How to Write a Reflective Essay With Sample Essays

Updated on November 6, 2018
VirginiaLynne profile image

Virginia has been a university English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

Reflective essays require the writer to analyze a past experience from the present.
Reflective essays require the writer to analyze a past experience from the present. | Source

What Is a Reflective Essay?

Reflective essays describe an event or experience, then analyze the meaning of that experience and what can be learned from it. What makes an essay reflective is that the writer is analyzing a past event from the present.

Reflective essays require the writer to open up about their thoughts and emotions in order to paint a true picture of their history, personality, and individual traits. They should included a vivid summary and description of the experience so that the reader feels they have also experienced it. They should also include an explanation of your thoughts, feelings, and reactions.

What Can You Write About?

The most common subjects a reflective essay include the following:

  • A real experience
  • Something you imagined
  • A place or a special object
  • Something you've read, watched, seen, touched, tasted, smelled, or heard.

Topic Ideas for a Reflective Essay

The above subjects might have already sparked an idea of what you would like to write about. If not, below are some topic, or prompt, ideas for a reflective essay.

Places You've Been

  • The beach, mountains, countryside, or desert
  • A special hideaway or special room
  • The house you grew up in
  • A relative's home

Life-Altering Events

  • A special date
  • Failing or succeeding at something
  • A time you learned something new
  • A new experience
  • A time you overcame one of your fears
  • An important memory
  • A significant conversation

Recurring or Significant Thoughts

  • A dream or daydream
  • A conversation you wish you had or something you wish you had done
  • A story you've told about yourself
  • An embarrassing moment
  • The person you'd like to be
  • A strong emotion

Impactful Experiences

  • A book, movie, T.V. show, song, play, or other form of media
  • Social media post
  • Magazine or article
  • A concert
  • A vacation

Important People

  • Your grandmother and/or grandfather, mom and/or dad, aunt and/or uncle, nephew and/or niece, or siblings
  • Your best friend
  • Someone who hurt you
  • A special teacher or life coach

How Do You Organize a Reflective Paper?

The organization of a reflective essay is very similar to other types of essays. An outline of a great reflective essay is laid out for your use below.

Introductory Paragraph

  • Your first paragraph should be an introduction in which you identify the subject and give the reader a general overview of the impression it made on you. Your introductory paragraph should also included a thesis statement that will serve as the focal point of your paper.
  • 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 Paragraphs

  1. In the first body paragraph, write about one reason your subject made the impression on you that it did. Then, write about why. This is a reflective essay, which means you can speculate. There are no right or wrong answers in this type of essay.
  2. In the second body paragraph, write about the second reason your subject made the impression on you that it did. Then, write about why.
  3. In the third body paragraph, write about the third reason your subject made the impression on you that it did. Then, write about why.

Conclusion

  • Recap your thesis statement and the reasons you provided in the body of your essay. Sum up your article with some final thoughts on your subject, and some closing reflective thoughts.
  • 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."

Write about a trip to the beach.
Write about a trip to the beach. | Source

How Do You Write a Reflection Paper?

Writing a reflective essay, also known as a reflective paper or reflection paper, is a easy as following the step-by-step instructions below.

1. Choose a Topic Idea

If you haven't been assigned a topic and don't have a topic in mind, check the list of topics above for inspiration. If those aren't enough, take a look at these 100 reflection topic ideas. The first step of writing a great reflective essay is choosing a topic, so choose wisely!

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."

2. 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 vividly thinking or re-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."

3. Brainstorm

Write down everything you can think 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 that describe these sensory experiences. Look up sense-describing words for help. You can write these down in sentences or in 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."

4. Pick Reflection Questions

Read through the list of reflection questions below and select at least three you want to answer.

