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What Is a Reflective Essay?

Reflective essay writing challenges you (the writer) to engage the audience in your past experiences, giving a description of the event and providing an analysis of why the experience was important. This will explore the writer’s feelings, emotions and ideas concerning the experience or specific event. Though these essays are personal and often-times subjective, they will take on a defined tone and also need to adhere to a certain structural outcome. It won’t suffice to just write about an experience with no meaning or analytical outcomes for the reader to draw from.

Most students might think of reflective essays as simply retelling a story. Reflection however goes much further than simply retelling events. The writer has to demonstrate how that experience marked a turning point or an important lesson in their lives. The reader should be able to relate to your frustrations and your emotions even if they aren’t able to relate to that specific experience. For example, you might write about how the death of a loved one impacted you. While the reader might not relate to that experience or might not even have the slightest idea of what the death of a loved one feels like, they should be able to feel empathy and yet see how you grew from that experience in hindsight.

Thus, in writing these essays, the ‘reflection’ should be a process, from the event through the transition process and finally into the lesson.

Learning Outcomes for Reflective Essays

As with any essay, you have to plan appropriately for your reflective essay, having a clear end in sight from the beginning. While these essays may be a bit personal and don’t need any research, they still need to adhere to a consistent form and structure. Reflective essays aren’t supposed to be a summary of your life story, which is a mistake that most students make when writing these sorts of essays.

Description should only take up a small proportion of the writing space. Students will do the opposite. Analysis is the most crucial part of a reflective essay. In fact, many writers will totally confuse the reflective and descriptive essay types.

Common types of reflective essays are the Common App application essays and scholarship essays. These essays require depth and introspection. Through writing your application essay, the admissions officer can not only know more about you, but they will also be able to tell more about your value system, what drives you and how you have changed over a period. One such prompt on the Common App reads:

“Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

All the other prompts on the Common App are reflective in nature too. They do give you 7 options to choose from because colleges understand that everybody has different experiences and everyone learns differently. The event doesn’t have be singular and neither does it have to be majestic. However, it should take you through a period of growth and reflection and this is what makes your story meaningful. If you are writing such an essay for the college or scholarship application process, you story should stand out not only because of what it made you do, but also for what it inspires you to be.

Structuring Your Reflective Essay

While a personal reflective essay might not take an explicit structure as in the case typical academic essays, it still needs to adhere to a format that clearly shows what the main learning focus is. Thus, it’s not out of the ordinary to find the typical essay format being employed for reflective essays.

The introduction is where it all starts. This is where the writer introduces the reader to the possible event or scenario that has influenced them. A powerful hook is crucial to keep your reader interested in the rest of the essay. You may choose to employ some form of humor, a famous quote, satire, questions, a snippet from the experience that you want to elaborate on or even a memory specific to or central to the story you want to tell. You may also choose to employ suspense in your introduction, though ultimately, dragging the essay out may dampen the experience for the reader.

The main body comes next. If the essay prompt requires you to discuss one specific detail or event, jump right in and start elaborating on the event. With reflective essays, the focus isn’t on the event or experience but rather how you learnt from it. You shouldn’t spend too much time and space discussing the story although the detail you provide should be succinct, direct and filled with all the necessary detail. This part should be highly sensory, and it will need you to analyze your own story and see what parts have most meaning.

The introduction builds momentum into a succinct presentation of the experience. What is crucial immediately after the story that you present is an analogy of how that experience affected you. The best reflective essays steer clear of being too rigid and mechanical. The story should flow logically and coherently, meshing your past experiences with your present character and future goals. Great essays are fluid and the best writers are those that can effortlessly interweave the back-and-forth of such writing together. Brilliant writers are able to achieve reverse momentum, working from the present backwards.

A conclusion is the final part. This summarizes the main point that you were trying to put across. If you had posed a question or had employed satire in the introduction, this is where that clear answer would be brought out. If the main body of the essay was the ‘high’, the conclusion should be the climax.

Pointers for a Winning Reflective Essay

It is always advised to start any kind of essay writing with an outline. With a limit of several hundred words, you won’t have the luxury of rambling and superfluity, especially on a college application or scholarship essay.

You won’t need to do any kind of academic research on these types of essays, unless you want to incorporate sources or refer to quotes that you aren’t too sure of. What you will need to do is to create an outline, with the proper structure, the objectives for each section, and the learning outcomes for the reader, from introduction to conclusion. Being personal in nature, these essays often tend to lead to vapid digressions, and you may end up inserting too much unnecessary detail in your work.

You alone know your story best, and it is easy to write as you go along without any of the restrictions that come with writing a technical paper. You can make side notes or scribble underneath the outline. This comes in handy as there are ‘little’ details that you might miss if you procrastinate on the actual writing. Those minute details may be the thing that counts most at the end of the paper. Finally, put together the final piece, edit it and proofread it again and again.

When it comes to editing personal essays, it is always easy to miss mistakes. This is because we write these papers in our own voices and with our own writing styles. Reading through the essay yourself might not reveal anything out of the ordinary. However, a third party, say a family member, a tutor or a friend might shed new light on where you are going wrong. Maybe the logical flow isn’t adding up and the essay lacks coherence. A great way to check on this yourself is to read the essay backwards yourself, as this strips any mental clogs that might exist from having written the essay the first time.

The Most Important Part of a Reflective Essay

So, you’ve dedicated yourself to working on that essay for countless hours but still can’t find your spark. If you can’t interest yourself with your own writing, what makes you think you’ll capture the minds of other readers? Crucial to any reflective essay is the turning point of your experience or the singular event. What marked that change? Can you elaborate on the feelings involved?

The essence of any reflective essay is not just introspection, but change as well. You lose valuable points from every experience that you don’t learn from, even though some of these which make part of the buildup might not be the primordial focus of your essay. At the end of the day, crucial to the reader is how you learnt from the experience and what specifically prompted the change from that experience.

If your experience has also impacted others, make sure to clearly articulate that to the reader.

In the end, did you gain a keener understanding of yourself and sense of direction because of what you went through? If you don’t get that feeling when you read through your own essay, other readers sure won’t!

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