. Reading your writing aloud helps you to hear what you have written and catch those small errors.

Writing Assignments at SSW

Feeling a little overwhelmed? No worries, this is not something that we require that you memorize. Having the APA manual gives you direct access to answers of potential questions that may arise. We also have a fantastic Writing Center to help you get more comfortable putting this writing style into practice. The more you write, the more you will get used to using APA style and the more you can focus on the fun of expressing yourself in written form.

The writing assignments in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program here at Seminary of the Southwest (SSW) are centered around helping you to: conceptualize your knowledge, take a status inventory of your growing professional identity, and demonstrate how you have utilized the skills you learned into your work in class and in clinical settings. The papers are often creative and ask that you explore some of the depths within yourself so that you are better able to help your future clients as a counselor. In addition, the uniqueness of being located in a seminary, allows for the written exploration of how spirituality aides your formation, impacts the work of counseling, and may manifest in your understanding and work with clients. Each paper can be seen as an adventure that can take you to higher levels of learning and insight.

Writing assignments will vary. Keeping in mind the following Additional Tips, will help you to navigate that variety:

1) Reflection can and often does go beyond the superficial level… seek the depths.

2) Consider what the experts have to say and have a conversation with their expertise in your writing.

3) Be creative in the content of your writing and think outside of the box.

4) Consider how information may affect your future practice and tie that in your work.

5) Sleep on it (write your paper, give yourself a day away from it… the next day reread it with fresh eyes- this can activate your inner editor and allow you to fine tune your written work).

6) Finally, remember that writing is a work in progress (every time you write, you will get feedback which will make you a better writer- learn from the process and watch your writing skills improve each time).

Reflective Questions

1) What areas spark your interest that you would like to expound upon in your writing?

2) Where can you go deeper in your reflective writing… where can you bolster your creative writing?

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