Writing an essay is never a walk in the park, especially if you are a freshman. Many students are surprised at first when they need to write an essay, because of all the demands that go with it. We are not just talking about doing research and writing at a very high level, but also about essay referencing. In the beginning, it’s difficult to wrap your head around a concept like that. Also, it can still seem pretty daunting if it’s been a while since you’ve done it.

Poor essay referencing is one of the main reasons why students lose points on their essays and receive lower grades, despite the strength of their arguments and their writing chops. Referencing your sources is a must in academic circles, because everything else is considered plagiarism. This means that every time you use a piece of data, images, graphics, or words from someone else’s paper or dissertation, you need to provide a citation and its matching reference. With that in mind, let’s take a look at our essay referencing guide that will help master the skill of referencing once and for all. Keep on reading to find out more.

What Is Referencing And Why Is It Important?

Essay referencing enables you to acknowledge the authors and their contributions, which have been used in your own work. Every essay ever written is underpinned by ideas, research, or finding of other writers, which is why it’s crucial that your essay contains proper citations. There are several reasons why referencing is so important. The most important ones are:

  • You avoid plagiarism - this is probably the most obvious reason why you should reference the original authors. It’s perfectly fine to use someone else’s work and findings to act as a basis for your own writing, but if you fail to cite your sources, it is considered a very serious academic offense. Not only is it considered unethical, but you are also violating a number of intellectual property rights every author is entitled to. Pretty much every academic institution has a clear, and usually very strict, policy on plagiarism.
  • It provides credibility to your work - regardless of what your essay topic is, there will be a whole raft of previous works available on it. Being able to do your research and pick the most relevant and compelling ones is a skill in itself, which is why essay referencing also gives additional credibility to your writing. It also allows you to bolster your own data with similar research already done by another author, which is something that essay writing service professionals adhere to at all times.
  • It shows that you acknowledge research that was done previously - not only is this respectful to other authors, but also shows that you haven’t picked your sources randomly, and that you are well familiar with the subject matter and capable of extracting data that is the most useful and relevant to your essay.

Essay Referencing Systems

Referencing is required for just about every single piece of academic writing, and that includes essays. Now, unfortunately for students, there is no universal referencing system. Instead, there are several different ones that are used in the academic community. Ideally, you get to choose which one to use, but in most cases, the choice is made for you by a specific publication or academic institution you are attending. The most common essay referencing systems are:

  • Harvard
  • Chicago
  • MLA
  • APA
  • MHRA

Lately, Harvard, which is also knowns as the Author Date system, has been the most prevalent system for essay referencing. It uses short citations inside the text itself, unlike most of the other systems which rely on footnotes at the end of the paper.

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When to Use References

Generally speaking, you always need to cite the original author of the work you are using, be it a book, industry publication, or even a website. Now, in order to avoid confusion as to what qualifies as using someone else’s work, we have put together a short list that lets you know when you should reference. You should reference in case you are:

  • Directly quoting someone else’s work, regardless of the publication type
  • Using a famous quotation
  • Paraphrasing someone else’s writing and findings
  • Summarizing data points and ideas from someone else’s paper, book, or article
  • Using charts, graphs, tables, diagrams, images, or statistical data published by another author
  • Using someone else’s idea

That pretty much covers all cases where essay referencing is required. Now, if you are writing from your own experience, using personal anecdotes, opinions, or experiments, you won’t need to reference anything. The same goes for stuff that is common knowledge or a generally accepted fact.

How to Reference

One of the most common mistakes students make when it comes to essay referencing is to write a list of references at the very end of the writing process. In that case, you will need to go through the entire paper and try and find the works which you have cited, which can take a lot of time, and can be very tedious. Instead, try writing down your references as you go along. That way, by the time you are done writing, you will have a complete list of references, and you won’t have to worry about missing any of them, and getting accused of plagiarism.

For every reference, you will need the following details:

  • Name of the original author
  • The edition, in case it’s not the first
  • The year the work was published, as well as the city
  • The title
  • Publisher’s name
  • Name of the article if it’s an article, page numbers, or numbers
  • In case it’s an online resource, provide the address, as well as the date you accessed the source
  • Page number if you are quoting the source directly

Obviously, each referencing system has its own specifics, but for the most part, this is what you should expect to provide for each reference.

How Many References Do You Need?

While there are no strict rules when it comes to the number of references in your essay, there are some general essay referencing guidelines that you’ll want to follow. For example, you might want to include one unique citation per every 150 words of your essay. Of course, you can cite one source more than once, but you should also aim to get data from multiple sources in order to make it more diverse and compelling. Also, you’ll want to include different opinions and view the topic from multiple angles when coming up with your own conclusion.

Depending on essay length, you’ll want to include the following number of references in the reference list:

  • 1500-word essay - 10 references or more
  • 2000-word essay - 13 references or more
  • 2500-word essay - 16 references or more
  • 3000-word essay - 20 references or more
  • 3500-word essay - 23 references or more
  • 4000-word essay - 26 references or more
  • 5000-word essay - 33 references or more


While putting together a list of references for your essay requires a lot of work and focus, once you learn all the ins and out of essay referencing, it becomes much easier. We hope that you have found our guide helpful, and that you will start implementing the tips we have shared when writing your next essay.

Written by Michael Writer

Publish Date: August 19, 2022

Michael Writer

Michael Writer

Professional writer