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Understanding & Applying Academic Style Guides as a Master’s Student

Whether you’re writing a thesis or typing up a research paper, it can be difficult to know which academic style guide to follow — especially as an online master’s student. Keep reading to gain a better understanding of each academic style, including their intended purpose, specific rules, and appropriate use.

Author: Shannon Daigle

Editor: Staff Editor

Strong writing skills are some of the most critical tools in your academic toolbox. As a grad student, you’ll be expected to use these tools accurately and prolifically as you complete your assignments. However, different disciplines have distinct guidelines and requirements for research papers and essay writing. Though the rules of good grammar will always apply, each academic field has its own preferred best writing practices.

There are a myriad of formatting and writing details to keep track of, and each class is a potential chance to encounter a new stylistic requirement for the written word. Whether you’re summarizing the results of your latest research study or writing your master’s thesis, you’ll be researching, writing, and citing sources at some point in your academic journey. Style guides can show you the way, outlining the best practices for everything from capitalization to citation.

However, dozens of style guides exist, and with so many distinct options, understanding which style guide matches your goals and assignments can be complex. This page will walk you through different style guide options, so you can better understand the purpose of each, how they vary, and when to use them as an online master’s student. Keep reading to learn valuable insight into the world of style guides.

Understanding the Major Academic Style Guides

Selecting a style guide is an essential step, but it’s crucial to understand the factors that will influence your choice. Consider your class, study area, and content type you’re writing. Generally speaking, each discipline aligns with a style guide. If you want your work to stack up against others in the field, you’ll need to use the corresponding handbook. Below, we’ve outlined popular style guides and their usage so you can choose with confidence and clarity.

American Medical Association (AMA)

The AMA Manual of Style is often used by students who are authoring research findings or majoring in medical, health, or scientific fields. The first edition was created in October 1962 as an editorial manual for the AMA’s scientific journals. Currently, the AMA Manual of Style is in its 11th edition; it is also offered in a fully online, searchable format, making it easy to use and reference for virtual master’s students.

American Psychological Association (APA)

APA Style is most used in academic papers, journal articles, or books about the behavioral and social sciences. Though it was first published in 1929 as an article by anthropologists, business managers, and psychologists, it’s been in print as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association book since 1952. Online master’s students can find the seventh edition of the APA Style guide in printed format, with reference articles available online at the APA Style website.

Associated Press (AP)

The Associated Press Stylebook presents the accepted guidelines for news writing. Most magazines, newspapers, and public relations agencies use it. Students of journalism, marketing, and related disciplines will likely be expected to submit work aligned with AP style standards. The first edition of the AP Stylebook was published in 1953; however, the earliest version of its current format was released in 1977. Online master’s students can subscribe to the 56th edition of the AP Stylebook online.

Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)

Initially published in 1906, the Chicago Manual of Style is one of the most used style guides. The CMOS is a reference for academic publishing and commercial fiction and non-fiction works. Students, academics, and professionals in history, literature, and the arts are often expected to follow the CMOS. Now in its 17th edition, the Chicago Manual of Style has been available online since 2006, where virtual graduate students can conveniently reference it for their writing.

Modern Language Association (MLA)

The MLA Handbook began as the MLA Style Sheet by the Modern Language Association in 1951. By 1977, it was expanded and published under its current title; the MLA Handbook is in its ninth printing. MLA guidelines cover the writing and documentation of research in the humanities, including English, modern language and literature studies, and cultural studies. Virtual master’s students can download an eBook of the MLA Handbook online.

Comparing and Choosing Style Guides

Selecting the best style guide for your academic work is more than a matter of personal preference or a university-wide standard. It’s about alignment with the requirements dictated by your field, a particular class, and your instructor. We’ve put together the table below as a general guideline to point you in the right direction when choosing a style guide. In it, you’ll find each style guide’s characteristics and tips on when they should be used.

