Understanding the Differences: Essay Citation Styles and College Majors

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One of the biggest and most daunting challenges of college life is writing a university-level research paper. In order to write a successful essay, a student must be aware of the correct format for each type of paper. Understanding the various citation styles and college majors that use each one will help students choose the proper style for any type of essay.

What are Citation Styles?

A citation style can cover everything from how the physical aspects of your paper will look to the information included regarding sources used in the essay. Citation styles establish a standard for writing an essay that will be recognized and understood by others in your field. That is why it is important to use the correct style for your particular discipline. Some majors can use more than one style; therefore, it is important to consult with your instructor to see which one he or she requires.

Modern Language Association (MLA) Style

MLA style is used for papers written by literature and humanities majors. The method includes parenthetical citations within the paper, as well as a works cited page at the end. MLA formatting is a fairly complicated process, and even professors who have used the style for years will sometimes come across a citation issue with which they are unfamiliar. Because of this, it is best to find a comprehensive guide that allows you to look up any formatting questions that arise. The MLA Society publishes the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers which details every aspect of writing an essay in MLA style.

American Psychological Association (APA) Style

Majors in psychology and the social sciences are the ones most often required to learn and use APA style. What makes APA different from other formats is the voice that is used. APA style makes use of the first person “I” because social science essays often contain research conducted by the author. For these types of papers it is the research that is important, and it should be in the foreground of the essay. It is also key to maintain active rather than passive voice in APA style. For example, you would write, “I surveyed . . . .” rather than “Surveys have been conducted . . . .” This helps to ensure that the person(s) conducting the research is clearly indicated.

The Chicago Manual of Style

Chicago style incorporates two different types of citation systems, each used by different majors. The notes and bibliography system documents research sources using endnotes or footnotes in the essay, in addition to a bibliography at the end of the paper. This system is most often used in history, literature, and the humanities. The author and date system is used by physical, natural, and social sciences. It gives the author’s name and the date of publication in parentheses in the text. The style also includes a complete bibliographic reference list with detailed source information.

Council of Science Editors (CSE) Style

Biology and other science majors will use the CSE documentation method. CSE has three different ways to document sources. The name-year system requires that the author of the source is named in the text while a date is give in parenthesis. The citation-sequence system states that each source is given a number in the text. Every time the source appears in the essay, the same number is used. At the end of the paper a reference list is given documenting each number with a full publication citation regarding the source. The citation-name system puts all sources in alphabetical order and numbers each one according to that alphabetical order.


Once you know the different citation styles and college majors that use each one, there are many online resources available to help you format your paper correctly.


MLA Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Writing Research Papers

Purdue OWL: MLA Overview and Workshop


APA Style

Purdue OWL: APA Formatting and Style Guide

The Chicago Manual of Style:

The Chicago Manual of Style Online


Council of Science Editors

The Sciences: Research and Documentation Online 5th Edition