How to Write a Reflective Essay (2019 Edition)

reflective essay
  • Published Date: July 30, 2018


A reflective essay offers you the unique opportunity to engage in personal growth as you complete an assignment for your education.

This type of writing assignment gives you the chance to look inward and draw conclusions about your choices, the course of your life, things you’ve learned and ways that you’ve grown.

It’s a chance for you to not just show off your analytical skills, but to demonstrate how you can step back and view your life objectively.

A reflective essay asks you to do something no other piece of writing does. It asks you to write using knowledge gained from both your head and your heart.

You have to use your intellectual mind in order to engage in critical analysis.

But you have use your heart or your more intuitive, wise sense of understanding in order to glean a deeper insight into what it all means.

What is a Reflective Essay

A reflective essay forces the write to take a step back and take a look at the overall  journey the writer has made in regard to a specific experience or arena of life.

For example, teachers often love to assign such essays in regards to the students’ writing portfolio.

A painfully common example of a reflective essay prompt might be something like: “Reread all of the works in your writing portfolio in chronological order.

Reflect on some of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

How has your writing improved?

How does it need to improve?

What do you appreciate?

What are your plans to continue taking it to the next level?”

Teachers love assigning writing prompts just like that because it makes the student think critically and thoughtfully about their own work.

They also enjoy assigning these types of essays because the type of prompt they select can push a student to consider how their writing needs to further evolve.

However, reflective essays don’t have to be focused on the topic of writing or anything academic.

A reflective essay can be focused along literally any type of subject. It can be the ever familiar: “Think about your summer vacation?

What did you learn?

How have you changed over this two-month break from school?”

Another reflective essay topic could ask you about your family, your parents, their marriage, the state of the world, fine works of art, enigmatic pieces of literature, philosophical conundrums, times you’ve failed, times you’ve succeeded, your strengths, your short-comings and how you plan on furthering your own evolution and development.

Literally any subject can be adjusted to be a reflective essay topic because any subject can require thought and introspection.

Some teachers say that successful reflective essays are successful for the insight and honesty they demonstrate.

While this is true, often times the best descriptive essays are the ones that harness descriptive vocabulary words.

Using highly descriptive words indicates for the reader that one is confident in what one has written and has thought deeply about the subject.

Reflective essays often ask one think deeply about a subject and to weigh how a subject has impacted them and vice versa.

It’s also important to bear in mind that using first person pronouns within this type of essay specifically is indeed permissible and even expected.

Given the fact that a reflective essay asks the student to think so deeply and come up with insights, it’s also wise to engage creatively with the prompt.

After all, as a student you want to come up with meaningful insights and thoughts into the essay question, and relating creatively to the material can be quite useful.

One of the most enjoyable parts of a reflective essay is that most of the time, there isn’t a strong need to assemble facts and figures.

Some essay prompts might require a certain extent, such as one that asks you to reflect on how the development of impressionism influenced the final products of the art form and you as a spectator.

Other essays, such as ones that ask you to reflect on people who’ve influenced you, or relationships or experiences that have shaped you, will not require research.

Most of the time, you’ll just have to harness a highly personal tone while keeping your style within the confines of what is considered academic.

How to Write a Reflective Essay

How to Start a Reflective essay

Starting a reflective essay is vastly predictable.

The best way to start is by, well… reflecting.

Honest reflection is key to writing an essay that is not derivative and that demonstrates real perception into self.

Take a moment to read and reread the prompt, to make sure you understand it perfectly. Take a minute to look up any unclear words and rewrite the prompt if necessary with more accessible and familiar ones.

Then take a few minutes just to think, allowing your mind to work unfettered.

Jot down ideas about your thoughts on the prompt and do so without censoring yourself. Don’t judge what you write down, just allow yourself to get the ideas out. Then look at your best thoughts or ideas on the prompt and circle them.

Do this until you have at least three very insightful thoughts on the prompt.

Reflective Essay Format

The good news about a reflective essay format is that it’s not wildly different from the format of other essays that you’ve written.

You still need an introduction, body paragraphs and conclusion.

The essay still needs to orbit around a thesis.

However, because this is not the most research or argument heavy, you have more leeway in your tone, presentation and the supporting “data” that you offer.

Reflective Essay Introduction

Just like any other type of essay, your essay needs to start with a “hook” specifically intended to seize the interest of the reader.

The great news in the case of a reflective essay is that you can get a little creative with the type of hook you select.

It can be a with an assertion of honesty (“Throwing up at the prom in front of my math teacher turned out to be the best moment of my life”) or it can be a question posed directly to the reader (“Have you ever had a painting reach out and touch your soul?”) Alternatively, it can be a riveting description from a moment in your life that connects directly to the prompt.

