How to Write a Reflective Essay with Sample Essays
What is a Reflective Essay?
Reflection Essays describe an event or experience, and then analyze the meaning of that experience and what can be learned from it.
What Can You Write Reflections About?
Here are some typical Reflection Essay topics:
- A real experience.
- Something you imagine.
- A place or special object.
- A person who influenced you.
- Something you've read, watched or heard.
Two Things You Must Do
1. Vivid summary and description of the experience, place, imagination or reading so that your reader feels they have also experienced it.
2. Explanation of your thoughts, feelings and reactions about this experience.
Step by Step Instructions with Examples
Step One: Get a Topic Idea. If you haven't been assigned a topic, look at my table below for an idea, or follow the link to the right about 100 Reflection Topic Ideas.
Example: I'm visiting my mom who lives near the beach that I went to a lot growing up, so I'm going to write about that.
Step Two: Study your Subject. Depending on your topic, you may need to close your eyes and remember, read, watch, listen or imagine. Spend a few minutes vividlly thinking or experiencing your subject.
Example: I went to walk along the beach today and just enjoyed the sand, water and wind. I thought about many other beach walks I've taken and filled my mind with memories of other beach trips.
Step Three: Write down everything you can think of about your subject. You want to describe this subject as vividly as you can, so think about smells, tastes, noises, and tastes along with what you see. Try to write down vivid adjectives which describe these sensory experiences. Look at the "Sense Describing Words" chart for help. You can write this in sentences or just phrases. Just get as much down as you can. Later you will turn this into a paragraph.
Example: I see the roll of the waves coming in a roar up to the shore. The waves beat over and over on the beach. Each wave is the same and yet every wave is unique. I saw the sun covered by a cloud which reflected the light so that rays spread out in all directions. The salt smell of the spray felt fresh and clean. The cool foam of the edge of the wave covered my feet as they sank down in the sand. I walked along swinging my sandals in one hand. I took pictures of the sand, the gulls, the waves, then embarrassed, I took a selfie of myself against the ocean waves.
Step Four: Pick out some reflection questions. Look at my list of "Reflection Questions" and pick at least 3 you want to answer.
Example: I pick the questions: What did I notice? What does this event mean to me? How did this place shape my life?
Step Five: Answer your questions. Read your question and then answer it. This doesn't have to be in a formal essay form or perfect sentences. You just want to get as many ideas down as possible.
- What did I notice? I heard the call of the seagulls and the sound of families calling to one another. Couples walked hand in hand. Parents played in the sand with their children. I saw the holes in the sand where I knew sandcrabs were scrambling to hide. I noticed the cool wind on my face and the homes right up against the sand.
- What does this event mean to me? Often, when I visit my mother, I never actually make it to the beach, even though it is just a few miles away from her house. I'm usually too busy helping her or spending time with relatives. This trip, however, a friend of mine named Rhonda, who is also a caregiver to her mother, told me to go to visit the beach for her. As a native Texan, Rhonda has only gotten to visit the beaches in California a few times. So today, I w ent to the beach for Rhonda. I smelled the beach air and walked along all by myself and took an hour to not think about responsibilities to others. Then I wrote "For Rhonda" in the sand and took a picture of it.
- How did the beach shape my life? I've gone to the beach ever since I was a little girl and have many family memories of walking along the beach with my father looking for shells. When I went through the struggles of growing up, I remember feeling soothed by the waves. They always seemed to keep on going. That reminded me to not give up. To know that there is always something to look forward to ahead. To remember that laughter and tears are both a part of everyone's life. To me the waves reminded me to have faith in a God who is in control of everything and has a bigger purpose for me than I can imagine.
Step Six: Decide on meaning: Only one thing is left and you will be ready to write your essay. You need to decide what is the most important thing that you learned from this experience, or what is the memory you will carry with you. That "most important thing" will be the thesis of your paper.
Example: What I learned from this trip to the beach is that I need to remember that in the midst of being a caregiver to my mother, my husband, my five kids, my students and my friends, that I also need to care for myself and create a space for myself where I can rest and renew.
Add Vivid Sensory Detail
Types of Reflective Essays
Teachers often assign these sorts of essays to get students to think about what they are learning and to delve deeper into an experience. Here are some examples of class assignments:
- Literature Reflective Essay: This type of essay asks you to summarize and then respond to a piece of literature in order to understand it better and relate it to your own life and experiences.
- Professional Reflective Essay: Teachers, doctors, and social workers often use Reflective writing in their training in order to analyze their own behavior in response to other people so that they can understand more clearly how to better do their jobs.
- Educational Reflective Essay: Sometimes Reflection Essays can respond to a lecture or other school assignment so that students can better understand and share with each other and their teachers what they are learning.
