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How to craft an APA abstract

Last updated

16 December 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Hugh Good

An APA abstract is a brief but thorough summary of a scientific paper. It gives readers a clear overview of what the paper is about and what it intends to prove.

The purpose of an abstract is to allow researchers to quickly understand the paper's topic and purpose so they can decide whether it will be useful to them.

What is the APA style?

APA style is a method of formatting and documentation used by the American Psychological Association. This style is used primarily for papers in the field of education and in the social sciences, including:

  • Psychology

  • Sociology

  • Anthropology

  • Economics

What is an abstract in APA format?

Writing an abstract in APA format requires you to conform to the writing rules for APA-style papers, including the following guidelines:

  • The abstract should be 150–250 words

  • It should be brief but concise, containing all the paper's main points

  • The abstract is a separate page that comes after the title page and before the paper's main content

Key elements of an APA abstract 

While the rules for constructing an APA abstract are straightforward, the process can be challenging. You need to pack a great deal of relevant content into a short piece.

The essential elements of an APA abstract are:

  • Running header containing the title of the paper and page number

  • Section label, centered and in bold, containing the word "abstract"

  • The main content of the abstract, 150–250 words in length and double-spaced

  • A list of keywords, indented and introduced with the word "keywords" in italics

Essential points to cover in an APA abstract 

When you’re creating your APA abstract, consider the following questions.

What is the main topic the paper is addressing?

The most important information to convey in the abstract is the paper's primary objective, hypothesis, or research questions. Keep in mind the abstract will be the reader's introduction to your paper.

People searching for research on your topic will probably be browsing many papers and studies. The way your abstract is crafted will help to determine whether they feel your paper is worth reading.

Are your research methods quantitative or qualitative?

Potential readers want to know about the research methods you used. A key research question is whether you used quantitative or qualitative methods (or a combination).

Quantitative research is focused on numbers and statistics, typically gathered from studies and polls where the questions are in yes/no or multiple-choice format.

Qualitative research is based on language and gathered using methods such as interviews and focus groups. It is more detailed and time-consuming to gather than quantitative research but can yield more complex and nuanced results.

Did you use primary or secondary sources?

Another key element is whether your research is based on primary or secondary sources. 

Primary research is data that you or your research team gathered. Secondary research is gathered from existing sources, such as databases or previously published studies.

Is your research descriptive or experimental?

Your research may be descriptive, experimental, or both.

With descriptive research, you’re describing or analyzing existing studies or theories on the topic. You may be using surveys, case studies, or observation to study the topic.

Experimental research studies variables using the scientific method. With an experiment, your objective is to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between two variables (or show the lack of one).

What conclusion did you reach?

Readers will want to know upfront what your paper is claiming or proving. Your APA abstract should give them a condensed version of your conclusions. Summarize your most significant findings.

It's customary to place your findings and conclusion in the final sentence of the abstract. This should be directly related to the main topic of the paper.

What is the relevance of your findings?

Show readers that your paper is a significant contribution to the field. While staying accurate and not overstating your case, boast a bit about why people need to read your paper.

Briefly describe the implications and importance of your findings. You can also point out any further research that is needed concerning this topic.

Did you choose the most appropriate keywords?

Including keywords is useful for indexing if your paper is eventually included in a database. Choose keywords that are relevant to the paper and as specific as possible.

For example, if your paper is about signs of learning disabilities in elementary-age children, your keyword list might include:

  • Learning disability symptoms

  • Elementary education

  • Dyslexia

  • Language-based learning disabilities

  • Any other terms discussed in the paper

How to format an APA abstract

  • Use standard APA formatting with double spacing, 12pt Times New Roman font, and one-inch margins.

  • Place a running head at the top left-hand side of the page. This is an abbreviated version of the paper's title. Use all capital letters for the running header. This is not usually required for academic papers but is essential if you are submitting the paper for publication. The page number “2” should follow the running header (Page 1 is the title page).

  • Just under the running head, in the center, place the word "abstract."

  • Place your list of keywords at the end. The list should be indented and, according to APA guidelines, contain three to five keywords.

What are the 3 types of abstracts?

There are certain variations in different types of APA abstracts. Here are three of the most common ones.

Experimental or lab report abstracts

An abstract for an experimental or lab report needs to communicate the key purpose and findings of the experiment. Include the following:

  • Purpose and importance of the experiment

  • Hypothesis of the experiment

  • Methods used to test the hypothesis

  • Summary of the results of the experiment, including whether you proved or rejected the hypothesis

Literature review abstracts

A literature review is a survey of published work on a work of literature. It may be part of a thesis, dissertation, or research paper.

The abstract for a literature review should contain:

  • A description of your purpose for covering the research topic

  • Your thesis statement

  • A description of the sources used in the review

  • Your conclusions based on the findings

Psychology lab reports

Psychology lab reports are part of the experiment report category. Psychology experiments, however, may contain distinctive elements.

  • Describe the goal or purpose of the experiment

  • If the experiment includes human subjects, describe them. Mention the number of participants and what demographic they fit

  • Describe any tools, equipment, or apparatus you used for the experiment. For example, some experiments use electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain waves. You may have also used tools such as questionnaires, case studies, or naturalistic observation. Describe the procedure and parameters of the experiment.

  • Summarize your conclusions

What not to include in an APA abstract

As this section is 250 words maximum, it's important to know what should not be included.

Avoid the following in an APA abstract:

  • Jargon, acronyms, or abbreviations

  • Citations. These should appear in the body of the paper.

  • Lengthy or secondary information. Keep it brief and stick to the main points. Readers should want to read your paper for more detailed information.

  • Opinions or subjective comments

  • Anything not covered in the paper

Guidelines for writing an APA abstract

While an abstract is the shortest section of your paper, it is nevertheless one of the most important parts. It determines whether or not someone decides that the paper is worth reading or not. What follows are some guidelines to keep in mind when creating your APA abstract. 

  • Focus on your main point. Don't try to fit in multiple conclusions. The idea is to give readers a clear idea of what your main point or conclusion is. On a similar note, be explicit about the implications and significance of your findings. This is what will motivate people to read your paper.

  • Write the abstract last. Ensure the abstract accurately conveys the content and conclusions of your paper. You may want to start with a rough draft of the abstract, which you can use as an outline to guide you when writing your paper. If you do this, make sure you edit and update the abstract after the full paper is complete.

  • Proofread your abstract. As the abstract is short and the first part of the paper people will read, it's especially important to make it clear and free of spelling, grammatical, or factual errors. Ask someone in your field to read through it.

  • Write the abstract for a general audience. While the paper may be aimed at academics, scientists, or specialists in your field, the abstract should be accessible to a broad audience. Minimize jargon and acronyms. This will make the paper easier to find by people looking for information on the topic.

  • Choose your keywords with care. The more relevant keywords you include, the more searchable your paper will be. Look up papers on comparable topics for guidance.

  • Follow any specific guidelines that apply to your paper. Requirements for the abstract may differ slightly depending on the topic or guidelines set by a particular instructor or publication.

In summary

APA style is commonly used in the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and education.

If you’re writing an abstract in APA style, there are certain conventions to follow. Your readers and people in your industry will expect you to adhere to particular elements of layout, content, and structure.

Follow our advice in this article, and you will be confident that your APA abstract complies with the expected standards and will encourage people to read your full paper.

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