The reflective essay gives writers a chance to reveal themselves. It requires them to describe an experience or observation and also to explain its personal effects on them. This kind of essay might portray a misunderstanding and its aftermath, an illness or a summer job, but it is not merely narration. A reflective essay evaluates an experience and describes the changes it has made in the way its writer looks at the world or feels about his place in it.
Choosing a topic
A reflective essay can be about any experience, including watching the Saturday morning cartoons. However, a writer would be wise to choose a meaningful experience with complicated effects in order to write an essay with substance. Reflective essays are often about a certain class or course of study. They may also be about a personal loss, a broken friendship or the beginning of a valuable partnership.
The opening paragraph
A reflective essay should begin like any essay, with an opening sentence designed to draw the reader's attention while it introduces the topic. The writer might continue by further describing the experience and giving it a context. By convention, the last sentence in the first paragraph should be the thesis statement. In it, the writer sets out the purpose and perspective of his essay.
The body of the essay
The body of a reflective essay develops the ideas the writer introduced in the opening. An essayist can structure it in several ways.
One way is to narrate incidents in chronological order, perhaps with some foreshadowing, but without commentary. The writer can then finish by explaining what he felt as he participated and what he feels now. This format might work well with a dramatic incident in which intrusive reflection might slow down the action and dilute the excitement.
Another way to structure a reflective essay is to describe each phase of the experience, explaining at each step what the writer was experiencing. He can include the way he feels now in his narration, or he may give his later reflections their own paragraph. Describing an incident this way may present a deeper and more complete picture of the writer's experience. The reader can engage more fully with the experience of a writer who exposes his emotions this way. This may make it easier to both understand why the writer behaved as he did and identify with the way he came to evaluate his experience.
In either case, a reflective essay must never be all incident or all evaluation. The writer must strike a balance between describing what happened in the world and explaining what happened in his head.
A good closing brings the writer's ideas together without closing off the possibility of further thought. To make an essay feel finished, a writer might repeat a phrase from the opening paragraph in his last sentence, perhaps in slightly modified form.
To emphasize the dual nature of this kind of essay, a writer might close with a compound sentence that expresses both its incidents and its ideas: A summer among squabbling children taught me effective techniques for dealing with conflict, while at the same time it opened my heart to the good a teacher can do.