Everything About a Reflective Essay: Definition, Outline, Samples

15 Apr 2015

Reflective Essay

Every student across the US has to write a reflective essay at one point of his or her studies. High school, college, or university — it doesn’t matter as all of us receive this kind of task. At first, it might seem like a piece of cake. Writing about yourself is not supposed to be difficult and many students don’t take it seriously, thinking that they’ll easily write their reflective paper later, closer to deadline. That’s where difficulties start because papers are far trickier than it might appear at first glance. 

Learning the basics of reflective essay is important because it distinguishes you from all other students. Teachers at school or Yale professors are equally interested in seeing a person instead of one of hundreds of faceless students. By sharing personal bits and showing what made you into who you are today, you’ll deepen the bond with your audience or possibly even understand yourself better. 

Reflective Essay Definition in Short Words

A reflective essay is a piece of writing revolving around you — namely, around your identity, experiences, or personal growth. It’s not a simple retelling of your life, though. In an academic setting, writing rules are rather strict and reflective essay isn’t just a cursory look at you as an individual.  It’s thorough analysis of personal changes you’ve experienced and reasons that have led you to them. In most cases, it’s also important to mention who has influenced your personality and why you yielded, or on the contrary, why you withstood pressure or remained the same person you were. 

To write reflective paper, something more than mere knowledge of writing strategies is needed. Psychological approaches are useful as they can help with essay writings. They allow analyzing situation deeper or taking all subtleties into account. Possessing some narrative skills is also necessary as it helps in engaging audience or telling self-development story in the most captivating way. So, how to write a reflective essay? Let’s regard the entire process and each stage involved in depth.

First Step: How to Start a Reflective Essay 

Being descriptive and informative should be main priorities for those writing a reflective essay. So, if you’re set on succeeding in such task, first thing you must do is select a theme. Often, professors themselves assign a specific topic for exploration, but since any reflective paper presupposes a certain level of intimacy, anything can be twisted to correspond to what you are interested in.
Start your essay by figuring out what you’d like to discuss. Brainstorm and write down some of the best ideas. Research something if it could help enhance your essay or make it not only engaging but also credible. For example, you could rely on some of psychological theories to explain changes you’ve undergone. After this, first stage of preparation is finished, and you can move to another one.  

How to Create a Reflective Essay Outline: Detailed Plan

A key to writing your reflective essay successfully is crafting an outline before you actually start typing. It will help you stay on one specifically chosen point throughout the whole essay. An outline lists all important sections and subsections that you’ll be writing about. You structure your reflective essay here, determining which piece of information will go where. An outline eliminates any potential possibility of dead-ends because it reminds you what you’ve planned and helps you move in already chosen direction.  

For example, we’ve decided to write a short reflective essay on such topic as “The Intricacies of Figuring Out My Sexuality”. Many Americans have become accepting of LGBT community but prejudice still exists, meaning that such topic would be interesting on both personal and educational levels. Here’s how a possible reflective essay outline on such topic could look like (note that in long papers, thesis is more complex and there are more body paragraphs).  

1) Introduction 

A. Something memorable that will attract readers’ attention. 
B. Brief description of problem that non-straight people face in the US. 
C. Brief presentation of my background.
D. Thesis that shows what happened (subtopic 1) and how it affected me (subtopic 2). 

2) First Body Paragraph 

A. Opening sentence related to subtopic 1.
B. Discussion of what happened to bring issue of non-straight sexuality in my life.
C. Closing sentence that concludes everything discussed in this paragraph. 

3) Second Body Paragraph 

A. Opening sentence related to subtopic 2.
B. Discussion of changes that new revelations have brought into my life.
C. Closing sentence that concludes everything discussed in this paragraph. 

4) Conclusion

A. Restatement of thesis. 
B. Summary of lessons learned.  

Make Structure Faster than You Could Before

Although reflective essay structure is not very similar to other types of writing, such as literary essay, its structure has the same vital parts as any other paper. There have to be clearly defined introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. Thesis is also obligatory. Remember that in a reflective essay, it’s essential to show difference between past and present versions of you. It means that thesis must reflect it and specify what kind of lessons you’ve learned.  

Read Also: What is a Narrative Essay?

Best Introduction for this Type of Essay

Every introduction should start with a hook, or reflective assignments are not an exception here. It implies something interesting, a catchy phrase that will hold attention of readers from the start. To arouse interest, start with an unusual fact that few people know about, tell a joke adjacent to topic of your reflective essay, or provide some juicy detail from the story you are going to tell without mentioning resolution of your problem. It can be dramatic, for instance, pulling at people’s heartstrings. 

Reflective essay introduction is first paper part and arguably most important one. It determines whether anyone is going to want to read this paper and follow your journey till the end. This is where thesis, last sentence of introduction, comes into play. 

Arguable Thesis for Your Paper

To help you understand what thesis is, let’s forget complex academic terms and come up with a definition in a common English you’re used to. Thesis is a last line of introduction that explains entire essay purpose. It’s a claim detailing what happened, why it happened, who it happened with, and what it all means. Naturally, thesis depends on an exact topic and length of one’s task, but its purpose is always the same. In a reflective assignment, it must tell your audience what problem or question you’ve chosen and how you resolved it. Insert the main points concerning story you’re going to cover here. Remember that just by reading thesis, audience must immediately figure out what this essay’s about.

