“Tasked with the overwhelming burden of writing my first ever reflective essay, I sat as still as a mouse as my fingers shakily hovered over the lifeless buttons of my laptop keyboard. Where would I begin? Where would I end? Thoughts frantically spasmed their way through my mind as I envisaged the treacherous journey on which I was about to embark.”
Reflective essays are those sorts of essays that seem oh so easy, and yet oh so hard to write, all at the same time. To put it simply, reflective essays constitute a critical examination of a life experience and with the right guidance, they aren’t very difficult to put together. A reflective essay is akin to a diary entry, except that others will be reading it so it needs to have a great deal of coherence and a good structure. In that regard, a reflective essay is much like any other essay out there.
In this guide, we explore in detail how to write a great reflective essay, including what makes a good structure and some advice on the writing process. We’ve even thrown in an example reflective essay to inspire you too, making this the ultimate guide for anyone needing reflective essay help.
In a reflective essay, a writer primarily examines his or her life experiences, hence the term ‘reflective’. The purpose of writing a reflective essay is to provide a platform for the author to not only recount a particular life experience, but to also explore how he or she has changed or learned from those experiences. Reflective writing can be presented in various formats, but you’ll most often see it in a learning log format or diary entry. Diary entries in particular are used to convey how the author’s thoughts have developed and evolved over the course of a particular period.
The format of a reflective essay may change depending on the target audience. Reflective essays can be academic, or may feature more broadly as a part of a general piece of writing for a magazine, for instance. For class assignments, while the presentation format can vary, the purpose generally remains the same: tutors aim to inspire students to think deeply and critically about a particular learning experience or set of experiences. Here are some typical examples of reflective essay formats that you may have to write:
A focus on personal growth:
A type of reflective essay often used by tutors as a strategy for helping students to learn how to analyse their personal life experiences to promote emotional growth and development. The essay gives the student a better understanding of both themselves and their behaviours.
A focus on the literature:
This kind of essay requires students to provide a summary of the literature, after which it is applied to the student’s own life experiences.
While the format of a reflective piece of writing may change, there is one element that will mostly remain the same, and that is the structure. You may be relieved to know that, much like any essay, a reflective essay is typically comprised of an introduction, body and conclusion.
What do I write about?
As you go about deciding on the content of your essay, you need to keep in mind that a reflective essay is highly personal and aimed at engaging the reader or target audience. And there’s much more to a reflective essay than just recounting a story. You need to be able to reflect (more on this later) on your experience by showing how it influenced your subsequent behaviours and how your life has been particularly changed as a result.
As a starting point, you might want to think about some important experiences in your life that have really impacted you, either positively, negatively, or both. Some typical reflection essay topics include: a real-life experience, an imagined experience, a special object or place, a person who had an influence on you, or something you have watched or read. If you are writing a reflective essay as part of an academic exercise, chances are your tutor will ask you to focus on a particular episode – such as a time when you had to make an important decision – and reflect on what the outcomes were. Note also, that the aftermath of the experience is especially important in a reflective essay; miss this out and you will simply be storytelling.
It sounds obvious, but the reflective process forms the core of writing this type of essay, so it’s important you get it right from the outset. You need to really think about how the personal experience you have chosen to focus on impacted or changed you. Use your memories and feelings of the experience to determine the implications for you on a personal level.
Once you’ve chosen the topic of your essay, it’s really important you study it thoroughly and spend a lot of time trying to think about it vividly. Write down everything you can remember about it, describing it as clearly and fully as you can. Keep your five senses in mind as you do this, and be sure to use adjectives to describe your experience. At this stage, you can simply make notes using short phrases, but you need to ensure that you’re recording your responses, perceptions, and your experience of the event(s).
Once you’ve successfully emptied the contents of your memory, you need to start reflecting. A great way to do this is to pick out some reflection questions which will help you think deeper about the impact and lasting effects of your experience. Here are some useful questions that you can consider:
– What have you learned about yourself as a result of the experience?
– Have you developed because of it? How?
– Did it have any positive or negative bearing on your life?
– Looking back, what would you have done differently?
– Why do you think you made the particular choices that you did? Do you think these were the right choices?
– What are your thoughts on the experience in general? Was it a useful learning experience? What specific skills or perspectives did you acquire as a result?
These signpost questions should help kick-start your reflective process. Remember, asking yourself lots of questions is key to ensuring that you think deeply and critically about your experiences – a skill that is at the heart of writing a great reflective essay.
Consider using models of reflection before, during, and after the learning process to ensure that you maintain a high standard of analysis. For example, before you really get stuck into the process, consider questions such as: what might happen (regarding the experience)? Are there any possible challenges to keep in mind? What knowledge is needed to be best prepared to approach the experience? Then, as you’re planning and writing, these questions may be useful: what is happening within the learning process? Is the process working out as expected? Am I dealing with the accompanying challenges successfully? Is there anything that needs to be done additionally to ensure that the learning process is successful? What am I learning from this? By adopting such a framework, you’ll be ensuring that you are keeping tabs on the reflective process that should underpin your work.
