Memories, hopes, disappointments, and curiosity run through your life.
By writing a reflective essay you can capture some of these ephemeral emotions and make sense of who you really are. In this article, I share eight tips (and a few examples) that will help you do it in a better way.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates
You may have to write a reflective essay as a part of an academic assignment or a college paper. Or perhaps, you want to create it for yourself and never show it to anyone.
Regardless of the reason, after reading this article you will hopefully become better at it. And just in case you need to write a GRE or a college admission essay, you can get it graded and reviewed before submitting it by a company like the Princeton Review.
They helped a lot of students over the years so you may check them out.
1. Primer – what is a reflective essay
A reflective essay is a piece of writing in which you analyze your personal experience, reflect on how it changed your life, and what conclusions for the future can you draw from what you’ve learned. It’s a “know thyself” type of essay.
The goal here is obtaining self-knowledge, by stopping to think about your memories, your values, and where do you want to go from the present moment onward. By writing your thoughts down, you pursue some kind of deeper truth, about yourself and the world.
2. The power of writing introspectively
Many great men and women (like Charles Darwin or Frida Kahlo) had a habit of keeping a journal. This seems to be forgotten these days as we record everything through our mobile devices. But the habit of introspective writing and journaling helps you get in touch with your inner self, and even improves your mental health.
The reflective essay serves a similar purpose.
It lets you search for meaning in your life, and lets you discover the underlying causes of your actions.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” – Søren Kierkegaard
3. How do you start your essay?
You may start with an introduction of experience, an event, or memory on which you’ll reflect.
If your topic is “a life-changing incident you had when you were a child”, you could start with:
I used to live on a sunny farm with my parents and grandparents when I was young. A few days after I turned six, something happened that would alter the course of my life forever. I’m fifty-two as I’m writing this…
This beginning has certain elements that make it effective:
- Introducing the setting and putting the experience in context.
- Hooking the reader by building curiosity and a story.
Here’s another way to start (this excerpt is taken from Didion’s “On self-respect”):
Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one has stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.
When it comes to reflective writing, you don’t have to follow any strict guidelines or rules. Follow your heart, put some emotion into it, and you’ll create something of value for yourself and others.
Start at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end – as long as it’s coherent, you’ll be fine.
“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” – Ralph Ellison
4. Learn how to structure your essay
In terms of length, it all depends on your assignment, but usually, the reflective essay has between 300 and 700 words. It has a rather informal structure, and the use of language.
After all, you’re drilling into your personal experiences, and quite often, this requires a poetic turn of the phrase. You’re more than welcome to use a wide range of advanced vocabulary.
In this part, you set the tone for your reflection. You implicitly or explicitly say what will you reflect about, and what prompted you to do that. If you’re writing an academic paper, you’ll have to be more direct and for example, say: “what follows, are my reflections on what I’ve learned about life during the first year of college”.
In this part, you talk about your actual experiences, memories, and important events in your life. But the purpose is not just to say what happened – that’s a descriptive essay’s job.
The true goal here is to ponder the significance of your experiences and think about how they changed you and what you’ve learned from them. Here you can share concrete examples of changes that took place in your life.
Here, you sum up your essay and leave your audience with a final thought. You may want to look ahead into the future, and write how your experiences are going to affect your life from now on. What’s the direction you’re going to take? What is there to look ahead to? You may also look backward and see how different you were in the past, compared to now.
“I think it’s good for a person to spend time alone. It gives them an opportunity to discover who they are and to figure out why they are always alone.” – Amy Sedaris
By watching this video, you can learn more about crafting a good essay:
5. Create an outline for your essay
As with most writing assignments, the work begins with ideation and then creating some sort of outline.
Here’s a simple process you can use to get everything ready before you start writing:
a) Scan your mind in search of powerful experiences, meaningful memories, and thoughts about your past. This will serve as a raw material from which you’ll sculpt a piece of prose.
b) Consider the attractiveness of your topic from the reader’s point of view. You certainly don’t want to bore anyone so pick something interesting, but important.
c) Organize your essay and divide it into a couple of paragraphs. Each paragraph should contain one important idea.
d) Decide in which sequence you would like to share your ideas. Put some logic and chronology behind it.
e) Jot down any side notes you may want to include in the essay. It’s always better to have an overabundance of material.
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” – C.G. Jung
6. The essay-writing process
The best piece of advice on that is to avoid cliches. It might be hard to do this at first, but decide to speak your truth. Talk about things and feelings unique to you and your life.
It’s easy to regurgitate what someone else had said before because it’s safe territory. Your goal is to open doors to which only you have the keys.
Once you have the idea, you can follow a simple process:
- Write the first draft as quickly as you can (no editing or looking back here)
- Reorganize the first draft if necessary
- Edit for clarity (throw out everything that’s unnecessary)
- Accept that it’s not going to be perfect, and publish it (or keep it to yourself)
7. How to pick the right topic for your essay
If you’re writing an assignment, you’ll probably receive the prompt from your professor. If that’s the case, follow it diligently. This may be something like:
a) Reflect on what did you learn during your first year of high school.
b) Think about your favorite book and how it changed your life.
c) How did your writing skills change over the course of the years? And why.
Or it might be something really specific like:
Write a two-page reflection paper on the Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.
In this case, it’s not only about your personal experience, but rather about your interaction with a specific text, event, play, or movie and the effect it had on you.
