Reflective Essays Tips: Guidelines, Format, and Topics To Write One

Frustrated student doing an reflective essay

High school and college students are often assigned the task of writing a reflective essay; also referred to as a reflection essay. This type of assignment is common in English, history, medical, nursing, psychology, and journal writing classes. This can be an easy task, especially since the requirement is to explore personal experiences. It is still hard to write, especially for the student who has never had to work on one before. It is rather common to find a student tasked with such an assignment sitting, staring at a blank screen because s/he doesn’t know where to start. With the right guidance and samples, any student can create a great reflection essay. This article aims to do just that; provide guidance on how to write a reflective essay. Let’s start by exploring what a reflection essay is and what it entails.

What Is A Reflective Essay?

The reflective essay definition is that it’s a type of writing in which one writes about his/her personal life experiences. It essentially involves thinking reflectively about events, and experiences where a sort of learning and growth takes place. It is a reflection of negative and positive life experiences, the impact they had on the author’s life, and the lessons learnt as a result. These assignments help students develop skills to analyze events that impacted them and draw conclusions from events that they were directly involved in. However, this type of essay can also be based on imagined or dreamt events. Even then, they are personal in nature.

The type of essay described above that focuses on one’s experiences is an experiential reflection essay. Aside from personal reflection, a reflection essay can be based on literature read. In such a case, the essay is sometimes called a reading reflection essay. For the reading reflection essay, an instructor will likely specify the text you should base your essay on. For the experiential, however, you likely have to find a topic on your own. These essays can be written on different topics. The ideas for reflective essay topics can be derived from nature and the great outdoors, relationships, important places, and significant events. Here are some ideas.

Reflective Essay Topics

Here are some reflective essay topics and ideas that you can write about.

  1. Personal reflection

A reflective essay can be written to focus on yourself; aspects of who you are. This type of essay is a personal reflection or self-reflection essay. When you choose to write a personal reflection essay, some of the topics you could write about include:

  • Your biggest fear,
  • What you think your major weakness is,
  • What you love about yourself,
  • How you overcome difficulties.
  1. An embarrassing event that you faced

Embarrassing events tend to have a lasting impact on many people emotionally and socially. They can change one’s perspective on life, influence their decisions and future direction. An embarrassing event that greatly influenced who you’ve developed into can be a good topic for a reflective essay.

  1. A trip you took

People get unique experiences when taking a trip. The experience of visiting a new place or meeting new people can have a lasting impact on a person’s development and outlook on life. This could be a trip to a children’s home, a trip abroad, a historic place you visited, or any other trip. Therefore, if there’s a trip you took that greatly impacted your life; consider it as a topic for your reflective essay. Think about how the trip influenced how you live, lessons you learnt, and how you perceive people, things, and aspects of life after the experiences you had on the trip.

  1. How you overcame adversity

If you’ve faced a misfortune, tribulation, trauma, or any unpleasant experience that you don’t mind sharing; you can write about it in a reflective essay. For instance, you could write about a cyberbullying experience you’ve had, how you dealt with it, and how it impacted and shaped you.

  1. When you first met someone or formed a new relationship

Do you remember the time when you met someone significant in your life? It could be a family member you didn’t know previously, a newborn sibling that has just been brought home, or a friend. If you’ve had work experience, it could be a colleague or customer that left a mark on your life or perspective of the world. How did you feel meeting this person the first time? What impact did that meeting have on you? How did this meeting and subsequent interactions influence the kind of person you’ve developed into today? Have your opinions on certain aspects of life changed as a result?

  1. Broken relationships

Have any of your friendships or relationships with family members been ruined? Your reflective essay can be based on the time your actions or those of a loved one negatively affected your relationship. How did you feel? How did the loss influence who you are and your perspective on life and people? What lessons have you learned as a result and what would you have done differently?

  1. Important places

There are certain places that can evoke vivid memories and emotions when visited. Do you have a special vacation spot, a restaurant you frequent or visited with someone special, an amusement park you visited? Any place that is important to you for any reason or has shaped who you are today, can be an inspiration for your essay.

  1. An honor you received

Have you received an award before or gained recognition for something you did? Have you achieved something that you are proud of? If so, this could be a basis on which your reflective essay could be written. You could write about how you felt receiving the award and how it has changed you.

  1. Doing something new

What was the experience like on your first day to school or college, when you had to give your first speech, your first day at a workplace, receiving your first paycheck, went camping, hiked for the first time, or took part in any significant activity for the first time? Such experiences are fertile ground for ideas on reflective essay topics.

  1. Your hometown

Growing up in different areas has different impacts on life. The culture and lifestyle lead to different experiences that shape who we are. For your reflective essay, you could write about your experience growing up in your hometown, the lessons you learnt and how it influenced your development.

  1. A disaster you witnessed or suffered

Natural or otherwise, events such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and tragic accidents leave a mark in people’s lives. Whether it is witnessing it or being a victim of such an event, most people are affected. These events change people’s outlook and attitudes towards life and greatly alter the course of their lives.  If you’ve been directly or indirectly affected by such an event, you could base your reflective essay on it.

