How To Cite: A Basic Guide for College Students

College student working on an essay in her apartment

No matter what major you choose in college, you should expect to be given writing assignments. Certain majors are more writing-intensive, such as English, history and other humanities. But regardless of the courses you take, you can't earn an ‘A’ on a paper if you do not properly cite your sources.

You probably first learned about citing sources in middle or high school. However, you may not feel completely confident with the process or you might be unsure of whether you’re using the right citation style. You can use this guide to help answer questions you may have on how to cite sources for your essays in school.

In This Article: 

What Does It Mean To Cite Your Sources?

Before diving into how to cite sources in an essay, it’s worth taking a look at exactly what this means. Citing a source has two components: the in-text component and the end-of-text component. The in-text component lets the reader know that additional information for that particular bit of writing is available at the end of the page or at the end of the essay.

The purpose of a citation in an academic paper is to inform the reader that you have used outside information to support your arguments. It provides information on the source, such as the author's name, title, publication date and location of the information (e.g., page numbers or hyperlink). This allows the reader to track down the original source you used in order to verify that your information is correct and/or to acquire additional information on that topic beyond what is presented in your paper.

When Do I Need To Cite a Source?

Another important component of knowing how to cite a source involves knowing when to use citations. When in doubt, cite a source — too many will always be better than too few.

Always provide a citation when you:

  • Use statistics or similar facts
  • Summarize, condense or paraphrase someone else’s information
  • Use someone else’s ideas in your writing
  • Use a direct quote from a source
  • Quote two or more words verbatim
  • Use information that is not considered common knowledge 
  • Reference someone else’s work

When is a citation unnecessary? As explained above, it's not necessary to include a citation when you're stating common knowledge — such as the Earth is round. It's also not necessary to cite a source when you're discussing your own lived experiences, original ideas, or observable and widely accepted facts.

An example of a widely accepted fact that requires no citation is the statement, “Civilizations rise and fall throughout history.” However, it’s important to note that if you provide any specific information, you will need a citation. For example, you’ll need to provide a citation if you state that the Antonine Plague is estimated to have killed up to one-third of the ancient Roman Empire’s population and helped bring about the end of the Pax Romana period.1

Which Sources Should I Cite?

Make sure you cite only reputable, authoritative sources. These include academic organizations, research institutions and governmental agencies. Avoid citing questionable sources, such as Wikipedia (because the content is essentially crowdsourced from laypeople) and social media posts.

There are limited exceptions. For instance, if you’re a sociology or psychology major writing a paper on how social media posts affect body image in teens, you might indeed cite some social media posts to use as examples of alarming trends. Similarly, if you’re writing a paper about the spread of disinformation online, you might cite a non-reputable source to discuss how such sources spread false information.

How To Cite

Now that you know the basics of what citations are, and when to use them, let’s take a closer look at how to properly cite a source. First, you need to know that there are multiple styles to choose from, including Modern Language Association (MLA), American Psychological Association (APA) and the Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style). Knowing how to cite sources in APA format, MLA format and Chicago style will be helpful for you when citing sources for different types of assignments.

How To Cite Sources in MLA Format

When learning how to cite sources in MLA format, know that MLA style includes parenthetical in-text citations and a “works cited” page at the end of the paper with the full citations. For in-text citations, use the formats in the following examples. (Note that the numbers are page numbers corresponding to where the information is found in the source.)

  • When the author’s name appears in the text: “For example, Smith notes that this is true in the majority of cases” (50–51).
  • When the author’s name does not appear in the text: “This is true in the majority of cases” (Smith 50–51).
  • When there are two authors: “This trend occurs throughout history, such as during the Battle of Gettysburg” (Smith and Doe 13).
  • When using a direct quotation: “The renowned scientist J. Garcia states that ‘these trees have means of communicating with each other in ways humans obviously cannot hear…’” (qtd. in Smith 78).

At the end of your paper, you’ll attach a “works cited” page that contains an alphabetical listing of all of your sources. Here’s a look at the basic format of a citation:

Last name, first name of author. Title of source in italics for books or quotations for periodicals. Title of container italicized and followed by a comma, credits for the container. Publisher, publication date, location.

Not all citations will include a container. The container is the larger work of which your source is a part. For example, you may have used one essay within a collection of essays. The additional credits for the container might be the editor or translator of the collection. A container can also be a website that contains an individual webpage that you used as a source.

The location may also not be applicable to all citations. It refers to where your source is found, such as page numbers in a journal.

How To Cite Sources in APA Format

Like MLA style, APA style also uses in-text citations with the author’s name. However, instead of the page number, you’ll usually add the date of publication. Here’s an example: “The mice learned to navigate the maze more quickly with peanut butter as a reward than when cheese was used” (Smith, 2020).

Note that when you are citing a source in APA format, you will need to add the page number of the source to the in-text citation if you are using a direct quote from that source. Here’s an example: The scientists working on the maze study noted, “the brand of peanut butter didn’t seem to matter to the mice; they liked both Skippy and Jiff equally” (Smith, 2020, p. 16).

If you reference the author’s last name in the sentence, you’ll do so like this: “Smith (2020) found that the mice liked Skippy and Jiff peanut butter equally” (p. 16).

At the end of your paper, you'll provide a reference list labeled "References." (Center the word at the top of the page, and do not use quotes or italics.) 

Here are a few quick rules for your reference list:

  • List authors’ last names first, then write first and middle names as initials.
  • Use hanging indentation for all lines after the first line of each entry.
  • Alphabetize the list according to the authors’ last names.
  • For titles, capitalize only the first word of titles and subtitles (as well as proper nouns).
  • Italicize most titles (e.g., books and newspapers). Essays in collections or individual chapters in books should not receive italics, quotes or underlining.

Here’s a look at the basic formats:

  • To list a book: Author. (Year of publication). Title of work. Publisher.
  • To list a journal article: Author. (Year of publication). Title of work. Journal Name, volume number. Page(s).

How To Cite Sources Using Chicago Style

Rather than using parenthetical citations in the text, Chicago style prefers numbers in superscript at the end of sentences. These numbers correspond to a footnote citation at the end of the page. You’ll also include a bibliography at the end of the paper that lists all of your sources.

However, there is an exception to this. Some professors might prefer that you use the author–date style rather than the notes and bibliography style. The author–date style is much like APA's in-text citations. Check with your professor to determine which version of Chicago style they prefer.

Chicago-style citations for books and journals are as follows:

Last name, full first name of author(s). Publication year. Title. Place of publication: Publisher name.

Journal Articles
Last name, full first name of author(s). Publication year. “Title of article.” Journal name, volume number: page range. Hyperlink if applicable.

Pursue Your BA in English for Secondary Education at GCU

If you have a passion for the written word and want to inspire the next generation, you can get your start at Grand Canyon University. Apply for enrollment in the Bachelor of Arts in English for Secondary Education degree program (which leads to initial teacher licensure) offered by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. To learn more about joining our Christian learning community in Phoenix, fill out the form on this page.

1Kennedy, J. (2023). Pathogenesis: A History of the World in Eight Plagues. Crown.

Approved by the assistant vice president of GCU marketing on Feb. 9, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.