Style Scope Content Majors
AMA Medical and health
  • Medical journal articles
  • Medical research and health-related studies
  • Clinical guidelines
  • Medicine
  • Public Health
  • Health Sciences
APA Psychology, education, most social sciences
  • Research papers
  • Scholarly journals
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Education
AP Media
  • News articles
  • Written media pieces
  • Communications
  • Journalism
  • Public Relations
  • Marketing
CMOS Humanities
  • Academic books and journals
  • Novels
  • History
  • Fine Arts
  • Philosophy
MLA Arts and Humanities
  • Academic manuscripts
  • Research papers
  • Cultural Studies
  • English
  • Foreign Languages & Literature
  • Literary Criticism

Additional Style Guides to Consider

Beyond the common academic style guides we’ve just covered, your major may require you to follow an industry or subject-specific guide. For instance, master’s students studying anthropology would follow the American Anthropological Association (AAA) style guide, while sociology majors would defer to the American Sociological Association (ASA) style guide. Below are a few additional style guides you may want to look into based on your major or field of study.

Major/Field Style Guides


Law & Government


Source: Western Michigan University Library

Mastering Academic Style Guide Rules

While many style guides may have similar rules, they were each crafted by professionals in each field to create a cohesive communication style throughout academic and professional writing. Each style guide is a unique framework supporting a particular study area. When you format your graduate-level works within these frameworks, you can be sure your writing has clarity and consistency with other writings in the field. In this section, we’ll explore some common points of difference between style guides.

Abbreviations & Acronyms

Different style guides have diverse preferences regarding styling abbreviations and acronyms, even for something as seemingly simple as state names. For instance, the AP Stylebook outlines that state names should always be spelled out unless used in a dateline. Additionally, eight state names are never abbreviated, regardless of where they appear. The AMA agrees that state names should always appear in their complete form in a manuscript, but in references, students should use the two-letter postal abbreviation.


For capitalization, many style guides adhere to similar rules. While all style guides follow practices of good English grammar, they also provide guidance for scenarios like paper titles or section headings. These are usually similar regardless of the style manual. For example, although the IEEE is for engineering students and The Chicago Manual of Style is more widely used, they both instruct writers to capitalize the first, last, and all principal words in a title while leaving out coordinating conjunctions and prepositions of three or fewer words.


Citing sources within the text is a point of differentiation for many style guides. Not only do they often vary on the mechanics of citing sources, but they may also have specific rules for citing sources like books, journal articles, websites, and interviews. For example, both APA Style and The MLA Handbook instruct writers to cite sources within a paper with in-text, parenthetical references. However, MLA uses the author’s last name alongside the page, whereas APA guidance is to include the year of publication as well.

Compound Words

Properly managing compound words is a tricky aspect of any style guide. Though plenty of long-used compound words are second nature to most writers, the list of newer compound words and their preferred spellings is constantly growing and evolving. Years ago, “e-mail” was the preferred style; now “email” is more common. However, The New York Times didn’t officially adopt the latter until 2013, and The Chicago Manual of Style didn’t use “email” until 2019.

Inclusive Language

Many individuals and organizations have shifted to more inclusive language in recent years. For example, in the past, it was common to use “he” to mean “one single person.” In this case, APA style endorses using the singular “they.” Additionally, there has been a marked shift toward person-first language when writing about people with disabilities. You can find an extensive listing of inclusive language guidelines on the APA website.


Research papers comprise several essential components: a title page, abstract, headings, citations, references, and appendices among them. These elements establish the paper’s overall structure, aiding in clear communication. Formatting details like margin settings, header information, and line spacing affect the paper’s visual design and composition. These elements and formatting details can vary significantly between style guides. For example, the MLA Style Guide prefers double spacing, while AP Style requires articles to be written in a single-spaced format.


The treatment of numbers is another area where style guides can considerably diverge from one another. For instance, according to the AP Stylebook, students should write out numbers one through nine, switching to numerals for the numbers 10 and above. However, the Chicago Manual of Style advises writers to spell out numbers up to 100. These differences demonstrate the importance of referring to the specific style guide associated with your academic work.


While there are plenty of non-negotiable and consistent punctuation rules in the English language, many punctuation rules differ widely among style guides. The Oxford comma is one such point of differentiation and contention. The Chicago Manual of Style strongly recommends always using the Oxford comma to increase clarity of communication. On the other hand, AP Style states that the Oxford comma should never be used unless a sentence or statement is confusing without it.


Terminological choices can also diverge between style guides, affecting the consistency of written communications between different fields. For example, while the AP Stylebook accepts “over” and “more than” as equivalent phrases, that wasn’t always the case. The MLA Style Guide takes the opposite stance when discerning the difference between the terms “many” and “multiple,” making a solid distinction between when each should be used. Awareness of and adherence to these preferences is essential to maintaining stylistic integrity.