  1. What did I notice?
  2. How did I feel about this?
  3. Why did it make me feel this way?
  4. How was my experience of this unique to me? How did others who were there experience it differently? Why?
  5. How has this changed me?
  6. What might I have done differently?
  7. What is the meaning of this event in my life?
  8. How is this similar to something else that I've experienced?
  9. How can I use this to help someone else?
  10. How does this event relate to the rest of my life?
  11. How is this typical in my life?
  12. Was this a good or a bad thing for me?
  13. How did this experience foretell things that would happen later?
  14. Was my experience the same as someone else's or different?
  15. What skills did I learn?
  16. How can I apply what I learned to my life?
  17. How can I apply this experience to my studies?
  18. How can this help me in my career?
  19. What about this experience challenged me socially?
  20. In what way did this expand my understanding of my own culture? or a different culture?
  21. How was this emotionally important? or emotionally difficult?
  22. How did this experience relate to my understanding of theology, God or religion?
  23. What questions did this experience make me have?
  24. How has this changed the way I think?
  25. How has this made me realize someone else was right?
  26. How was this unexpected? Or how did this fulfill my expectations?
  27. Would I want to repeat this experience?
  28. Would this experience be the same if I did it again?
  29. How did this affect me and why?
  30. Why did I have the reaction I did to this?

Example: "I picked the questions: What did I notice? What does this event mean to me? How did this place shape my life?"

5. Answer the Questions You Selected

Read your questions, then answer them. This doesn't have to be in formal essay form or in perfect sentences. You just want to get as many ideas down as possible.

Example

  1. 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 sand crabs were scrambling to hide. I noticed the cool wind on my face and the homes right up against the sand."
  2. 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."
  3. 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."

6. Identify the Meaning of Your Experience

Before you can begin writing your essay, you need to decide what is the most important thing you learned from this experience. 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."

Sample Essay

If you'd like to see the final essay I've written using the pre-writing exercises I've done for this essay, take a look at my Reflective Essay Sample on a Visit to the Beach.

The following is an excerpt of my sample reflective essay. To read the essay in full, click on the link above.

"As a native of Southern California, the beach feels like home. Even so, I sometimes forget to go there when I visit my mom. This week, I had come to take care of her during her cataract surgery. Along with helping her with appointments and remembering her eye drops, I'd been doing little chores around the house that are hard for her to do. We'd also taken a visit to see my cousin and visit the Rose garden where my grandmother's ashes are buried. Moreover, we'd had a lot of good conversation, which was probably the most important part of my visit.

The day before I was supposed to leave, I still hadn't visited the beach. That's when I remembered what my friend Rhonda had said to me the day I left, "Go to the beach for me when you are there!" Living in Central Texas, the beach is five hours away and the Texas Gulf coastline, while nice, doesn't compare to the shores of the Pacific. Like me, Rhonda cares for her mother, but she does it every day, all year long. Her only break over the past few years since her father died was a one week trip her husband took her to the beach in California. So, thinking about Rhonda, I had decided I needed to take my own trip to the beach."

Reflection essays are always about the past.
Reflection essays are always about the past. | Source

What Is the Purpose of a Reflective Essay?

Teachers often assign these sorts of essays to get students to think about what they are learning, and to delve deeper into an experience. Aside from school assignments, reflective essays are used in the professional sphere to help workers learn. Here is how professionals and students use these sorts of essays.

Literary

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

Teachers, doctors, and social workers often use this type of writing in their training. It helps employers and employees learn how to better do their jobs.

  • Medical students write 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 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 how well they helped a patient deal with difficult medical information.
  • Nurses and medical assistants write about their care of patients. By thinking back 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. This sort of writing 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 writing about experiences in teaching, and doing case studies of difficult students. By reviewing their emotions about their teaching and examining patterns of what worked and did not work, teachers can better plan their lessons and solve problems with student learning and behavior.
  • Social workers can use this kind of paper to help them analyze the environment and problems of their clients. They can also encourage their clients to write out their experiences in order to help them see the causes and effects of their behavior and circumstances, as well as to see ways they can change.
  • Business people use this type of written assignment to analyze their interactions in a business setting, and to help them envision how they can better present their service or product to customers.

Educational

Sometimes instructors will ask students to respond to a lecture or other school assignment so that they can show what they understand. Writing about what you are learning can also help you share and interact with other students, as well as the instructor.

Personal Growth

This kind of writing can help you learn how to understand and analyze your own life experiences. It can also help you grow emotionally as you learn to understand yourself better.

Reflective Essay Question

What experience is most meaningful for you?

See results

Questions & Answers

  • Are there things that one should not write in a reflective essay?

