APA Formatting for Headings and Subheadings

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In American Psychological Association (APA) Style, headings and subheadings are used to give readers a general idea of the content and what to expect from a paper, and it leads the flow of discussion by dividing up a paper and defining each section of the content. 

The Five-Level Heading Structure

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​APA style recommends using a five-level heading structure based on the level of subordination:

  • Level 1 Section heading
  • Level 2 Subsection heading
  • Level 3 Subsection of a subsection heading
  • Level 4 Subsection under a subsection of a subsection heading
  • Level 5 Subsection under the three subsections heading

The first heading for a section is considered a Level 1, and all subsequent headings of equal importance will also be classified as Level 1. Subsections carry the remaining heading levels, but not every section of a paper will have subsections. Unless at least two subsections are warranted, it is recommended that only a Level 1 heading be used. 

The sections named above are considered major elements of your paper, so these sections should be treated as the highest level of headings. Major levels (highest level) titles in your APA title are centered on your paper. They should be formatted in boldface and the important words of the heading should be capitalized.

Title Page, Abstract, and Introduction

The title page is considered the first page of an APA paper. The second page will be the page containing an abstract. Because the abstract is a main section, the heading should be set in boldface and centered on your paper. Remember that the first line of an abstract is not indented. Because the abstract is a summary and should be limited to a single paragraph, it should not contain any subsections.  

Every paper begins with an introduction, but according to APA style, an introduction should never carry a heading that labels it as such. APA style assumes that the content that comes at the beginning is an introduction and therefore doesn't require a heading. 

Formatting the Five-Level Heading Structure

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The five levels of headings follow specific formatting rules that define font treatments, alignment, and relation of headings to text. Those rules are:

  • Level one is centered, boldface, and important words are capitalized.
  • Level two is left-aligned, boldface, important words capitalized.
  • Level three is indented, boldface, ends with a period, and the text begins on the same line.
  • Level four is indented, boldface, italicized, ends with a period. and the text begins on the same line.

In addition to the above rules, headings and subheadings also should not be accompanied by letters or numbers. You should use as many levels as required in your paper to present the most organized structure. Not all five levels should be used, but the same level of heading or subheading should be of equal importance regardless of the number of subsections under it.

For Level 1 and Level 2 headings, paragraphs should begin under the heading on a new line, and these levels should capitalize each word in the heading. However, Levels 3-5 should have the paragraph begin in line with the headings, and only the first word is capitalized. In addition, in levels 3-5, the headings are indented and end with a period.

Structural vs. Thematic Subheadings

Structural subheadings specify to the place within the text a specific chapter or paragraph belongs. Introduction, methodology, and conclusion are three examples of structural subheadings. Structural subheadings usually work well in shorter texts.

Thematic subheadings instead reflect the type of content within the chapter. Instead of titling a section of the paper as simply a theory, which is more structural in nature, the title might reflect what the theory is, instead. In a paper on alternative health, one might theorize that yoga and meditation can positively impact both mental and physical health. Instead of simply titling the section theory, one might instead say, "Mental and Physical Benefits of Yoga and Meditation" as a thematic subheading. 

Thematic subheadings can effectively provide your reader with insight into your chapter’s specific contents, rather than just which part of the text they are about to read. This type of subheading can be particularly useful when you are writing longer texts and require multiple headings and subheadings.

Thematic subheadings must still subscribe to the five-level heading structure hierarchy that holds each section and subsection at a consistent level of importance throughout the paper.

As always, you should check with your instructor to determine how many main (level-one) sections will be required, as well as how many pages and sources your paper should contain.