Ernest L. and Zac E., writing center tutors
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A reflective essay is a form of writing that examines and observes the progress of the writer’s individual experience. While reflective essays explain and analyze the development of the writer, they also discuss future goals. Reflective essays are often associated with academic portfolios and especially writing portfolios. As part of a writing portfolio, reflective essays will critically analyze your development as a student. This should include a discussion of the strengths you have developed as a writer as well as your weaknesses. Closely related to these weaknesses, writers could also discuss how they plan to improve in the future. When writing a reflective essay, it is important to use descriptive language. In doing so, your reader will understand that you are familiar with the subject matter and that you have thought critically about your development as a student. Reflective essays are based upon your own experiences, so it is expected that you write about yourself, your ideas, and your opinions. As a result, it is completely acceptable to use first person pronouns such as “I” or “me” in these essays. Since the reflective essay is built upon personal experience, the writer has the liberty of being as creative as necessary. At the same time, do not let a focus on creativity take precedence over the important task of proving to your reader how you have grown as a student.
StructureThe structure of a reflective essay is very similar to the structure of most academic writing. Unless you are trying to argue a point, position, or perspective through your reflection, it is not required that your essay contain a thesis statement. Reflective essays can be formatted in all writing styles, including MLA, APA, and Chicago Style. A common structure for reflective essays is as follows:
IntroductionIntroductions to reflective essays do not need to be longer than one paragraph in length. When writing an introduction, present the purpose of your reflection without giving your reader too much detail about the body of your paper. In the introduction, it is also helpful to tell your reader if you met your goals or the goals of the class/project. Later, in the body of the reflection, you can explain how these goals were or were not met in greater detail. Think of the introduction as a brief preview to the rest of your reflection.
The body should discuss in detail your development as a student. For instance, if writing a reflective essay at the end of the quarter for a certain class, how did you grow over the course of the class? What have you learned? Can you apply what you have learned to your future academic or life pursuits? How did you or did you not meet your goals or the goals of the class/project you were involved in? This is slightly different from what you should discuss in your introduction. Do not just tell the reader whether or not you met these goals. Rather, show the reader by using illustrations from class or other relevant experiences. Are there any skills you can improve on? If so, how do you plan on doing so in the future?
ConclusionIn the conclusion of a reflective essay, you should remind the reader of the ways in which you have developed as a student. This may seem redundant since you already discussed these things in detail in your essay’s body, but remember that the conclusion is the last thing your audience will read. As a result, leave no doubt in the reader’s mind that your essay clearly demonstrates how you have grown.
Other Helpful Resources
California State University provides examples of what a strong reflective essay might look like.
St. Mary’s University of Minnesota gives a useful overview on reflective essays.