- Personal Growth Reflective Essay: These sorts of essays are often used in writing classes as a way of helping students to learn how to understand and analyze their own life experiences. These sorts of essays can also help you grow emotionally as you learn to understand yourself better.
If you'd like to see the final essay I've written using the pre-writing exercises I've done for this essay look at Reflective Essay Sample on a Visit to the Beach.
Reflection Essay Topic Ideas
a special date
Grandmother or Grandfather
failing at something
a conversation you wish you had
movie, T.V. show, YouTube video
mom or dad
a special hideaway
a time you learned something
song or radio show
aunt or uncle
a new experience
a story you've told yourself
nephew or niece
a special room
an experience at work
the person you'd like to be
social media post
the house you grew up in
an important memory
what you wish you had done
magazine or new article
someone who hurt you
a relative's home
a strong emotion
concert or live theater show
a special teacher or coach
Organizing Your Essay
Take your notes and use those to write your final draft. Here are some tips:
Introduction: Either start with a vivid description of the place, your experience, or a summary of what you are reflecting about. End with your thesis idea. Sometimes you may want to put a question first and then the answer
Example Thesis: Why was I feeling so peaceful while walking down this beach? I realized it was because the beach had always been a place of rest to me.
Body: Each of the Reflective Questions you've answered can be a paragraph in the body of your essay. Take your notes and expand them. Add more details and examples from your experience and your life story.
Conclusion: In the conclusion, you will want to explain and expand on your thesis idea. Tell how this experience taught you something new or how it helped you to understand something. Another way to conclude is to suggest where you might like to go from this point in thinking about your thesis idea.
Example Conclusion: I sent my photo of "For Rhonda" to my friend along with a text letting her know how much I appreciate her help in letting me know that we can always find places to relax and renew in the midst of our busy lives. Now, I want to find a way to help Rhonda have a day off of her own, and I'm hoping someday we can take a trip to the beach together.
Reflective Essay Question
What experience is most meaningful for you?
Questions to Help You Reflect
- What did I notice?
- How did I feel about this?
- Why did it make me feel this way?
- How was my experience of this unique to me? How did others who were there experience it differently? Why?
- How has this changed me?
- What might I have done differently?
- What is the meaning of this event in my life?
- How is this similar to something else that I've experienced?
- How can I use this to help someone else?
- How does this event relate to the rest of my life?
- How is this typical in my life?
- Was this a good or a bad thing for me?
- How did this experience foretell things that would happen later?
- Was my experience the same as someone else's or different?
- What skills did I learn?
- How can I apply what I learned to my life?
- How can I apply this experience to my studies?
- How can this help me in my career?
- What about this experience challenged me socially?
- In what way did this expand my understanding of my own culture? or a different culture?
- How was this emotionally important? or emotionally difficult?
- How did this experience relate to my understanding of theology, God or religion?
- What questions did this experience make me have?
- How has this changed the way I think?
- How has this made me realize someone else was right?
- How was this unexpected? Or how did this fulfill my expectations?
- Would I want to repeat this experience?
- Would this experience be the same if I did it again?
- How did this affect me and why?
- Why did I have the reaction I did to this?
Reflective Writing Basics
Writing on the Job
Reflection essays are not just a school exercise. Thinking about a real experience and drawing conclusions from it that help you respond to experiences in the future is very helpful for many professions. Here is how professionals use these sorts of essays:
- Medical Students write reflective essays about patients they see. They can use this essay type to carefully describe the patient and the thoughts they have as they determine the correct treatment. They can reflect on how well they interacted with the patient and draw conclusions on what worked and what didn't so that they can better interact with patients.
- Doctors can use reflective essays to better fine-tune their ability to provide effective health care in a caring manner that makes patients not only believe them but also follow their advice. They can reflect on how well their body language, words, and tone of voice convinced the patient to make good lifestyle choices or helped a patient deal with difficult medical information.
- Nurses and medical assistants can write reflective essays on their care of patients. By reflecting on different cases and their own responses to patient requests, nurses can better understand how they can help patients deal with pain, stress, and illness. Reflective essays can also help nurses deal with the stress of the emotions they must handle from both doctors and patients, and help them understand their role in helping both.
- Teachers benefit from reflective essays about their experiences in teaching, and reflective case studies of difficult students. By reviewing their emotions about their teaching and examining patterns in what worked or did not work, teachers can better plan their lessons and solve problems with student learning and behavior.
- Social Workers can use reflective writing to help them analyze the environment and problems of their clients. They can also encourage their clients to do reflective writing to help them analyze the causes of their personal problems and also to see ways to overcome them.
- Business People use reflection essays to analyze the interactions in a business setting and to help them to envision how they can better present their service or product to customers.