Definition of a Reflective Essay

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Definition of a Reflective Essay
Reflective essays explore the writer's personal experience (writing image by Alison Bowden from Fotolia.com)

A reflective essay is an essay that explores how the writer feels about a particular subject or experience. Unlike other types of academic writing, a reflective essay focuses on the writer's relationship with the topic of the essay. A reflective essay is used to explore how a particular experience affected the writer and what lessons were learnt through the experience.

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Reflective Essays Versus Other Academic Writing

Although a reflective essay is very different than other types of academic writing, the writer still must use the essay to effectively prove a point. In academic writing, the author will heavily cite the source material to prove his argument, but in reflective essays the source material is much different. If the reflective essay is over a book or a movie, the writer can reference scenes or quotations. However, if the essay is about an event or incident in the writer's life he can include information such as dialogue and background information to legitimise the experience.

Features of Reflective Essays

According to the Saint Mary's Writing Center, reflective writing is defined by being purposeful, personal, perceptive and poised. To be purposeful means that the essay has a goal and is not just a story, but it must include things found in a story such as plot, conflict, characters, and setting. A reflective essay is personal because the writer becomes a part of the essay. A reflective essay is perceptive because the writer cannot just tell a story, but must analyse the different aspects of the experience, how they interact, and how they affect the writer's evaluation of the experience. A reflective essay shows poise by showing thought and originality, but also following the guidelines of academic writing including proper grammar, spelling and syntax.

Subjects of Reflective Essays

The subjects of reflective essay vary widely. A reflective essay can describe the writer's experience travelling, or it could describe the way a writer feels about a particular novel or film. What is more important is that the author of the essay feels like the incident or experience was significant enough to him to share. Unlike other forms of academic writing the importance of the subject is determined by the author. The author must remember the experience enough to be able to fully explore and describe it. He must also be willing to share his personal feelings and the significance the subject had on them. According to Literacy Education Online, an effective way for a writer to determine significance is to "ask themselves what about the incident provided new insights or awareness."

Purpose of Reflective Essays

According to the Saint Mary's Writing Center, a reflective essay has one main purpose. The main purpose is that it requires metacognition, or "the ability to 'step back' and understand your own actions and thought processes". The author must reflect not only on the subject, but also reflect on her own actions and reactions. Another purpose of a reflective essay is that it allows the author to detail and carefully consider her experience and allows them to not only learn from the experience but understand how they learnt from it. Another purpose of a reflective essay is to share with others. This is particularly true for reflective essays often required for college admissions. These essays are used to share with the university the author's life experiences and how they relate to her ability as a student.

Elements of Reflective Essays

A reflective essay like all essays requires a certain set of elements to be effective. An author of a reflective essay must first choose an experience or event that they feel has the significance to be explored. The essay should include plot, conflict, settings and characters like a narrative. It is also important that the author include background information, dialogue, and sensory details. These elements make the essay more personal and also more effective because these details "recreate an incident for readers than to simply tell about it". These elements all come together to form the reflective essay.

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