APA format is the official style of the American Psychological Association and is use in psychology writing as well as other social sciences. These style guidelines specify different aspects of a document's presentation and layout, including how pages are structured, the organization of references, and how citations are made. This format also stipulates the use of an abstract designed to very briefly summarize the key details contained in a paper without providing too much detail.
Why Is an Abstract Important In APA Format?
While it is sometimes overlooked or only an afterthought, an abstract is an important part of any academic or professional paper. This brief overview serves as a summary of what your paper contains, so it should succinctly and accurately represent what your paper is about and what the reader can expect to find.
Fortunately, by following a few simple guidelines, you can create an abstract that generates interest in your work and help readers quickly learn if the paper will be of interest to them.
The Basics of an APA Format Abstract
The abstract is the second page of a lab report or APA-format paper and should immediately follow the title page. Think of an abstract as a highly condensed summary of your entire paper.
The purpose of your abstract is to provide a brief yet thorough overview of your paper. The APA publication manual suggests that your abstract should function much like your title page—it should allow the person reading it too quickly determine what your paper is all about.
The APA manual also states that the abstract is the single most important paragraph in your entire paper. It is the first thing that most people will read, and it is usually what informs their decision to read the rest of your paper. A good abstract lets the reader know that your paper is worth reading.
According to the official guidelines of the American Psychological Association, a good abstract should be:
- Brief but packed with information. Each sentence must be written with maximum impact in mind. To keep your abstract short, focus on including just four or five of the essential points, concepts, or findings.
- Objective and accurate. The abstract's purpose is to report rather than provide commentary. It should also accurately reflect what your paper is about. Only include information that is also included in the body of your paper.
How to Write an Abstract
- First, write your paper. While the abstract will be at the beginning of your paper, it should be the last section that you write. Once you have completed the final draft of your psychology paper, use it as a guide for writing your abstract.
- Begin your abstract on a new page and place your running head and the page number 2 in the top right-hand corner. You should also center the word "Abstract" at the top of the page.
- Keep it short. According to the APA style manual, an abstract should be between 150 to 250 words. Exact word counts can vary from journal to journal. If you are writing your paper for a psychology course, your professor may have specific word requirements, so be sure to ask. The abstract should also be written as only one paragraph with no indentation. In order to succinctly describe your entire paper, you will need to determine which elements are the most important.
- Structure the abstract in the same order as your paper. Begin with a brief summary of the Introduction, and then continue on with a summary of the Method, Results, and Discussion sections of your paper.
- Look at other abstracts in professional journals for examples of how to summarize your paper. Notice the main points that the authors chose to mention in the abstract. Use these examples as a guide when choosing the main ideas in your own paper.
- Write a rough draft of your abstract. While you should aim for brevity, be careful not to make your summary too short. Try to write one to two sentences summarizing each section of your paper. Once you have a rough draft, you can edit for length and clarity.
- Ask a friend to read over the abstract. Sometimes having someone look at your abstract with fresh eyes can provide perspective and help you spot possible typos and other errors.
Things to Consider When Writing an Abstract
The format of your abstract also depends on the type of paper you are writing. For example, an abstract summarizing an experimental paper will differ from that of a meta-analysis or case study.
For an abstract of an experimental report:
- Begin by identifying the problem.
- Describe the participants in the study.
- Briefly, describe the study method used.
- Give the basic findings.
- Provide any conclusions or implications of the study.
For an abstract of a meta-analysis or literature review:
- Describe the problem of interest.
- Explain the criteria that were used to select the studies included in the paper.
- Identify the participants in the studies.
- Provide the main results.
- Describe any conclusions or implications.
How Long Should Your Abstract Be?
The sixth-edition APA manual suggests that an abstract be between 150 and 250 words. However, they note that the exact requirements vary from one journal to the next. If you are writing the abstract for a class, you might want to check with your instructor to see if he or she has a specific word count in mind.
Psychology papers such as lab reports and APA format articles also often require an abstract. In these cases as well, the abstract should include all of the major elements of your paper, including an introduction, hypothesis, methods, results, and discussion. Remember, although the abstract should be placed at the beginning of your paper (right after the title page), you will write the abstract last after you have completed a final draft of your paper.
In order to ensure that all of your APA formatting is correct, consider consulting a copy of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.
A Word From Verywell
The abstract may be very brief, but it is so important that the official APA style manual identifies it as the most important paragraph in your entire paper. It may not take a lot of time to write, but careful attention to detail can ensure that your abstract does a good job representing the contents of your paper.
Some more tips that might help you get your abstract in tip-top shape:
- Look in academic psychology journals for examples of abstracts.
- Keep on hand a copy of a style guide published by the American Psychological Association for reference.
- If possible, take your paper to your school's writing lab for assistance.
Abstracts have been addressed on the APA Style blog before (twice, in fact, and very well both times—do give them a read or reread!). The following is a humble contribution to the literature on APA Style abstracts that discusses a particular type: the structured abstract.
The structured abstract is a way of writing and formatting abstracts that is very, well, structured. Often used with empirical articles (i.e., those detailing experiments), structured abstracts include headings that run into the text and identify the different elements of the article that are described in the abstract. According to the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health,
These formats were developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s to assist health professionals in selecting clinically relevant and methodologically valid journal articles. They also guide authors in summarizing the content of their manuscripts precisely, facilitate the peer-review process for manuscripts submitted for publication, and enhance computerized literature searching. (para. 1)
The headings do count toward your word limit, which is typically somewhere in the range of 150 to 250 words (for APA journals; other publications, databases, or projects may have different limits). However, headings add around four to six words to the total, depending on which headings you use, so the strain should not be great.
Set in bold and italic type, each heading is followed by a colon and the first sentence of that subsection. The headings and their subsequent text immediately follow each other; that is, your abstract is going to be a single paragraph, so please do not hit Enter after each heading’s text. The usual headings for APA journals requiring them (with some variations; see the Instructions to Authors for each journal) are Objective, Method, Results, and Conclusion(s). The Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal author instructions provide an excellent example of abstract instructions with heading options to better fit different types of articles.
When should you use structured abstracts? When someone asks you to or if the headings help you write your abstract. You can always remove the headings on request and still be left with a strong, comprehensive abstract.
Objective: In this study, we investigated the psychological effects of radical gamma-radiation-caused mutation and transformation to determine whether the transformation affects personality and mood as well as physicality. Method:The single participant filled out the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory—2 and other self-report measures assessing his state of mind, stress (Acute Stress Disorder Scale), and depression (Beck Depression Inventory). The participant was then asked to mediate an argument between 2 confederates, who had been told to not yield on any point of their entirely unreasonable positions. Once the participant had experienced a massive cellular shift triggered by adrenalin (“hulked out”), he (eventually) filled out the various self-report measures again. Results:The participant’s results showed significant differences in both personality and mood. Among other results, the participant maxed out his pretransformation Hypochondriasis scale score, whereas the score bottomed out posttransformation. Scores pre- and posttransformation were similar on the Paranoia scale, whereas Hypomania and Schizophrenia scale scores were low pretransformation and high posttransformation. Stress and depression scores were high at both testing occasions, but we observed that the madder he got, the stronger his scores became. Conclusions: Gamma radiation changes people exposed to it psychologically as well as physically; it also affects mood. More research is needed to replicate these results; participant recruitment is underway.
Photo: Viktors Ignatenko/Hemera/Thinkstock.