Tips for Consistency and Accuracy

Navigating style guide options can be daunting for master’s students, especially when you must transition between various guides for different papers or classes. The subtleties and intricacies of each manual can make consistent application a challenge. If you have yet to become a master of style guides, this list is for you. The following tips were crafted to help bolster your confidence and consistency and avoid common mistakes when using style guides.

Get Feedback

Don’t wait to get your feedback in the form of red pen marks and deducted points. Reach out to tutors, teachers, and peers to bring fresh perspectives, identify overlooked errors, and gain clarity on confusing guidelines. Consider scheduling regular feedback sessions and build them into your writing timeline and process. If you need guidance on how to ask for help and feedback from instructors, this guide to emailing your professor provides scripts and encouragement any student can use to effectively ask for assistance.

Handle Exceptions

As thorough as style guidelines can be, you may encounter exceptions that aren’t covered in the main text of your stylebook. For example, citing government documents or non-standard sources such as audio or video recordings can present a challenge. Double-check the pages of your stylebook; often, these uncommon use cases are covered somewhere in the guide. However, if you can’t find the advice you need, don’t hesitate to ask a librarian or writing center tutor for assistance.


Proofreading is a crucial step to catch formatting and style errors that might otherwise go unnoticed. Even the most meticulous writers can miss details in citation styles, headings, or references. Allocate dedicated time for proofreading separately from writing and editing. Tools like Grammarly can help catch basic spelling and grammar errors. Reading your work aloud can also help make mistakes more apparent, ensuring your final product is polished and style compliant.

Use Citation Software

Leverage the power of citation tools to simplify and streamline the citation process. Numerous platforms, like Zotero or Mendeley, assist in keeping track of your sources, collecting notes, and formatting citations and references according to different style guides. As you write, you can automate the citation process and build a bibliography in real time. These tools allow you to save time while reducing errors and improving the consistency of your citations.

Utilize School Resources

Many colleges and universities offer extensive writing resources to master’s students, even if they’re earning their degrees online. Use the available writing centers, libraries, and online tools to help you navigate various style guides. Schedule appointments with writing center tutors. Attend workshops offered by your school. Ask for help when you need it. Read our guide to student resources to see which options may be available. Check out Liberty University’s Writing Style Guides for concrete examples of papers written in different academic styles.

Style Guide and Citation Resources for Online Master’s Students

Having ample resources at your fingertips can prove invaluable when sorting through style guides. In addition to the tips mentioned above, the following resource list provides a collection of style guide resources from organizations, universities, and informational websites. Use these aids to understand style guides better, enhance your writing, and achieve academic excellence.

  • APA vs. MLA — This article by Scribbr elaborates on the common differences between APA and MLA style formats, complete with visual aids, citation details, and paper formatting requirements.
  • BATTLE for the Best Style Guide! — This episode of the “Writing Momentum” podcast covers standard style guide formats, how to use them in different disciplines, and which is best for you.
  • Citation Generator — This open-access automated citation generator can help you turn any source into a citation in APA, MLA, Chicago, ASA, IEEE, and AMA styles in just a few moments.
  • Citations: Discipline-Specific Style Guides — This resource from Bethune-Cookman University’s Carl S. Swisher Library outlines which citation style you should use based on your academic discipline.
  • How to Cite Sources — This resource by EasyBib provides a comprehensive listing of how to cite virtually any source in MLA, APA, and Chicago styles.
  • How to MLA Format an Academic Paper Using Google Docs — Follow along with this YouTube video to prepare for writing your research paper in MLA format by selecting the correct settings in Google Docs.
  • MLA Format Quick Reference Sheet — Review your paper for MLA formatting at a glance with this easy-to-use guide that covers headings, spacing, citations, and more.
  • MLA Tricky Citations — This resource from The University of Nevada, Reno, provides guidance on how to cite uncommon sources in MLA format, from speeches to works of art.
  • “The Elements of Style” — Build a foundational understanding of great style and level up your writing with this book by William Strunk, available for free.
  • The Importance of Style Guides — This 16-minute episode of the “TriloTalk” podcast aims to inform students about the importance of style guides, especially when writing in the medical field.