Here’s a very useful tip: although you may feel well prepared with all that time spent reflecting in your arsenal, do not, do NOT start writing your essay until you have worked out a comprehensive, well-rounded plan! Your writing will be so much more coherent, your ideas conveyed with structure and clarity, and your essay will likely achieve higher marks. This is an especially important step when you’re tackling a reflective essay – there can be a tendency for people to get a little ‘lost’ or disorganised as they recount their life experiences in an erratic and often unsystematic manner. But if you develop a thorough outline (this is the same as a ‘plan’) and ensure you stick to it like Christopher Columbus to a map, you should do just fine as you embark on the ultimate step of writing your essay. If you need further convincing on how important planning is, we’ve summarised the key benefits of creating a detailed essay outline below:
An outline allows you to establish the basic details that you plan to incorporate into your paper – this is great for helping you pick out any superfluous information, which can be removed entirely to make your essay succinct and to the point.
Think of the outline as a map – you plan in advance the points you wish to navigate through and discuss in your writing. Your work will more likely have a clear through line of thought, making it easier for the reader to understand. It’ll also help you avoid missing out any key information, and having to go back at the end and try to fit it in.
It’s a real time-saver! Because the outline essentially serves as the essay’s ‘skeleton’, you’ll save a tremendous amount of time when writing as you’ll be really familiar with what you want to say. As such, you’ll be able to allocate more time to editing the paper and ensuring it’s of a high standard.
Now you’re familiar with the benefits of using an outline for your reflective essay, it is essential that you know how to craft one. It can be considerably different from other typical essay outlines, mostly because of the varying subjects. But what remains the same, is that you need to start your outline by drafting the introduction, body and conclusion. More on this below.
As is the case with all essays, your reflective essay must begin within an introduction that contains both a hook and a thesis statement. The point of having a ‘hook’ is to grab the attention of your audience or reader from the very beginning. You must portray the exciting aspects of your story in the initial paragraph so that you stand the best chances of holding your reader’s interest. Refer back to the opening quote of this article – did it grab your attention and encourage you to read more? The thesis statement is a brief summary of the focus of the essay, which in this case is a particular experience that influenced you significantly. Remember to give a quick overview of your experience – don’t give too much information away or you risk your reader becoming disinterested.
Next up is planning the body of your essay. This can be the hardest part of the entire paper; it’s easy to waffle and repeat yourself both in the plan, and in the actual writing. Have you ever tried recounting a story to a friend only for them to tell you to ‘cut the long story short’? They key here is to put plenty of time and effort into planning the body, and you can draw on the following tips to help you do this well:
Try adopting a chronological approach. This means working through everything you want to touch upon as it happened in time. This kind of approach will ensure that your work is systematic and coherent. Keep in mind that a reflective essay doesn’t necessarily have to be linear, but working chronologically will prevent you from providing a haphazard recollection of your experience. Lay out the important elements of your experience in a timeline – this will then help you clearly see how to piece your narrative together.
Ensure the body of your reflective essay is well focused, and contains appropriate critique and reflection. The body should not only summarise your experience, it should explore the impact that the experience has had on your life, as well as the lessons that you have learned as a result. The emphasis should generally be on reflection as opposed to summation. A reflective posture will not only provide readers with insight on your experience, it’ll highlight your personality and your ability to deal with or adapt to particular situations.
In the conclusion of your reflective essay, you should focus on bringing your piece together by providing a summary of both the points made throughout, and what you have learned as a result. Try to include a few points on why and how your attitudes and behaviours have been changed. Consider also how your character and skills have been affected, for example: what conclusions can be drawn about your problem-solving skills? What can be concluded about your approach to specific situations? What might you do differently in similar situations in the future? What steps have you taken to consolidate everything that you have learned from your experience? Keep in mind that your tutor will be looking out for evidence of reflection at a very high standard.
Congratulations – you now have the tools to create a thorough and accurate plan which should put you in good stead for the ultimate phase indeed of any essay, the writing process.
Writing your essay
As with all written assignments, sitting down to put pen to paper (or more likely fingers to keyboard) can be daunting. But if you have put in the time and effort fleshing out a thorough plan, you should be well prepared, which will make the writing process as smooth as possible. The following points should also help ease the writing process:
– To get a feel for the tone and format in which your writing should be, read other typically reflective pieces in magazines and newspapers, for instance.
