How to use Zotero for Students: Save Time with Reference Managers.

When you start writing your first assignment in university, your lecturers and tutors will insist that you pay close attention to your references. You must format them correctly: dot point here, italics here, ‘quotation’ here. In this case, you can be one of two types of students: someone who painfully writes up their references manually one at a time, or someone who works smarter – and downloads a reference manager. Here is an easy to follow, quick guide to Zotero for university students!

Let me show you how you can stop wasting your time and focus on perfecting your essay instead of perfecting your references.

There are multiple programs that you can use as a reference manager. Throughout my undergraduate degree, we were encouraged to use Endnote. My university allows students to download this program for free, but it is normally a program a user has to pay for. If you have access to Endnote and would like to know how to use this program click here.

However, in my Honours year I have chosen to migrate to Zotero. This is purely for the fact that Zotero is a free program anyone can download and is a popular reference manager in my laboratory. Read below for how to use Zotero for students!

How to Download Zotero

Firstly, head to the Zotero website and download the installer. On the front page, there is a button to ‘Download’ and then click on whichever system you are using (Mac, Windows, Linux) and follow the prompts.

You most definitely want to download Zotero itself, plus the browser extension (Google Chrome in my case) and also the Plugin for Word. You can find the plug in by clicking the ‘browse plugins’ towards the bottom of the download page. There is lots of information on how to correctly install these onto your computer.

Make sure that you create an account on Zotero so that your references can be accessible from anywhere and are backed up!


How to Use Zotero When Writing Essays

Using a reference manager will save you time and effort when writing your essays. But you have to start using Zotero from the very first stages of your research, because back-tracking later just creates problems.


In the research stages of your essay (when you are collecting your information), the browser extension does all the work for you. First, open up Zotero on your computer and create a collection (file -> new collection) on Zotero to save your references in. I usually create separate ones for each essay/assignment.

Whenever you find a webpage or journal article that you will use in your essay, all you need to do is click on the Zotero extension (shown below) in the toolbar of your browser, click on your chosen collection, and Zotero will automatically add the reference to your reference manager.

The more information that Zotero can extract from the webpage, the more correct your references will be later on (check the review process at the bottom of this post).

To learn about all the browser extensions I use as a university student, click here.

Please note: You will need to have Zotero open anytime you wish to save a reference using the browser extension.


When you have finished writing up your notes and essay plan, you can move on to actually writing your essay.

This part is super easy! Whenever you write a sentence that you need to reference, simply click on the Zotero section of the tool bar, click ‘add/edit citation,’ search for the reference you need and click enter. Then, Zotero will automatically add in the chosen in-text reference in your selected style! You can just continue on writing.

how to use zotero in word documents
The first time you do this, Zotero will ask you for which type of reference style you would like (APA, Harvard, etc.). This will depend on your university and degree program. You can also download new types of references if the one you need is not already integrated into Zotero.

If you wish to use an alternate style of in-text references at any point (different from the usual Name et al., 2020), just edit the in-text reference itself and then tell Zotero not to make any further changes when the pop-up arises.

Adding your Reference List

When you have completed your essay, you will need to add your reference list for your readers to see the information about references you have used.

To do this, click on the add/edit bibliography. And just like that – Zotero will create a reference list of all the in-text references you have previously used, in the style of your selected reference. So easy!

how to use zotero to make a bibliography on word document


Unfortunately, while a reference manager makes the job easier, it doesn’t mean that your references will automatically be perfect. You still need to review and check over your references once they are added in. You can do this one of two ways, depending on your preferences.

First option: Check over all the information for each reference in your chosen collection. Open up your Zotero program, and scroll through each reference, ensuring that all the correct information is in the necessary rows. The information you will need varies according to referencing style (APA, Harvard, etc.) so you may need more or less parts filled out depending on style. Next time you open up your essay in Word, this new information should be updated into your references.

how to use zotero program on desktop

Secondly, you can change your automated reference list on your word document to text only by clicking unlink citations and manually check or change anything that needs to be altered. You should do this in a second saved version of your essay, as it will unlink Zotero from your document, meaning that if you make any other changes to in-text references or in the Zotero program itself, your reference list will not include the new changes.

And that’s it!

Hopefully this How to Use Zotero for Students guide has helped you to successfully navigate your reference manager! All reference managers are pretty similar so it is likely you can transfer this process to other programs.

All the best with your essay writing (you can thank me later for the extra time you now have!)

If you enjoyed this How to Use Zotero for Students, but would like to try an alternate reference manager… click here to see my guide on using Endnote.

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