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The basics
Study abroad : Applying to University

How to reference in an academic essay

Writing a good academic essay which includes quotes and references is a vital writing skill to have at university. We give you useful vocabulary to help you understand what referencing is, why it’s important and how to use it.

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When you start studying abroad at university you will have to write several essays for each of your modules. An important part of essay writing is referencing. It's critical to learn what it is, why you must use it and how to use it. Read on to find the answers to these questions. Before going into more detail, let’s first look at some useful vocabulary to help you a little later on.


Useful vocabulary 

bibliography – This is like a reference list as it includes a list of all the sources (see below) you have cited (see below) in your essay, plus any sources you used in your research on the topic. You may not have cited the sources in your essay, but you used them in your research. 

citation (noun) – This is a quotation from, or a reference to, a book, journals, and so on. (verb: to cite)

in-text citation/referencing – This is a reference to a book or journal in the actual text of the essay. This is different from a reference list or bibliography.

date of publication – This is the date the source you have used was published (made available either in printed format or online).

reference - (verb and noun) This is where you acknowledge or recognise the importance of the sources you have used in the writing of your essay. There are many ways to reference the sources used (more on this later). 

reference list – This is a detailed list of the sources (see definition below) you have cited in your essay. The reference list is added at the end of your essay and is listed in alphabetical order. 

source – (noun) These are the materials you have used to gather information, data, facts, and statistics. Sources must be credible (they can be trusted and have authority). They can be journals, academic books, conference papers, and from credible and trustworthy websites such as .gov / .edu / .ac.


Why do I have to use references in my essay?

It is important to acknowledge what sources you have used in the writing of your essay to show that you have done a great deal of reading on the subject and provide you with evidence to support your point of view. 


Equally importantly, referencing makes clear which ideas and words are your own and which ideas and/or words have been taken from someone else. When you use other people’s words without acknowledging the source this is called plagiarism. 


Plagiarism is a form of copying that has very strong negative consequences such as failing your course, lower grades and even being expelled from university. Each university and each faculty have their own rules of what constitutes plagiarism, and there are software tools that professors can use to see if a student has copied the work and words of another person. 


The best way to avoid plagiarism while note-taking and writing is to improve your essay writing skills and learn how to paraphrase and reference correctly. 


How do I write a reference correctly?

This question is a little more difficult to answer as different referencing systems are better suited to certain subjects than to others. Each course will state what referencing system they require students to use. 


Here are some referencing systems that are used by universities in the USCanadaAustraliaNew ZealandIreland and the UK

  • APA – American Psychological Association – this style is commonly used in psychology, health and social sciences and medicine. 
  • Chicago – this style is mainly used in humanities subjects. 
  • Harvard – this style has been adapted and used by many universities, faculties, and course programmes. It’s important to check your course programme and follow it carefully. 


There are many more, but we’ve listed some of the most common systems. Here is what these styles look like in-text and in a reference list/bibliography:



In-text citation

Reference list / bibliography


Gibson (2020)

Gibson, R. (2020). Desire in the age of robots and AI: An investigation in science fiction and fact. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030- 24017-2


(Einstein 1923, 44-45)

Einstein, Albert. 1923. The Meaning of Relativity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


(Becker, 2007)

Becker, H. S. (2007). Writing for social scientists: how to start and finish your thesis, book, or article. 2nd edn. London: The University of Chicago Press.


Your university will have detailed style guides for you to follow.  International students also have a great deal of help on offer at university from the language support services and study skills tutorials and resources online.


The good news is that learning how to use referencing and citations correctly isn’t a challenge just for international students. This is experienced by all new university students, so don’t be embarrassed to ask for help.


Now that you’re informed about a critical skill needed when studying at university, you can continue your research. You can discover the top 10 reasons to study abroad,  get in touch with a counsellor for more guidance, or find a course that may suit you.


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