    Avoid writing personal details that you would be embarrassed for other people in your class to know. I also tell my students to not write something they would not want their mother to hear. Sometimes people have had very difficult experiences in their lives, and it can be very healing to write about those experiences, but a class essay may not be the right venue. The point of a class writing exercise is to learn more about writing clearly and effectively, and it may be difficult for a teacher or other students to critique an essay that is about a very personal and emotional subject.

  • Should I put a title on my essay?

    You should always have a title for your essay. If you use one of my essay topic ideas, you can often use a short version of the question as the title of your essay. Titles can be clever or just straightforward but don't make them too long or too obscure. Never forget a title because it tells your reader what your essay is about.

  • How do I write a reflection log on a lecture?

    If you are writing your reflections about a lecture, you can write about the following:

    1. What did you learn that was new to you?

    2. What did you think about the information?

    3. Is there something this lecture made you think of? Perhaps a personal experience, something in the news or something in the media?

    4. What was the most important thing you took away from what the speaker said?

    5. Is there anything you would do or think differently because of the information you learned?

  • Can you do reflective writing about the Airforce?

    You can do this kind of personal writing about any experience that you can have. Here are some questions to direct your reflections about military service:

    What relationships with other members of your unit were most meaningful?

    How did you change your attitude toward authority?

    In what ways did your experiences make you more mature?

    How does serving change the way you relate to people in your personal life?

    What were the hardest parts of serving in the Airforce and how did you overcome them?

    What advice would you give to someone else thinking about serving in the military?

    What led you to want to serve in the Airforce and do you still feel that way?

    What moment of your service are you most proud of?

    What would you do differently if you could?

  • How do I finish writing a reflection essay?

    Explaining the meaning of the event or memory is the best way to end your reflection essay. Consider:

    1. What did I learn?

    2. How did this change me?

    3. What would I do differently?

    4. What do I regret?

    5. How has this made me the person I am today?

© 2014 Virginia Kearney

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    • profile image

      Patience Maneh 

      3 months ago

      This reflection is so helpful to to me. I have learnt a lot from your example to write my papers. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge . At least I will be a bit confident to start on my reflection paper paper now.

    • profile image

      Andre 

      4 months ago

      This was so helpful. I’ve just started a PhD program and getting my thoughts together with literature is difficult. This is a great tool for writers to begin with. Thanks.

    • profile image

      solu samuel 

      8 months ago

      this reflection essay was very helpful in writing my self assignment. it help me that much and by the way Im from Papua New Guinea.

      it think i had score goods marks and would get good grading towards my achievement. once again thanks very much.

    • profile image

      Kartik soni 

      8 months ago

      This reflective essay was very useful for me and by the way I am from India and I am studying in class 6. My English exam is On Monday, 2 April of 80 marks , I think so I will get good marks because in last exam I got 78.5 marks out of 80 and thank you again.

    • profile image

      Mariam 

      8 months ago

      Its really helpful,thanx a lot for sharing this information.

    • profile image

      Gretchen 

      9 months ago

      Thank you for this! I was assigned to write a reflective essay about a conference I attended. I had never written a reflective essay before, and your prompts really helped me set a direction for my paper. Thank you again!

    • profile image

      N Timoteus 

      9 months ago

      Thanks Virginia for your helpful essay sample.

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      9 months ago from United States

      Hi Rao, all of my work is copyrighted and you cannot post this on another website or print it off. However, you are welcome to give your students a link to my page, which they can read and access for free. I provide all of my work for free to users. Advertisements on my page pay me for my time to write new materials so that I can let people look at them for free rather than having them purchase them in a book.

    • profile image

      U.S. Rao 

      9 months ago

      I am introducing this "reflective writing in our pharmacy school. I would like to your guidelines. Can I use? Do you have copyright stuff? Please let me know. Thank you

    • profile image

      jared ogutu 

      12 months ago

      Hi Virginia am glad your samples have been a pivotal to my essay writing. Thank you so much

    • profile image

      pe kay 

      12 months ago

      thanks a lot

    • profile image

      beatrice 

      15 months ago

      YOU ROCK!!!

    • profile image

      Safiyya Mused 

      17 months ago

      Hello.

      my name is Safiyya. I'm 18 years old , from Yemen .

      I am a writer and this is the first day I read your sharing and I am so glad for that, thank you dear....

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      18 months ago from United States

      Puthy Ken, I used to teach students from Cambodia and I know that you work very hard. I'm glad you are continuing your studies and I wish you the best!

