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How to Write a Table of Contents for Different Formats With Examples

Rules that guide academic writing are specific to each paper format. However, some rules apply to all styles – APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, and Harvard. Basically, one of these rules is the inclusion of a Table of Contents (TOC) in an academic text, particularly long ones, like theses, dissertations, and research papers. When writing a TOC, students or researchers should observe some practices regardless of paper formats. Also, it includes writing the TOC on a new page after the title page, numbering the first-level and corresponding second-level headings, and indicating the page number of each entry. Hence, scholars need to learn how to write a table of contents in APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, and Harvard styles.

General Guidelines

When writing academic texts, such as theses, dissertations, and other research papers, students observe academic writing rules as applicable. Generally, the different paper formats – APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, and Harvard – have specific standards that students must follow in their writing. In this case, one of the rules is the inclusion of a Table of Contents (TOC) in the document. By definition, a TOC is a roadmap that scholars provide in their writing, outlining each portion of a paper. In other words, a TOC enables readers to locate specific information in documents or revisit favorite parts within written texts. Moreover, this part of academic papers provides readers with a preview of the paper’s contents.

How to write a table of contents

Difference Between a Table of Contents and an Outline

In essence, a TOC is a description of first-level headings (topics) and second-level headings (subtopics) within the paper’s body. For a longer document, writers may also include third-level titles to make the text palatable to read. Ideally, the length of papers determines the depth that authors go into detailing their writing in TOCs. Basically, this feature means that shorter texts may not require third-level headings. In contrast, an essay outline is a summary of the paper’s main ideas with a hierarchical or logical structuring of the content. Unlike a TOC that only lists headings and subheadings, outlines capture these headings and then describes the content briefly under each one. As such, an outline provides a more in-depth summary of essay papers compared to a TOC.

How to Write a Table of Contents in APA

When writing a TOC in the APA format, writers should capture all the headings in the paper – first-level, second-level, and even third-level. Besides this information, they should also include an abstract, references, and appendices. Notably, while a TOC in the APA style has an abstract, this section is not necessary for the other formats, like MLA, Chicago/Turabian, and Harvard. Hence, an example of a Table of Contents written in the APA format is indicated below:

Example of a table of contents in APA

How to Write a Table of Contents in MLA

Unlike papers written in the APA style, MLA papers do not require a Table of Contents unless they are long enough. In this case, documents, like theses, dissertations, and books written in the MLA format should have a TOC. Even where a TOC is necessary, there is no specific method that a writer should use when writing it. In turn, the structure of the TOC is left to the writer’s discretion. However, when students have to include a TOC in their papers, the information they capture should be much more than what would appear in the APA paper. Hence, an example of writing a Table of Contents in the MLA format is:

Example of a table of contents in MLA

In the case of writing a research paper, an example of a Table of Contents should be:

Example of a table of contents for a research paper in MLA

How to Write a Table of Contents in Chicago/Turabian

Like the MLA style, a Chicago/Turabian paper does not require writing a Table of Contents unless it is long enough. When a TOC is necessary, writers should capitalize on major headings. Additionally, authors do not need to add a row of periods (. . . . . . . .) between the heading entry and the page number. Moreover, the arrangement of the content should start with the first-level heading, then the second-level heading, and finally the third-level title, just like in the APA paper. In turn, all the information that precedes the introduction part should have lowercase Roman numerals. Also, the row of periods is only used for major headings. Hence, an example of writing a Table of Contents in a Chicago/Turabian paper is:

Example of a table of contents in Chicago/Turabian

How to Write a Table of Contents in Harvard

Like in the other formats, writing a Table of Contents in the Harvard style is captured by having the title “Table of Contents” at the center of the page, in the first line. Basically, it comes after the title page and captures all the sections and subsections of Harvard papers. In other words, writers must indicate first-level headings in a numbered list. Also, scholars should align titles to the left side and capitalize them. In turn, if there is a need to show second-level headings, authors should list them under corresponding first-level headings by using bullet points. However, it is essential for students not to disrupt the numbering of first-level headings. Moreover, writers should align second-level headings to the left side and indent them by half an inch and capitalize on this content. Hence, an example of writing a Table of Contents in a Harvard paper should appear as below:

Example of a table of contents in Harvard

Summing Up

A Table of Content (TOC) is an essential component of an academic paper, particularly for long documents, like theses, dissertations, and research papers. When students are writing a TOC, they should be careful to follow the applicable format’s rules and standards. Regardless of the format, writers should master the following tips when writing a TOC:

  • Write the TOC on a new page after the title page.
  • Indicate first-level headings of the document in a numbered list.
  • Indicate second-level headings under the corresponding first-level heading.
  • If applicable, indicate third-level headings under the corresponding second-level heading.
  • Write the page number for each heading.
  • Put the content in a two-column table.
  • Title the page with “Table of Contents.”