How to write an effective reflective essay

Updated April 17, 2017

A reflective essay is an exploration of a topic using personal thought and experience. By using the topic at hand as a springboard, a writer can reflect on world events, personal history, emotional experience or objective fact. The goal of the reflective essay is ultimately to weave together reflections in a way that conveys a new thought to the reader. Ironically, this seemingly flowing essay requires a large amount of planning and structure during preparation.

Create your opening paragraph. Just like other forms of essays, your opening paragraph must be strong. Paint a picture to create a "hook" so that the reader becomes engaged. You can tell a brief story or weave together various facts with the same theme. End with your thesis sentence, a cohesive springboard for the reflections to come, rather than a single point that you will prove throughout the essay.

Make a "mind map" on a separate sheet of paper. Draw a circle with your topic written in the centre and draw lines around it, extending out. At each point, create categories such as "experiences," "facts" and "world events." Draw circles around those categories, each with lines extending to further, more specific ideas. Brainstorm which personal experiences you can disclose in your essay, as well as facts or events you might include. From each specific idea, map out your thoughts and reactions.

Prepare and double-check any nonpersonal facts you will be using. The credibility of your essay will depend not only on the voice you develop as an author but also on the veracity of your facts or the historic events you recount.

Create an outline from your mind map. Select your strongest experiences and points and group them into paragraphs. Order the paragraphs in a logical way, focusing on the reflections the reader should absorb to follow the evolution of your thought. For instance, if you are writing about grief, you would want a paragraph dealing with reactions to death to precede one that centres on coping mechanisms.

Include specific personal experiences. Any experiences you recount should be brief, but make sure they are unique and concrete. Focus your memories to a short incident or experience, rather than leaning on vagary. For instance, in an essay about personal conflict, talk about a specific heated exchange with your father, rather than the fact you simply "fight a lot."

Write your essay using your outline as a guide. As you write, focus on vivid, honest language. Weave your points and experiences together in cohesive paragraphs. Keep one point or experience and its reflections to a single paragraph.

Set aside your work and review it after a break. Smooth out your transitions between paragraphs. One of the hardest parts of a reflective essay is to keep the reader tracking with your mental or emotional journey. Ask yourself how the reader would feel with all of this new information, and try to accommodate the uninitiated. Add explanation where necessary. Eliminate redundant sentences or paragraphs.

Broaden your point into a universal truth. After you have written your essay, write your conclusion. In the first sentence of your last paragraph, sum up what you have written so far. Your final goal in the rest of your closing paragraph is to push your essay one step further, toward a universal truth that applies to the topic at hand. Ask yourself some of these questions as you conclude your essay: What did you learn through these realisations and experiences? What action should an individual facing these issues take next? How can you reconcile your experience with the rest of the world?

Edit your work. When you think your essay is short enough, edit some more. First drafts of reflective essays are prone to rambling. Ensure your transitions are easy to follow and smooth, and that your points are salient. Seek to eliminate any excess phrasing. Ask friends to review your essay and to point out any awkward or confusing passages so you can fix them.


Remember that the reflective essay is intellectual, not factual or emotional. Universal experiences should be reflected on instead of just recounted and relived. Always check your work for grammar and spelling.


Don't treat the reflective essay as a confessional piece or diary entry. Make sure you are comfortable disclosing personal facts to the reader. Avoid repetition, and eliminate any paragraphs or sentences that do not bring new insight or meaning to the essay.

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About the Author

With a career spanning business writing and technical commentaries, Jasmine Haryana has been writing and editing since 1996. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California, Davis and holds her certification in grant writing from The Foundation Center.