Reflection is a way to look back on and process your experiences, knowledge you have received, or new ideas you have encountered, and see how they shape your views and your thinking. This process, on par with critical thinking ability, is crucial for university and college students, because it’s key to directed and mindful learning.
You will probably be tasked with writing short reflective essays on a class you’ve competed, on a book you’ve read, on research you’ve conducted, or some of the past experiences that in your opinion left a deep imprint on how you perceive the world. Despite being deeply personal, such papers are different from journal entries and must adhere to academic standards with regard to language and structure.
In this post, we will look in detail into how to write a good reflective essay on any topic.
What Is a Reflective Essay and Its Purpose
The first thing you should understand about reflective essays is that they are not standard college essays with a clear destination to arrive at. You don’t argue a point, you don’t summarize a course, you don’t try to solve a problem. You explore your response to information or experience. However, it is not an opinion piece either, where you just share your judgment on whether something is good or bad. The closest we can get to a reflective essay definition is through exploring its goals.
So, what is the purpose of reflective writing? It is a way to make meaning out of what you study, explore your learning, and understand it better. It is also a way to explore and document your response to new information, ideas, events, and experiences and through this gain self-knowledge.
To see some examples of reflective writing and compare them to other kinds, visit our database of essays, and look under relevant sections.
General Recommendations for Writing a Reflective Essay
First, let us zoom in on how to do reflective writing, what themes you can explore, and which stylistic features this type of writing endorses.
Since writing reflective paper is a formal college assignment, you must follow certain rules and principles of academic papers. For example, such good practices as:
- one idea per paragraph
- no sentence fragments
- using transition phrases to help your reader follow your thoughts
- outlining your essay before you start working on a draft.
However, it also allows you to combine different modes of writing and language: descriptive, analytical, and expressive. That is complex, but it also gives you the freedom you need to convey your feelings, describe events and people in your life, and explain their influence on you.
Reflective Essay Structure
Since the content of the reflective essay can be very diverse, and the format skews more expressive and creative than other types of academic essays, it is difficult to provide one plan that will fit every essay. However, the high-level structure still applies. Your reflective essay should have:
- the introduction, where you state the subject of your essay
- the body, where you explore the subject in detail
- the conclusion, where you summarize everything and answer questions your essay set out to answer
Reflection Papers Format
Reflection papers tend to be more conversational in tone but they still must adhere to the standards of academic writing, so you should avoid slang, abbreviations (IDK, LOL, OMG), and use correct spelling and grammar. Reflective essay format allows you, however, to use personal pronouns (I, me) and you can get away with contractions as well (I’ve, don’t, we’ll).
As to whether your essay should be in APA or MLA, it depends on the recommendations given by your instructor. If there were none, use recommendations for other papers in this course as a guideline.
Things to write about in a course reflection essay
If you haven’t been given a clear prompt, for example, “How this course has helped me to understand my goals in life better” or “Why I think Freud’s works are relevant today”, here is what you can discuss if you’ve been asked to write a course reflection essay:
- Your experiences or observations that are relevant to the course or the topic you’ve been studying
- Your perceptions of the course material, how it challenged or confirmed your preconceptions and ideas
- Any alternative interpretations or hypotheses that course has sparked in you
- Questions you have and ideas you need to explore
- The process of solving a problem, finding an answer, or making connections between your prior knowledge and the things you’ve learned.
How Do You Write a Self-Reflective Essay
In your English class at school, you must have written essays about yourself: your hobbies, your favorite things, inspiring people in your life. However, it doesn’t mean that you know how to write a self-reflection essay.
College-level self-reflective essays involve metacognition. That means you should describe how you think about things, how you learn, why you believe what you believe. If you write about any personal experiences, you should focus on how they have reflected on your way of thinking and shaped your perception.
If your instructor hasn’t given you a detailed task, you can brainstorm topics for personal self-reflection with the help of these prompts:
- The most difficult decision in my life and why I regret/don’t regret it now
- The day you overcame your greatest fear
- A humbling experience you will never forget
- What inspires you to move forward when you are feeling down?
