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Published: Friday 25th of January 2013

How to Write a Reflective Essay: Example, Tips and Topics

Every person has something to reflect and to think about, usually on an issue that matters, so what do you spend time thinking about? What do you like to give deep thought to? Perhaps, also have you had a memorable experience of some sort that has really captivated you? Perhaps, you’ve been to a beautiful place or have seen some interesting things recently. It’s important to figure this out so that you can be well on your way to a good reflective essay.

Topic Idea

It’s often that you’ve not been assigned a topic, so think about an idea. As an example, let’s consider a more descriptive reflection: “My mum and dad are divorced, so occasionally I go and see my dad who lives in California. I remember one occasion that we drove down to Yosemite National park for the day.” Good stuff. Let’s write about that.

Study Your Subject

Take a moment to reflect on why this trip was so memorable to you. If it wasn’t, perhaps you can think of an event that really made an impact. As a helpful exercise, take a minute to close your ideas and relive that experience. Was there anything that appealed to your senses that day? “When we got to Yosemite, it was a glorious day and we started on a walk through the rivers and forests. We followed a trail that took us to a secluded part of the forest. I thought about all the other times that my father and I had gone on forest walks in the past” Do you feel yourself reflecting a little deeper?

Brainstorm

Why has this topic made an impact on you? It’s time to write down what you know about your day out in Yosemite. It’s best to describe your experience using a series of captivating adjectives in order to help you convey your true emotions and feelings. However, using adjectives all the time will get a bit tiresome and dull, so there are other things to you could consider. You should do what you can to get the audience thinking in the way you were thinking at the time. Intrigue, inspire and persuade the reader and take them back to that special day. Before we move onto good examples, let’s look at some techniques to employ good style to write the best descriptive text you can:
  • Similes - using similes will help you compare one thing with another, using ‘like’ or ‘as’, e.g. “the great trees stood as tall as towers”
  • Hyperbole - exaggerate things obviously in order to bring out their importance, e.g. “the completely scorching sun pierced my skin”
  • Metaphors - name an action, person or thing in as something else, e.g. “the rivers were a magnet for my eyes”
  • Personification - giving a metaphor with a human touch to describe an object, e.g. “the mountain stood tall like an Indian chief”.
  • Oxymoron - using more than one contradictory term together, e.g. “the wind stopped rustling through the trees producing a deafening silence”.
Let’s use the national park example to brainstorm some ideas. What did we feel and see? What appealed to our senses? Don’t worry about using too many of these techniques, for the time being, just brainstorm a series of points that you can flesh out with good descriptive technique later on. Here are some things that may follow:
  • “The wind echoed through the ages between the tree tops”
  • “I noticed a deer peering at me in the distance”
  • “The smell of the pine needles compacting on the surface of the earth sent shivers down my spine”
  • “As we walked along the riverbed, we felt our feet sink into the soft earth and felt the reeds brush by our sides”
  • “As me and my father reached the peak of our hike, we sighed in a moment of mutual satisfaction. We were at one with nature and with ourselves.