(“Running down the hall with my trousers covered in lime jelly, screaming for my best friend to chuck a tennis ball at my face, while a group of kindergartens cheered, I realized I had found the meaning of life.”)

The hook is your first chance to really engage the reader and since you have a longer “leash” in this type of essay, take advantage of it.

Introduction Example

“Don’t talk about the beach. Don’t talk about your summer job. And don’t talk about hanging out with your friends,” my teacher commanded as she gave us instructions for a reflective essay on what we learned about ourselves over the summer vacation. These words were very formidable as essentially that was all I did this last summer: When I wasn’t at my summer job, I went to the beach with my friends. I was stumped. Furthermore, I was convinced that I had learned literally nothing over the summer other than the fact that my part-time job as a intern (gofer) at a local newspaper was nothing but drudgery, my friends were cool and the beach was a sanctuary. If someone had a gun to my head and asked me what I learned over the summer, I might say… “Life is often monotonous.” So I stopped and took some time out to really think. What had I learned? About myself? About the age that I was at? About my friends? Upon reflection, I had learned something really important. One day a local reporter was interviewing a woman whose house had burned down in a fire. Her family lost everything. The reporter had forgotten to get the woman to sign an agreement to run her story, so they sent me to the motel where she was staying to get her signature. I was deeply humbled when I drove up to a ramshackle motel where she was staying. I knocked on her motel room, and when she opened the door, I saw that she was staying there with her three kids and her husband and dog—it was a very humbling sight. But what made the biggest impression on me was that her and her family looked so happy and grateful to be safe and together. I realized that the connections we have with others really are the foundation for all of life’s happiness.

Reflective Essay Conclusion

A reflective essay conclusion functions in the way that your conclusions to so many other essays should.

It wraps up the essay, giving your reader a sense of closure and a sense of the crux of all your main themes.

The thesis of your reflective essay needs to be restated, but in a way that links it to the notion of something greater.

Since a reflective essay gives you more freedom in general and more leeway to be creative, don’t shy away from having fun with this task and attempting to do something bold.

Conclusion Example

And thus, while my summer vacation was filled with much monotony, this experience showed me that while monotony at times might be unavoidable (along with other negative experiences), often our relationships with others can give us a certain amount of resiliency in these matters. Our friends can reflect our own humanity back to us, shining a light on a our strengths and flaws, and helping us to become better than we are. Likewise, certain friends can drag us down, impeding our growth and development, making our lives harder than they actually need to be. However, our good friends grow as we grow and our lives remain entangled together, like ivy creeping up the side of a building. Our good friends are always supportive (even if they don’t agree with our life choices), non-competitive, and understanding that even if we’re not succeeding at the moment. Good friends can create a refuge for us that protects us from the sometimes senseless and cruel world. Such relationships need to be treasured and guarded.

Reflective Essay Outline

Just as with so many essays, an outline can help you keep your thoughts organized. However, creating an outline is particularly useful when it comes to drafting a reflective essay.

The reason for this is that reflective essays can too easily become rambling and stream of conscious, leaving the reader wondering what the overall point is.

Jotting down ideas in a rambling and stream-of-conscious manner before your create your outline is great.

It helps you purge all your good (and bad) ideas in a way that is useful and uncensored. However, taking all of those notes and shaping them into an outline is one of the most useful things that you can do before you write.

This will ensure that all your body paragraphs continue to revolve around your thesis and they continue to help you illustrate your point.

A reflective essay outline will make sure that you have supporting points and examples that buttress your thesis in a way that is highly engaging.

Outline Example

Hook: My teacher assigned a reflective essay task and said we couldn’t talk about hanging out, the beach or our summer jobs.

Thesis: “My summer vacation was so boring, but it forced me to realize the power and necessity of friendship”

Body Paragraph 1: My friends hated their summer jobs, but showed me that it was still important to give it your all, as they did.

Body Paragraph 2:  My friends showed me that sometimes the most boring jobs are the ones that challenge us and force us to develop.

Body Paragraph 3: When I was ultimately fired from my summer job, after working myself to the bone all summer, it was my friends who offered me comfort and refuge.

Conclusion: Friendship can help you get through life’s challenges.

Outline Template


  1. Creating/Engaging Hook Sentence (anecdote, quote, joke, adage):
  2. Two to Three Sentences Describing Overall Theme:
  3. Thesis Statement (what did you learn/discover/realize):


  1. First Topic Sentence connecting to thesis:
  2. Discoveries/realizations in connection to this topic sentence:


  1. Second Topic Sentence illuminating thesis:
  2. Supporting thoughts, findings and clarity on this sentence demonstrating the importance:


  1. Third Topic Sentence emphasizing thesis:
  2. Supporting thoughts, ideas, connections that provide further illumination:


  1. Restate your thesis with new, non-repetitive vocabulary:
  2. Recap your supporting points:
  3. Connect your reflections to a larger concept within life/society/history/the future:

Download this reflective essay outline template in word or pdf format

Reflective Essay Template

After you’ve drafted your outline, sometimes harnessing the help of an actual reflective essay template can really help your writing stay focused.

