Reflective essay is yet another tool that teachers and professors use to see how students have internalized concepts and understood them in contrast to tests that only show how well students have memorized the concepts. When a student begins personal interaction with concepts, fits them within his or her experience framework and draws parallels or reacts emotionally and intellectually to these concepts, then a teacher can be sure that the material is really well processed. So a reflective essay contains two elements – some external facts or framework and personal reaction to it. This essay is a good place to become personal, to express beliefs and opinions and it will be appreciated.
So read further to master the craft of writing good reflective essays that will see you safely through majority of courses.
What is it all about? Nature of reflective essay
Reflective essay means reflection, that is, deep thinking and evaluation of something. Reflective essays can be built upon a huge variety of topics, from childhood memories to reflections on the climate change. Here you are free to express what you feel, why you feel it and what actions you would like to take – or urge others to take. So this kind of essay is about you and about the world at the same time.
There are very few rules related not to format but to content of the essay. You are free in your expression, but remember that teachers expect to find the following:
- Whether you agree or disagree with what you have read/seen/experienced
- Whether your feelings towards it are positive/negative
- Why are your feelings the way they are (here you go into explanations why you believe so)?
- Can you relate your personal experience to the issue you discuss (if you reflect on some abstract or distant issue)?
- What would you suggest doing about the issue?
- Has it changed you in some way?
It is not obligatory that you include every single point mentioned above, two or three of them would be enough to highlight your personal ideas and show that you understand what you are talking about. So be sure to pick up a topic that appeals to you, that is is not traumatic or opposing your moral foundations (or be ready to say why you believe it to be opposing them) and that relates to you personally to some extent.
First you will speak of the event or issue providing the most essential details, and then transit to reflecting on it from your standpoint. Reflection is not always positive or cute, it is naïve to think that reflections are all happy and rosy. But reflection should reflect your true self, how you evaluate and see the issues, not how someone would like you to evaluate it. Your task is to be accurate and clear and raise your own voice, not to create a fairy tale that has nothing to do with reality.
What to do next – read below in details!
Setting to work: how to begin writing a reflective essay
Now that you have at least a general idea of what to write about it is time to learn how to write about it. Once you pick a topic you can shape a thesis (yes, a reflection essay also needs some kind of backbone to cling to). The thesis will define your introduction, your body of the paper and conclusion. In order not to get lost along the way it is highly recommended to create an outline and then to write tracing like on a map what idea goes where. So we begin with an outline and move on to writing the entire draft.
Drafting an outline
What is an outline? Outline is essentially a set of jotted down ides that you plan to include into the essay. Outline is loosely structured but resembles the structure of the essay in that it has intro, body paragraphs and maybe some references marked at the end. The main point of outlining is to list everything you want to write so that not to forget it afterwards, and to organize it in logical sequence. ‘Logical’ here means simply that it is clear what flows from what and why. This is why typing it in some word processor is easier and more convenient than writing in hand.
Just remember to single out immediately topic sentences that will define your paragraphs. You will know what goes where and will not get blocked and thoughtless in front of your laptop.
For example, 1st topic sentence: I know that ….. or I have learned that…… and dwell on it.
2nd topic sentence: I like/dislike, agree/disagree, support/fear….. and explain why. You may draw on literature and class materials at this point.
3rd topic sentence: I have personally faced something similar or lived through consequences of …….and this is why it matters to me………
4th topic sentence: I also know that ……..feel that…….is connected to……. .
5th topic sentence: This is why I want to change that …..or: It impacted me significantly and made me the person I am today …….or persuaded to avoid it at all costs …… or made me select the career I currently study for.
This is basically an outline for any topic of reflective essay. Fill it with facts, beliefs and feelings that you have towards the particular concept, and here you go, it is a reflection at its best. It looks very loose but it indicates where facts go in and out, and how your reflections get grounded in the context.