Reflective Questions

In order to turbocharge your reflective memories, it can be advantageous to contemplate some of these questions in order to get you thinking in the right direction:
  1. What was particularly noticeable?
  2. How did this make me feel?
  3. Why was I feeling the way I was?
  4. How did my experience change me?
  5. How was this unique experience to me? What would others there have experienced instead?
  6. How would I have acted differently at the time if I went back?
  7. What could I have achieved differently in my experience?
  8. What did this event mean to me?
  9. Did this event mean something to me in an existential sense?
  10. Could I have improved my experience in any way?
  11. Was this experience typical?
  12. Did I learn anything from this experience?
  13. Did I pick up any skills from my experience?
  14. Did this help my career?
  15. Was the experience positive or negative in general?
  16. Can this experience be applied to my studies?
  17. Could I have changed anything about this experience if I went back and had it again?
  18. What has this experience made me question about myself?
  19. Was this experience difficult or easy to deal with emotionally?
  20. Has this experience changed me socially?
  21. Did this experience make me question anything spiritual?
  22. Has this changed me way of thinking about anything specific?
  23. Has my life changed as a result of this experience?
  24. Why did I react in the way I did to this experience?
  25. Did this experience help me expand my cultural understanding or get me to appreciate any new cultures?
Once you’re done with reading these questions, in order to brainstorm as best you can, get a couple of answers down to help you reflect and build up a mental picture of how everything panned out at that time. Remember, at this stage, you’re just brainstorming and getting ideas flowing so there’s no need to be especially eloquent. The time will come to refine and bring in a sense of professional style later. Let’s have a go. What was particularly noticeable?
  • The picture of the deer in the distance staring at me.
  • The smell of the leaves in the trees.
  • The way in which the sun started to set as we were on the mountaintop.
  • The sound of the wind.
  • Various bugs, native flora and fauna.
  • The sound of the cool river water cascading down the waterfall.
How did my experience change me?
  • I became a more enriched person; I could feel it in me.
  • It made me contemplate life and existential questions like why are we here.
  • I felt more warmth and compassion towards my father.
  • Mine and my father’s experience brought us closer together.
What has this experience made me question about myself?
  • I’ve wondered whether I should focus on a career in nature conservation.
  • I’ve wondered if I take things much too seriously whereas I could be relaxed and tranquil like the nature around me and the perfect balance of the ecosystem.
  • I’ve thought about whether I am seeing enough of my father.
  • I’ve questioned whether I am doing enough to help the planet or not.

Thesis Statement

What’s the most important thing you can reflect on about your experience? What’s the most important thing you’ve learned? Your essay needs a robust and to the point thesis statement which can reflect the answers to these questions. A thesis statement is like the bread and butter of your essay - the key point that shows the audience how your essay will follow and what’s to be expected. You’ll want to refer to this thesis statement later on in your essay. Remember without an effective statement; don’t even think about writing the rest of your essay! Following on with the example in Yosemite national park, an example thesis statement could follow like this: What I've learned most from my trip with father was that life is beautiful and we not only take nature for granted but we also take our family for granted. As humans, we should think about how we can make the most of our time, appreciate nature and family life hand in hand.

Structure

If you don’t give your essay the structure it deserves, you may as well throw it into the bin right now. The structure provides the audience with a way of reading your essay easily, guiding them through it and allowing them to grasp every point that’s being articulated. Without structure what is your essay really? Not a lot. The difference between an essay and a spew of text is the structure itself. Every essay is different but every essay should owe a coherent and logical structure. Here’s how to write a killer structure.

Introduction

Your introduction should focus on the brief entry into the topic you’re about to discuss. This is no time for fleshing out - all the descriptive language and detailed reflections can come later. For now, try and focus on your entry toward a description of the scene. Setting the scene can be as easy as providing a short description of it. There’s no need to go on and on here, the reader will get to know about all the nitty-gritty detail later on. For now, keep things short and sweet. Also, don’t forget to put in your thesis statement.

The Body

Here’s where you get down to business. Think about all the points that have been discussed here already. What makes a good reflective essay? What do you need to answer? This should flow naturally and make sure that you appeal to your senses and deep reflections.

Conclusion

The conclusion is a place to wrap up, but what does this mean in the context of your reflective essay? Every essay is different but try to bring back your thesis statement and relate to this in some way. Have you achieved what you’ve set out to do? Remember as a top tip, don’t try and introduce any new information here - this section should serve as a summary, not the main body.