– Don’t think too much about how to start your first sentence or paragraph; just start writing and you can always come back later to edit anything you’re not keen on. Your first draft won’t necessarily be your best work but it’s important to remember that the earlier you start writing, the more time you will have to keep reworking your paper until it’s perfect. Don’t shy away from using a free-flow method, writing and recording your thoughts and feelings on your experiences as and when they come to mind. But make sure you stick to your plan. Your plan is your roadmap which will ensure your writing doesn’t meander too far off course.
– For every point you make about an experience or event, support it by describing how you were directly impacted, using specific as opposed to vague words to convey exactly how you felt.
– Write using the first-person narrative, ensuring that the tone of your essay is very personal and reflective of your character.
– If you need to, refer back to our notes earlier on creating an outline. As you work through your essay, present your thoughts systematically, remembering to focus on your key learning outcomes.
– Consider starting your introduction with a short anecdote or quote to grasp your readers’ attention, or other engaging techniques such as flashbacks.
– Choose your vocabulary carefully to properly convey your feelings and emotions. Remember that reflective writing has a descriptive component and so must have a wide range of adjectives to draw from. Avoid vague adjectives such as ‘okay’ or ‘nice’ as they don’t really offer much insight into your feelings and personality. Be more specific – this will make your writing more engaging.
– Be honest with your feelings and opinions. Remember that this is a reflective task, and is the one place you can freely admit – without any repercussions – that you failed at a particular task. When assessing your essay, your tutor will expect a deep level of reflection, not a simple review of your experiences and emotion. Showing deep reflection requires you to move beyond the descriptive. Be extremely critical about your experience and your response to it. In your evaluation and analysis, ensure that you make value judgements, incorporating ideas from outside the experience you had to guide your analysis. Remember that you can be honest about your feelings without writing in a direct way. Use words that work for you and are aligned with your personality.
– Once you’ve finished learning about and reflecting on your experience, consider asking yourself these questions: what did I particularly value from the experience and why? Looking back, how successful has the process been? Think about your opinions immediately after the experience and how they differ now, so that you can evaluate the difference between your immediate and current perceptions. Asking yourself such questions will help you achieve reflective writing effectively and efficiently.
– Don’t shy away from using a variety of punctuation. It helps keeps your writing dynamic! Doesn’t it?
– If you really want to awaken your reader’s imagination, you can use imagery to create a vivid picture of your experiences.
– Ensure that you highlight your turning point, or what we like to call your “Aha!” moment. Without this moment, your resulting feelings and thoughts aren’t as valid and your argument not as strong.
– Don’t forget to keep reiterating the lessons you have learned from your experience.
A further tip – using wider sources
Although a reflective piece of writing is focused on personal experience, it’s important you draw on other sources to demonstrate your understanding of your experience from a theoretical perspective. It’ll show a level of analysis – and a standard of reliability in what you’re claiming – if you’re also able to validate your work against other perspectives that you find. Think about possible sources, like newspapers, surveys, books and even journal articles. Generally, the additional sources you decide to include in your work are highly dependent on your field of study. Analysing a wide range of sources, will show that you have read widely on your subject area, that you have nuanced insight into the available literature on the subject of your essay, and that you have considered the broader implications of the literature for your essay. The incorporation of other sources into your essay also helps to show that you are aware of the multi-dimensional nature of both the learning and problem-solving process.
Example reflective essay
If you want some inspiration for writing, take a look at our example of a short reflective essay, which can serve as a useful starting point for you when you set out to write your own.
Some final notes to remember
To recap, the key to writing a reflective essay is demonstrating what lessons you have taken away from your experiences, and why and how you have been shaped by these lessons.
The reflective thinking process begins with you – you must consciously make an effort to identify and examine your own thoughts in relation to a particular experience. Don’t hesitate to explore any prior knowledge or experience of the topic, which will help you identify why you have formed certain opinions on the subject. Remember that central to reflective essay writing is the examination of your attitudes, assumptions and values, so be upfront about how you feel. Reflective writing can be quite therapeutic, helping you identify and clarify your strengths and weaknesses, particularly in terms of any knowledge gaps that you may have. It’s a pretty good way of improving your critical thinking skills, too. It enables you to adopt an introspective posture in analysing your experiences and how you learn/make sense of them.
If you are still having difficulties with starting the writing process, why not try mind-mapping which will help you to structure your thinking and ideas, enabling you to produce a coherent piece. Creating a mind map will ensure that your argument is written in a very systematic way that will be easy for your tutor to follow. Here’s a recap of the contents of this article, which also serves as a way to create a mind map:
1. Identify the topic you will be writing on.
2. Note down any ideas that are related to the topic and if you want to, try drawing a diagram to link together any topics, theories, and ideas.
3. Allow your ideas to flow freely, knowing that you will always have time to edit your work.
4. Consider how your ideas are connected to each other, then begin the writing process.
And finally, keep in mind that although there are descriptive elements in a reflective essay, we can’t emphasise enough how crucial it is that your work is critical, analytical, and adopts a reflective posture in terms of your experience and the lessons you have learned from it.