There is essentially no right or wrong thing to write about. For medical and nursing students, their essays could be based on experiences with patients. History students could write about a historical event while a psychology class student can base his/her essay on personal growth. English class students write a reflection essay on a piece of literature read. There are so many things you can write a reflective essay about. You only need to open up your mind to come up with creative titles for the reflective essay. However, there are basic things that your essay needs to address.

Video courtesy of ehow.com/education

Reflective Essay Guidelines

Having a general for your essay an important first step towards writing a good reflective essay. Once you are settled on the topic, there are certain aspects of it that you should address in your essay. Below are some questions that you should answer:

  • What was the experience? What really happened?
  • What feelings did that experience invoke and why?
  • What main thing did you notice? What made you notice it?
  • What surprised you about the experience and why?
  • What lesson did this experience teach you?
  • How did this experience influence your perspective about the future?
  • Did this experience inspire a change in you and how you live? Was the change good or bad?
  • Has your perception of things like faith, race, social class, gender, and life in general changed as a result of this experience?
  • Is there anything you could have done differently?

Whatever topic or questions you are answering, a good reflective essay should follow a particular logical format.

Reflective Essay Format

The typical reflective essay format features:

An Introduction

Essays and many other types of academic and professional papers have an introduction. This serves to give the reader an idea of what the essay is about.  The same practice applies to the reflective essay. The introduction should contain a hook and thesis statement that will grab a reader’s attention; prompting him/her to read further. This part should, therefore, contain some interesting parts of the story. Give a short overview of the experience you are reflecting on in a way that will leave a reader hungry for what is contained in the rest of the essay. Just don’t give too much information too early.

The Body

This is the main part of the essay. It is a challenging section for many to write. Without caution, you can easily find yourself going on and on; even repeating yourself. This should be avoided at all costs because no one wants to read a long text that in reality is saying the same thing over and over. Stay focused on what you really need to put across. This section should also not contain a narrative that is presented haphazardly. It should be systematic and coherent. It should summarize the experience, then explore its impact on your life and the lessons learned from it. Remember that the essay should give readers a glimpse into your personality and ability to deal with and adapt to different situations.

The Conclusion

You have presented the important information in the introduction and body sections. Thus, for the conclusion, you need to focus on presenting the points and lessons, in summary. Further, consider the effect on your skills and character, and what you might have done differently. Most importantly, remember to exhibit reflection throughout the essay.

Writing the Reflective Essay

There’s an abundance of experiences that students can use in writing a reflective essay. Therefore, finding a topic shouldn’t be too difficult. The problem often arises when they sit down to write and can’t even put down the first few sentences. Here’s a guide on how to start a reflective essay.

The first step to writing a reflective essay is to create a plan so that you can end up with a well-organized essay. This plan is a reflective essay outline that has the sections described above and basic points to guide your writing. This will ensure that your thoughts are not lost in the process. Such a level of organization has benefits that enable you to achieve a better grade on the essay. The benefits include:

  1. Making it easier for you to determine the important details to include in the essay and weed out the unnecessary information that would not add value to the essay. This allows you to keep the essay interesting and succinct.
  2. Help you maintain a clear line of thought. With sections and basic points outlined, it becomes easier for you to maintain the flow of thought in the essay. It also helps by making it less likely that you would omit some key points when writing the essay.
  3. Helps you save time. With an outline serving as the ‘skeleton,’ the writing part will be easier and faster. You won’t spend more time trying to figure out what to include. As a result, you get more editing time to refine your essay and eliminate spelling, grammatical, and formatting errors.

With the plan in place, the next step is to write the first draft of the full essay; add ‘flesh’ to the ‘skeleton.’ Once you’ve completed the draft, you’ll need to review and edit it so that the final result is a draft that is as flawless as possible.

Some Tips for Writing Reflective Essays

  1. Read reflective essay examples to get a feel of the tone commonly used. You can find a number of samples that are appropriate for whatever type of essay you need to write online. This is true whether you’re writing a personal reflective essay based on your experiences or an essay based on literature.
  2. The instructor will likely give specific instructions they expect the essay to meet. You need to follow those instructions to the letter if your essay is to be accepted and attract a good grade.
  3. Just start writing. Ideas often start flowing when you’ve begun writing. If you spend too much time thinking how you will write that first sentence, you might end up with little time to complete and submit it. Therefore, just start writing. You can refine these sentences later as you edit the complete essay.
  4. Feel free to refer to a reflection essay sample from a trusted source.
  5. Use a first-person narrative since it is more suitable to achieve a personal, reflective tone.
  6. Flashbacks, short anecdotes, and other techniques for engaging readers should be used especially in the introduction section.
  7. There’s a descriptive component in reflective essay writing. Therefore, use vocabularies that will help you achieve this and convey your emotions effectively. Try to draw a vivid view of your experiences using imagery and don’t be afraid of using various punctuations.
  8. Be specific in your writing. Avoid vagueness so that your essay can be more engaging. Further, be honest about your emotions.
  9. Reiterate! The lessons learned from the experiences form an important part of the essay so don’t be shy about reiterating them. Just don’t overdo it.
  10. You may need to do some reading in order to comprehend the theoretical perspectives of your experience. If so, use a wide collection of sources.

Finally, seek help if you need it. Companies such as Writingelites.net provide useful writing and editing services and reflective essay guidelines. These can help you submit a good reflective essay.

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