Sample Essay

So what can be made in terms of a finished product? A good reflective essay should provide you with an opportunity to describe, contemplate and think deeply about experiences you’ve had. Let’s have a look at how this can be applied in a short example essay below: It was the day I arranged to meet my father. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it like, maybe, I should have been. Since my father divorced when I was just a little boy, I always felt a certain animosity towards him, so I was a little apprehensive of our meet; nevertheless, I decided I should keep an open mind and have a positive attitude. Little did I know that our experience together would be one that would change my life forever. What I learned most from my trip with the father was that life is beautiful and we not only take nature for granted but we also take our family for granted. As humans, we should think about how we can make the most of our time, appreciate nature and family life hand in hand. Our initial greeting comprised of a shrug here, a shrug there - short and informal, nothing much to say to one another. My father is a bit of a hippy and I saw the kind of wagon he’d bought himself recently, one of those old battered ones you could fit a bed and curtains into. I thought, how can my father live like this? I felt so different to him and thought that we’d, probably, not find anything in common this day. I was wrong. As we entered the edge of the park, the road split the dense forest canopy wide open. It was like we were driving through a Moses style storyline whereby the vast torrent of nature was made the way for me and a few lucky disciples. The pine trees stood up as tall as the mountains around them and their tops pierced the sky like alpine turrets in a castle of coniferous beauty. I was already captivated by the trees alone, yet little did I know that the scenery around was going to grow even more majestic, moment by moment. We began our hike up to the top of the famous peak. As my heavy mountain boots trampled the path below, I could hear micro creaks and cracks as the delicate pine needles came together in one mass of the soft, yet crackly substance. It was almost like walking on snow and the smell was a phenomenal experience for my senses to experience. Along with our trail forward the bottom of the V-shaped valley, we were just getting started but already I had witnessed more flora and fauna than I’d seen in a whole lifetime of Los Angeles where I lived. My experience with the nature of Yosemite was almost transcendental from the get-go. I felt one and free - fully connected to the world around me. I think it was something to do with an almost metaphysical turning on of all my sensory capacities. Everything was engaged and switched on. I was smelling the pine needles beneath my feet, tasting the cool air, feeling the fresh mountain breeze and hearing all the sounds of the biodiverse of animal life and birds going about their day. If only these creatures could appreciate the torrent of beauty that I was experiencing! Next, the path took us on a journey through the trees and right by the side of a riverbed. Yosemite’s rivers run as clear as day and flow in such a gracious way, from the cascading waterfalls to the tiny streams, there was something beautiful to witness with every turn the water took through the ground. For a while, we pondered whether we should go for a swim. On reflection, I don’t know why we were thinking so hard. One, two, three and we were in! The cool mountain water corressed my skin and woke me up like I’d just come out of a coma. I was instantly drawn towards the beauty of nature and didn’t think that this water could have had such a profound effect on me but it was remarkable. Dad was paddling around like a great fool - he was never the best swimmer after all! We laughed about it by the river bank as we let the scorching sun sink into our bones and lift the water from our skin. I felt soft and rejuvenated, ready to continue on with our epic walk up to the summit. We managed to advance a little steeper, climbing up the mountain face, the path getting narrower and narrower until it resembled more of a pencil drawn line thickness. My father smiled and helped me up and over the difficult rocks and various wooden log obstacles that were in the way blocking our ascent. I felt a real connection between him and a strong sense of camaraderie as we worked together as a team to help ourselves get up to the top. Even though we were only a team of two, it felt like a strong bond. We egged each other on and supported ourselves every step of the way. Dad was really sympathetic to my lack of fitness and I thought for a moment “what a great guy!” Then it came to me instantly. My goodness! Have you ever stared into the face of beauty before? A golden eagle was right before my very eyes. I gazed at it square in the eyes and felt a stark mix of surprise and awe. It was truly a captivating and majestic sight - my favorite bird with the most delicate plumage and prominent beak imaginable. I never expected the very sight of this bird perched upon its branch could have such a profound effect on my psyche and emotional state. For a moment too I felt lucky, both lucky to have witnessed this endangered species in a one in a million chance and also lucky to be alive in the world, with all this beauty around me. Time was pressing on, yet time did not feel like it was on our side. As we charged up the mountain path, we could see the sun deciding to call it a day and slowly drifting down towards its resting position. Never had I contemplated the many colors that made up the sun - in the day to day hustle and bustle world you never have time to really look and see just how much is going on. This cosmic mass of past time in the present radiates beauty and light like you’ve never seen before. It was certainly a sight to see, especially, as we finally reached the summit. We were there standing at the top, just laughing at each other, giggling with undeniable pleasure and happiness. What a day! I, certainly, felt myself a complete person by the end of it. Never did I ever think that just a day of mountain walking could bring me at one with the world, make me closer to nature and my father-son relationship. This day really helped rekindle some love for the world around me.
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