But what if you want to write an essay on your own. Which topic would you choose then?
First, pick something that’s meaningful to you. Second, pick something that you know really well. Third, pick something that you want to explore and get deep into.
Here’s some more inspiration in the area of topics:
- What was the hardest thing you’ve ever done and how it change you?
- How has your relationship with your parents changed over the years?
- What did you use to do a lot in the past, but aren’t doing now?
- What was the most creative act you’ve ever done?
- What was your favorite game or a toy when you were a child?
- What did you want to become when you were small?
- How did you overcome your limits?
- What was your biggest failure and how did you come back on your feet?
- What are the things from the past that are still haunting you?
- What gives you the biggest sense of joy in life?
- What is your passion and how it shaped your life?
Reflection on life and meaning in general:
- What is the meaning of friendship?
- What is to be done with the time you have in your life?
- What are the values that constitute a good life?
- Is it possible to find the ultimate truth about anything?
- Can you really know thyself?
- What should every human do during their lifetime?
Reflection on events:
- What was your most exciting trip and why?
- Have you ever had a mystical or psychedelic experience?
- How World War 2 changed the collective psyche of humanity?
- What was your favorite musical concert and why?
- Was there any rite of passage you went through? What was the meaning of it?
You may also consider other great essay topics submitted by the users of Quora.
“Reflect upon your present blessings — of which every man has many — not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” – Charles Dickens
8. Learn from the masters
Montaigne was the father of the essay as a literary form. He was the first writer to use informal tone, colloquial language, and rather prosaic themes to get to the deeper truth about human nature. I recommend you check his essays for inspiration, along with other masterworks:
- The Essays – by Montaigne
- Shooting an Elephant – by George Orwell
- On Self Respect – by Joan Didion
- Meditations – by Marcus Aurelius (it’s a philosophical work, rather than an essay, but the quality of “Meditations” is too high to be overlooked).
- Once more to the lake – EB White
And here are a few books filled with great reflective essays:
- A room of one’s own – Virginia Woolf
- Walden – Henry David Thoreau
- A collection of essays – George Orwell
- Arguably – Christopher Hitchens
- Consider the Lobster and Other Essays – David Foster Wallace
Here you can find two samples of reflective essays from California State University Los Angeles. And here you may find a huge list of 450+ essay books on Goodreads.
“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.” – Albert Einstein
Example #1 of a reflective essay:
The misgivings about the high school football
Football (soccer) was on the pedestal during my high school years in Poland. You were not judged by the color of your skin (because everyone was roughly the same color), nor by the contents of your character. The worth of a human being was measured by the ability to score goals.
Each player had to find their niche in the dominance hierarchy of the pitch. It all started with the selection of players. The gym master would choose two captains at the beginning of the match, and they, in turn, would choose their teammates.
One by one, the best players got picked, and as we went down the line, we were left with the wretched souls, the worst, the smallest guys, or the fat ones, whose self-esteem was shattered from the beginning, simply because they were picked last.
But there was a ladder within a ladder. Some players, perhaps in the lower echelons would-be defenders, some would be proud midfielders, pushing the ball forward and creating “situations”. Some were the goalkeepers who were either chosen for the job because they couldn’t play ball, or because they were specialists, sporting keeper gloves, and getting admired for their technical skills.
But the true apex of the hierarchy was occupied by the attackers. The guys who could push through others, and ram the ball through the goalkeeper were the true heroes of the field.
This self-generated order of youthful self-worth and self-concept was brutal as it was instructive. Each football match was a psychology class, and a lesson in the ways of the world that outweighed math, history, or geography by orders of magnitude. For we could witness the natural constellation of humanity, based on their genetic makeup and their willingness to face their fears.
Here’s a second, shorter sample of a reflective essay:
The sources of love for instrumental music.
There’s a question I can’t quite answer. Why do I love instrumental music so much? And why, and I’m especially enamored with the music of the East? The Persian, the Indian, the Afghan, the Japanese, the Turkish, the Kurdish, the Arabic?
Since I first discovered these musical notes, my life was never been the same. Recently I watched a great documentary about Quincy Jones where he said he touched his first piano at the age of twelve, and these first few taps of fingers defined the rest of his life.
Isn’t that strange, that in reality, we don’t choose things? The things choose us. Where do these natural inclinations come from? To some degree, it must be our environment, our personality, our natural talent. But the other part seems mysterious, like some sort of cosmic accident.
I first heard about the Oud when reading “My name is red” by Orhan Pamuk. I instantly went online to hear this instrument and from there on, I discovered dozens of beautiful instruments such as tar, setar, sitar, buzuq, sarod, tabla, rebab, shakuhachi, quin, biwa, all the way down to the goddamn gamelan drums.
Hearing the esraj in a tower of the ancient Indian fort in Jodhpur melted my heart. It was as if this melody was constructed just for me, like I’ve heard it before. Perhaps in another life.
Looking backward, moving forward
There are certain milestones in your life: finishing high school, falling in love for the first time, your first journey abroad, the first kiss, the first psychedelic trip, graduating from the university, getting your first job, getting married, having children… Each of these brings something new and unexpected and makes you grow as an individual.
But you can run through life and never reflect on how it all changed, how silly and incompetent you were just a few years ago. And how you’ll think the same thing about the present in a few years’ time. Perhaps you should compose a reflective essay and think about all of this, and about what’s to come.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” – Steve Jobs