Three Common APA Mistakes Students Make

By Amy Sexton, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor

Learning and using APA Style, or any citation style, can be difficult for students. While there are many areas where students may encounter confusion, in the writing center we often see students repeating the same types of mistakes, and, unfortunately, some of these mistakes tend to look like plagiarism. By understanding some of the most common mistakes students may be making and the misconceptions that may be behind the errors, tutors and teachers can help students learn how to correctly use APA Style and avoid issues with plagiarism in their writing.

  1. Citations and references do not match. – Often students will use one piece of bibliographical information to cite a source in-text and then begin the full reference with a different piece of information. For example, I often see the title of the article, journal, or book cited in the text when the reference, correctly, begins with the author’s last name.   Another very common error occurs when students cite in-text with the URL for the source.   While there may be a number of reasons that students make this type of error, one possible reason is that they are attempting to establish credibility by including the medium in the text of their essays. My advice to students when they make this mistake is to do a careful comparison of their in-text citations and full references to ensure that the information in each citation exactly matches the first word in the reference.   It is also usually helpful to remind students that APA follows an author-date system to cite in-text and that information like an URL does not indicate the author or the year.
  2. The student includes too much information in references. I often see references with information like the author’s university affiliations, professional titles, and degrees. Similarly, a reference might include information like the number of charts and tables in an article.   There may be a couple reasons that students err by including too much information in references. They may simply be copying all of the bibliographic information from the source and then pasting it on their references page.   Student writers also may be including extra information to show that their sources are credible. In this case, it is helpful to remind students that references generally should have only four key pieces of information: Who, When, What, and Where.
  3. Sometimes students’ work reflects an attempt at APA, but all of the elements may not be present. For example, students may have in-text citations but no references on a references page, or, they may have no in-text citations but complete references. Sometimes, there may be some in-text citations, but not enough. In these cases, there may a couple different misconceptions in play.   Students may not fully understand, for example, that both citations and references are required for successful use of APA. In this case, I find it helpful to remind students that each serve separate and important purposes. Citations indicate what information in the students’ work has been borrowed from other sources and which outside sources the information has been borrowed from. Full references are included so that the reader, if desired, can locate the source that the writer has cited.   Finally, sometimes several passages in the students’ work have obviously been borrowed from outside sources, but there is not sufficient citation.   For example, I typically see only one citation at the end of the paragraph mainly composed of source material.   This may especially occur when students are writing about topics that they may have initially been unfamiliar with; thus they may struggle with citing entire paragraphs of paraphrased material. When I see this issue in students’ writing, I often direct them to a helpful post from the APA Style Blog, Citing Paraphrased Work in APA Style.     In this post, APA Style Expert, Timothy McAdoo (2011) poses the question of what to do when writers need to “ clearly attribute multiple ideas within a paragraph yet maintain a readable and interesting text” (para. 2) and invites readers to share examples in the comments. Several readers share examples that include providing the author’s name in the running text of the essay. Students can review these examples and see how to successfully attribute paraphrased work and, hopefully, avoid insufficient citing.

By knowing some of the common mistakes that students make when learning to use APA and the misconceptions that may be behind those mistakes, tutors and teachers can take a proactive approach to helping students understand the correct use of APA Style and avoid plagiarism.


McAdoo, T. (2011). Citing paraphrased work in APA style.   Retrieved from

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2 Responses

  1. kuwcnews says:

    Hi Anne, Thanks for your response! We also see a lot of incorrect formatting, especially in titles. I often refer students to this helpful APA Style Blog article that discusses correct formatting of titles: How to Capitalize and Format Reference Titles in APA Style. It includes a very helpful chart! I also think it is helpful to remind them that attention to detail matters in APA.

  2. We see all of these common mistakes in student writing, too. Another one (similar to #2) is that students may include all of the necessary information in a reference entry but format it incorrectly, such as by using all capital letters for an article title–another indication that the student might have copied and pasted the citation information from the source or the database.

    Anne @ the Walden University Writing Center

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