    • profile image

      Lenaye Murphy 

      18 months ago

      Thank u so much!

    • profile image

      Puthy Ken 

      18 months ago

      Dear, Virginia. Thanks for your sharing. It helps me much to do my assignment of MA course in Cambodia. I am one of graduated students here are really need more documents in this our developing country.

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      19 months ago from United States

      Hi, Amanda! I'm so glad that my essay helped you. Keep up with your writing. The most important thing is to practice doing some writing every day!

    • profile image

      Amanda Daherian 

      19 months ago

      Hello Ms. Virginia, my name is Amanda and I am 15 years old. Thank you so much for these advantageous information, and your sample essay?! It was really amazing!!! Thank you so much.

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      21 months ago from United States

      Hi Ginny--I'm so glad to hear of your teaching to seniors, and especially the fact that you are teaching them reflective writing. I've also called it personal or memory writing when I've taught it in the past. I think for seniors this sort of writing is so valuable because it allows them to gather memories and reflect on the meaning of events in their lives. What a legacy for them to leave for the younger members of their family. My mom just passed away this week and she was not a writer, but my cousin and I got together with her a couple of months ago and they talked together while I wrote down what they said. That sort of memory writing is a wonderful legacy for grandchildren. Please remind your seniors that even though children and grandchildren may not be interested in hearing about memories, there will be a time in their lives when they need that strength and the lessons from the family past. Blessings to you!

    • profile image

      Ginny Price 

      21 months ago

      I have taught writing in elementary school for at least 18 years and now that I am retired I have been asked to teach a group of seniors about writing.The reflective writing is one I have done but never called it that. Thanks for all the clear cut ideas to help me be successful teaching it to this new group. I feel sure they will have so much to say! Thanks!!!!

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      22 months ago from United States

      Hi Natalie! Thanks for taking the time to let me know that my work is helping homeschoolers. I have many friends who homeschool and they are often concerned about teaching writing correctly. That is one of the reasons I've posted my personal instructions for my own college students.

    • profile image

      Natalie 

      22 months ago

      Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I am a home school mum and this will really help my son with writing a reflective essay

    • profile image

      Sofia 

      23 months ago

      Thank you so very much! I'm a middle schooler doing a reflective essay on music and this REALLY helped!!!!!!! Again THANK YOU!!!!!!!

    • hubber8893 profile image

      Sourav Rana 

      2 years ago

      Deliberately well explanation of the term "Reflective Essay" with many good points to be induced in the writing, like feelings, observations etc.

      I will try to write a reflective essay and for sure, try my best to adopt your instructions.

      Thanks Virginialynn!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Anytime Virginia. Good for you.

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      2 years ago from United States

      Thanks! I love teaching Reflective Essays because it helps my students to understand that writing can be personally meaningful. Many of my students are at turning points in their lives and thinking about lots of important decisions. I teach them that writing down their thoughts and feelings often helps them to clarify what they are thinking.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Virginia, congrats on HOTD! I never heard of reflective essays before. This is so interesting and useful for those to explore your own emotions in expressive writing on your ideas, hopes and dreams. Thanks for sharing.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 

      2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Awesome hub dealing with the many salient features, uses and importance of reflective essays in day-to-day life of so many fields of people. It is very useful and informative. Thanks for sharing this valuable information and congrats on the HOTD award.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      4 years ago

      This is very useful and valuable to teachers and students. I only wish I had this guide when I was in high school.

    • Maggie.L profile image

      Maggie.L 

      4 years ago from UK

      Some great advice here for writing a reflective essay. This will really help my daughter with her essay writing skills. Thanks for sharing. Voted up and useful.

    • VirginiaLynne profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Kearney 

      4 years ago from United States

      Grand Old Lady-you are so write that teaching can be very tough in the trenches. A lot of it depends on the students you are teaching and the attitude of the administration. I am very fortunate to teach at a wonderful Christian University with many inspiring students.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

      4 years ago from Philippines

      You gave some very helpful tips and prompts on reflective writing. I also loved the video. It reminded me of my own teaching days and helped me to re-connect with the idea that teaching is a noble profession. It's oh, so true but when you get into the daily battle of it, it can be so easily be forgotten.

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