- What are your weakest and your strongest traits?
- If you could change one thing about your personality, what would it be?
Read essay examples from our vast collection to get a clearer idea of how this kind of essays look and the themes they explore.
How to Start a Reflective Essay
You should begin with being clear about your task. Since reflective assignments can vary widely depending on the course and subject, you should read the task guidelines very carefully. If there is anything you aren’t sure about, ask your instructor to clarify those aspects.
Now let us assume you have dealt with the basic stuff: you have read the article you must reflect upon, you have gone through your course notes if you need to write a course reflection, you have singled out an important event that had a profound effect on you. Now, how do you start a reflective writing assignment?
The good way to start pulling all your ideas and thoughts together is by using the mind mapping technique. It is a great way to arrange the ideas into some semblance of a structure, arrange them, and create a workable writing plan – whether it’s a personal or a course reflection.
If you have never tried mind mapping before, here is a quick introduction:
- Take a blank page and write your topic (or the key concept) at the center of it.
- Write every new idea or related concept as a new branch shooting off your central topic.
- Include any idea, theory, name, or association that comes to mind with relation to the central topic. Don’t pause to process or edit, just write freely.
- When your ideas seem to run out, look at what you have on the page. Think about how the ideas there relate to each other (not only to the central topic). Draw the connections between them, circle or underline the most important things, use different colors, arrows, dotted lines, phrases.
Now you are ready to process your mind map into a first draft.
How to Do a Reflective Essay Outline
It’s difficult to come up with one recipe for how to write an outline since reflective papers take so many forms. However, an approximate template would look like this:
- Hook sentence
- General information about the occurrence: what was it, when it happened
- What were your expectations about the occurrence (concert, lesson, book, course, volunteering experience)?
- Your thesis statement: one or two sentences explaining how you came from your expectations to a present state
- Describe what happened in detail and your role in it
- What were your feelings and thoughts throughout or immediately after the event?
- What are your feelings about it now? Did they change? How?
- Can you connect this experience to the course you are studying?
- Can you think of a theory or a perspective that could explain the influence of this experience on you?
- a summary of the body
- overall impression, feeling, lesson, or understanding you got from the experience
How to Write a Reflective Paper: Dos and Don’ts
Apart from some minor slacks mentioned at the beginning of this post, reflective papers should adhere to the general guidelines for academic essays. If you need a quick refresher, look no further than how to write an essay infographic – a full guide is easy to understand and remember.
However, there are some specific mistakes that students can make primarily (of not only) in reflective writing. Here is quick summary:
…include only relevant feelings and experiences. A reflective paper is not a diary entry or a social media rant. Remember, you are analyzing your feelings, not dumping them. For example, instead of recounting all of your miseries to justify your overreaction you can say simply “I was going through a difficult time, so I got very upset over this seemingly minor setback.”
…draw lessons from your reflections. You should always put your experience into perspective. Was it successful? Why? Would you do something differently? How this experience can be useful for you in the future?
…overshare. If you feel that maybe particular details are too intimate, if you are uncomfortable with sharing the information, or you suspect it might make your readers uncomfortable, there are two ways of dealing with it. You can either leave it out if it has little bearing on the case, or you can write about it in more general terms if the information is crucial.
…tear other people down in your writing. You must maintain a certain professional detachment. Describe your difficult or unpleasant experiences instead of concentrating on people who caused them.
A bonus tip on how to write a reflection paragraph. Since it is just a shorter form of reflective writing, all of the above rules apply. Structure it the following way:
- Topic sentence that summarizes your feelings on the matter
- Clarification with examples
- Explanation of how your feelings relate to the main topic of your paper
That’s it. Hopefully now you have a clear idea on how to approach your reflective writing assignments. If you need further advice, don’t hesitate to contact our support team or order your customized example!