Sticking to the structure
Well, outline is done, now it is time to set to writing. Any paper, and a reflective essay being no exception, has three basic parts. They are:
- Body of the paper (consisting of several paragraphs)
Coming up a with a catchy introduction
Introduction says what the paper is about and defines if a reader will want to read it. So it should provide some – brief – context and focus on the thesis. Introduction can also be catchy and intriguing but not every topic allows for such fancy opening. It may be quiet and simple but clear and focused, and it will be a success itself.
Pitching a solid thesis
Why a thesis? It focuses your paper on one particular event/phenomenon and states what you have to say about it personally. E.g. this ….. experience had the strongest impact in my life and made me rethink how I see the world and negative environmental changes that occur in it.
So, in a thesis:
– name the event/phenomenon
– say how it affected you
– use specific examples to underscore what moved you so much
Rolling out the body of the essay
As mentioned, develop paragraphs remembering that 1 paragraph = 1 idea. Stick to the outline and you will see how smooth the writing will go.
Summing up with a smart conclusion
Conclusion restates what you have said in order to imprint it in readers’ minds (or at least to impress the teacher). You reword the thesis, mention some key points of the paper and add some interesting closing sentence. Very often a plain essay takes on a new shine with a cleverly done ending. E.g., in environmental topics it is logical to speak of personal experience in the body of the paper but to wrap up expressing hope that others felt the same about and so we all still have hope for changes to happen. Such an open ending indicates that you understand deeper implication of what happens and so you are a thinking and caring learner.
Some professional hacks for smooth running of reflective essay
What else to say here? Just some tips on perfecting or creation.
Let your paper be mostly yours.
You definitely can include course materials or some outside sources in this paper but limit it to the lowest possible amount. It is your reflection that matters.
Use formal proper language; do not use slang if it can be avoided.
Sometimes a slang word or two can convey what the dozen of standard English words cannot, but use only one or two of them and make them non-offensive. This is a formal paper and it will be evaluated after formal criteria.
Use transitions and connecting words to facilitate understanding.
It is like pointing your finger and saying ‘look here’ or explaining how you arrived at this conclusion with a single word.
Make it short.
For sure you have plenty to say if the topic appeals to you, but keep within assigned word count. If there were no other instructions, make your paper 1.5 to 2 pages long.
Formatting in Reflective Papers: what to format and how
It seems that we have covered everything but one thing remains: formatting the paper according to one of the adopted academic standards. They are not that numerous and there is plenty of manuals of formatting according to MLA, APA, Harvard, Chicago or Turabian. So check it with the teacher and follow the lead. Maybe the course overview states that the same format is to be followed in all the papers through. Or that free formatting is ok with some papers, while others require to be formatted rigorously.
Formatting mostly reflects in title page, headers, way to put in-text citations or footnotes and reference page.
The text formatting remains basically the same across all the formats – 1-inch margins, double spacing (sometimes 1.5 if requested), TNR 12 font and A4 printed (if requested). So set these parameters prior to typing the paper and feel safe about the basics of the formatting. It will also help to keep track of paper length if it is stated in pages and not in words.
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What topics are best for creating a reflective essay?
Any topic can be turned into a reflective essay, but if you really need a prompt consider the following:
Interesting reflective essay topics
- Does digital technology change us?
- Healthy lifestyle and how much you have of it
- New professions of the future
- How your family history fits into the larger American history
- Is modern society OK or does it need some changes?
Personally focused reflective essay prompts
- Your non-financial goals
- Your biggest fear
- What would you do as the US President
- Inspirational personas in your life
- A close person that impacted you most
Reflective essay related to your English class
In this essay you may express – politely, of course, – what you like or dislike about the course, what you would like to add or skip, and what impressed you most. That’s probably the whole scope of things you can say about it since you can hardly apply any research to say what to teach in this class if you haven’t experienced it personally.
Final touch: proofreading
Yes, never hand in the paper without proofreading it. Let it sit aside for some time, at least an hour or two, and then read carefully. Spellchecker is helpful, but look for words that got substituted along the way, like for-from, the-they, a-and, of-for, and some others. Or ask someone else to read it. This is even a better option.
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