Reflective Essay Body

In every academic writing task, main paragraphs are the essence because they contain the most important information and insight. In body of a reflective essay, you have to explore every subtopic mentioned in thesis, dedicating each paragraph to each point accordingly. There is a common pattern one should use while structuring the body. 

First, some basic facts. To compose an effective reflective essay, you need to be precise, coherent and avoid reiterating the same information repeatedly. You might choose against a linear chronology to be more creative, but in any case, your structure shouldn't perplex readers. Make sure to provide all aspects of your experience in showing process of your growth. Include only relevant and worthy details that will later lead to a thought-provoking conclusion.  

If we regard technical side, each body paragraph must start with a proper opening sentence and end with a closing one. In the former, mention the first subtopic presented back in thesis. In the latter, make a transition to another paragraph or conclude what you’ve discussed.    

Conclude Your Reflective Essay

Conclusion is basically a summary of work. This part should bring all parts into a logical final paragraph that triggers thoughts and further productive discussion. Mention what lessons you’ve known as this is the entire point of a reflective essay. Note what kind of powerful impact that person, situation, or place has had on you. Don’t present new information here but summarize all moments of this central experience. 

Correct Formatting For Well-Structured Essay

Each reflective essay format has its own peculiarities. It depends on professor’s requirements, so clarify them in advance.  In most cases, you have to use either MLA or APA as they are the most common academic formatting styles. Check the template provided by your teacher or look for one online. If you emulate all technical details, you won’t have any problems.   

Frequent Errors in this Essay

Many students are eager to write a reflective essay because it seems easy and fun. Sadly, it’s not always the case. Reflective paper must be focused on the lesson you have learned as the result of some changes, and many find the need to stick to an outcome of their experience difficult.  Here are some very common mistakes students make in an academic reflective essay. 

  • Poor, shallow idea and consequently, poor execution. Every reflective paper should have a specific complex goal that the writer is set on achieving. Everything in your text must work on developing it. If your chosen to experience isn’t really meaningful, you won’t get a good grade; 
  • Too many details, names, and unnecessary subtleties that will only puzzle the reader;
  • Palpable lack of personality in rendering key message. Too many generalizations that are not really related to your experience;
  • Stylistic, grammar, and spelling mistakes. Remember, even though reflective papers has nature, it’s still an academic paper. Re-read it several times to detect such errors, then remove them to boost your grade.

Reflective Essay Common Successful Topics

Topics differ according to the particular discipline you study. Reflective paper can focus on communication, love, friendship, universal concepts, internship, etc. — anything that you find meaningful. If you still have troubles with selecting your reflective essay topic, though, here’s the list with some suggestions. 

  • What has shaped your perception of religion?
  • Does the accomplishment of your desires depend solely on you?
  • Who is your lifestyle guru?
  • What does the word ‘hero’ represent to you?
  • What is the most hurtful thing you’ve ever been told? 

Learn From Professionals: Reflective Essay Example

Regardless of theory, gaining a proper, fully understanding of the process of writing without practical reflective essay examples is extremely difficult. We already have an outline, so let’s write an interesting essay based on it.   

The Intricacies of Figuring Out My Sexuality

The feeling that something is wrong with me has accompanied me during all stages of my life. Being different is always difficult, and despite the general trend of acceptance, many non-straight people in the US still face discrimination. It is particularly relevant among aromantic asexuals like me, who are often dismissed by straight and LGBT people alike. I could not understand why I failed to relate to my friends and enjoy dating like them, and by realizing I was asexual, I freed myself from the burden of having to meet the society’s standards. 

Watching how my friends build romantic as well as sexual relationships, seeing how obsessed with sex the modern world is has always made me feel like an outsider, and I realized my asexuality only years later, after meeting with the same identity. I was always interested in reading novels of all genres, and the fact that the majority of them tended to include romance and sex, even as secondary arcs, worried me. I never felt the things these writers described, and my loneliness and feeling of being a failure intensified when my friends started dating. Everyone talked about wanting to be with their partner, touch them, kiss them, and as I have never met someone I would feel this for, I was deeply confused. I tried dating people I found nice but it never worked. Then I met Jane and for the first time, the words ‘asexual’ and ‘aromantic’ entered my life. Thus, the society’s intense desire to pair everyone up affected me negatively, and it began changing only after I met person like me.

Realizing my sexuality has become a changing point in my life because I finally understood that nothing was wrong with me and that I did not have to force myself to live the life I was not interested in. Jane told me about what being asexual-aromantic meant, and when I saw that the lack of attraction was their main sign, I felt relieved. I no longer felt the need to try dating someone in the hope that my desires would change. Unfortunately, my progress in improving my life according to my wishes was marred by my relatives who kept claiming asexuality was a phase and I merely needed to find a right person. I did not let their narrow-mindness send me back, though. I finally found my identity and I intended to protect it.

The lack of representation and discussions about all sexual identities made me feel deficient for many years. Only a chance meeting with Jane alleviated my confusion and it was the most relevant moment in my life. Now I am confident in who I am and I enjoy my life to its fullest, uncaring that others might disapprove of it.  

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Now you know what is a reflective essay, how you should structure it properly. But knowing and writing are different things. If you face any problems or difficulties, don’t let them affect you. You can always ask for professional help and focus on sharpening your writing skills when you feel like it only. 

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