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Types of reflective writing assignments
Journal: requires you to write weekly entries throughout a semester. May require you to base your reflection on course content.
Learning diary: similar to a journal, but may require group participation. The diary then becomes a place for you to communicate in writing with other group members.
Log book: often used in disciplines based on experimental work, such as science. You note down or 'log' what you have done. A log gives you an accurate record of a process and helps you reflect on past actions and make better decisions for future actions.
Reflective note: often used in law. A reflective note encourages you to think about your personal reaction to a legal issue raised in a course.
Essay diary: can take the form of an annotated bibliography (where you examine sources of evidence you might include in your essay) and a critique (where you reflect on your own writing and research processes).
Peer review: usually involves students showing their work to their peers for feedback.
Self-assessment: requires you to to comment on your own work.
Some examples of reflective writing
Social Science fieldwork report (methods section)
The field notes were written by hand on lined paper. They consisted of jotted notes and mental triggers (personal notes that would remind me of specific things when it came to writing the notes up). I took some direct observational notes recording what I saw where this was relevant to the research questions and, as I was aiming to get a sense of the culture and working environment, I also made researcher inference notes   .
 I found the notetaking process itself helpful, as it ensured that I listened carefully and decoded information. Not all the information I recorded was relevant, but noting what I found informative contributed to my ability to form an overview on re-reading. However, the reliability of jotted notes alone can be questionable. For example, the notes were not a direct transcription of what the subjects said but consisted of pertinent or interesting information.
Rarely did I have time to transcribe a direct quotation, so relied on my own fairly rapid paraphrasing, which risks changing the meaning. Some technical information was difficult to note down accurately  . A tape recorder would have been a better, more accurate method. However, one student brought a tape recorder and was asked to switch it off by a participant who was uneasy about her comments being directly recorded. It seems that subjects feel differently about being recorded or photographed (as opposed to observers taking notes), so specific consent should be sought before using these technologies  .
1. Description/ explanation of method.
2. Includes discipline-specific language
3. Critical evaluation of method
4. Conclusion and recommendation based on the writer's experience
Engineering Design Report
Question: Discuss at least two things you learnt or discovered – for example about design, or working in groups or the physical world – through participating in the Impromptu Design activities.
Firstly, the most obvious thing that I discovered was the advantage of working as part of a group  . I learned that good teamwork is the key to success in design activities when time and resources are limited. As everyone had their own point of view, many different ideas could be produced and I found the energy of group participation made me feel more energetic about contributing something  .
Secondly I discovered that even the simplest things on earth could be turned into something amazing if we put enough creativity and effort into working on them  . With the Impromptu Design activities  we used some simple materials such as straws, string, and balloons, but were still able to create some 'cool stuff'  . I learned that every design has its weaknesses and strengths and working with a group can help discover what they are. We challenged each other's preconceptions about what would and would not work. We could also see the reality of the way changing a design actually affected its performance.
1. Addresses the assignment question
2. Reflects on direct experiences
3. Direct reference to the course activity
4. The style is relatively informal, yet still uses full sentences.
5. Relating what was learnt.
Learning Journal (weekly reflection)
Last week's lecture presented the idea that science is the most powerful form of evidence  . My position as a student studying both physics and law makes this an important issue for me  and one I was thinking about while watching the 'The New Inventors' television program last Tuesday  . The two 'inventors' (an odd name considering that, as Smith (2002) says, nobody thinks of things in a vacuum) were accompanied by their marketing people. The conversations were quite contrived, but also funny and enlightening. I realised that the marketing people used a certain form of evidence to persuade the viewers (us?) of the value of the inventions  . To them, this value was determined solely by whether something could be bought or sold—in other words, whether something was 'marketable'. In contrast, the inventors seemed quite shy and reluctant to use anything more than technical language, almost as if this was the only evidence required – as if no further explanation was needed.
This difference forced me to reflect on the aims of this course—how communication skills are not generic, but differ according to time and place. Like in the 'Research Methodology' textbook discussed in the first lecture, these communication skills are the result of a form of triangulation,  which I have made into the following diagram:
1. Description of topic encountered in the course
2. The author's voice is clear
3. Introduces 'everyday' life experience
4. The style is relatively informal, yet still uses full sentences
5. Makes an explicit link between 'everyday' life and the topic
Brookfield, S 1987, Developing critical thinkers: challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting, Open University Press, Milton Keynes.
Mezirow, J 1990, Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: a guide to transformative and emancipatory learning, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
Schön, DA 1987, Educating the reflective practitioner, Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.
The Learning Centre thanks the students who permitted us to feature examples of their writing.
Prepared by The Learning Centre, The University of New South Wales © 2008. This guide may be distributed or adapted for educational purposes. Full and proper acknowledgement is required. Email: email@example.com
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