Opening sentence designed to entice the reader, while introduce the overall theme of the essay.

  • Background sentence.
  • Background sentence that connects to concept of thesis.
  • Transitional statement. Statement of thesis

Topic sentence offering support/illumination of thesis

  • Discussion of relevance
  • Supporting details provided
  • Clear connection to how this topic sentence re-clarifies thesis

Topic sentence offering support/illumination of thesis

  • Description of importance
  • Supporting details or further description
  • Discussion of relevance to thesis

Topic sentence offering support/illumination of thesis

  • Discussion of significance
  • Supporting details or further description
  • Connection to thesis

Restatement of thesis using new vocabulary words

  • Recap first main point.
  • Recap second main point.
  • Recap third main point.

Connection of thesis to greater issue or theme in the world or realization about self.

You can view or download this reflective essay template in word or PDF format.

Reflective Essay Topics

Nursing Topics

  • What does patient centered care mean to you?
  • How has being a nurse increased your own humanity?
  • How have your flaws impeded your level of care?
  • How have you developed as a nurse?
  • How has your nursing education opened your eyes regarding healthcare in America?
  • What is the most important lesson your patients taught you?
  • What have you learned about working with doctors?
  • What is the worst mistake you have made as a nurse and what did you learn from it?
  • What can you do to become better?
  • How can healthcare change in order to deliver more effective patient care?

High School Topics

  • Describe an adult in your life who has influenced you tremendous and explain why.
  • Think of a moment of failure that was most educational and discuss.
  • Think of a friend from childhood who you no longer see and describe what that person gave you.
  • Dreams change: often we abandon the dreams of our youth. Why do you think that is?
  • Discuss a friendship that has taught you something about yourself.
  • Describe a place that gives you deep inner peace and explain why.
  • Discuss a time when social media made you feel bad and what you learned from this experience.
  • Reflect on a belief you believed as child and now know to be false.
  • Discuss a childhood fear you had to face.
  • Describe a place that you think is magical and explain why.

Middle School Topics

  • What have your friends at school taught your through their actions and words?
  • Describe a time you broke the rules and what you learned.
  • Disliking people is more about how we feel about ourselves. Explain.
  • Discuss a teacher you thought was mean and describe what you learned about humanity through this experience.
  • Describe your worst day in middle school and what it taught you about yourself.
  • Think of an article of clothing that you own that gives you comfort and explain why.
  • Think of a smell that brings back a certain memory and describe why you like or dislike it.
  • Explain why many students hate their middle school years and what adults can do to fix that.
  • Think of a bully you know of and explain why people bully others.
  • Describe an item that you lost once and why you miss it.

College Topics

  • Reflect: College years are the best years of one’s life.
  • Reflect: The people you meet in college is a big part of the experience.
  • Discuss your worst day in college and how that has shaped you.
  • Consider what you’ve learned about yourself through the challenges of college.
  • College is forced independence: reflect.
  • How has the college experience prepared you for adulthood.
  • How has the college experience not prepared you for adulthood.
  • Discuss the most profound and meaningful thing you have learned in college.
  • Describe the most disappointing thing you learned about humanity through college.
  • Describe the most uplifting thing you learned about human behavior in college.
  • Describe how the college experience has taught you about your own flaws and strengths.

Current Event Topics

  • Reflect on how your perspective on politics has shifted over the years.
  • Discuss the complexities around the second amendment and your perspective.
  • Select a weather related disaster and describe how it impacted you.
  • Are you a feminist? Why or why not?
  • Why does racism still exist?
  • Have you ever been discriminated against?
  • How did the media influence you when you were growing up?
  • What is the role of the human being as caretaker of the earth?
  • Reflect on your thoughts about Trump’s presidency.
  • Reflect on your opinions regarding the veracity of the press.

Reflective Essay Example

The work of art that impacted me the most as a young person was Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. This work of art had the most profound influence on me as a teenager growing up in New York, and made me a lifelong fan of the artist. The reason that this famous painting was so influential was because it appeared to meditate on the theme of reversals, inversions and opposites. This masterpiece demonstrated to me in my youth that there was beauty in the perceived darkness.

Hopper, in portraying the still beauty of a New York diner at night, is able to subvert the theme of loneliness into beauty. The loneliness of the image cannot be denied. The man and woman are not making eye contact despite sitting next to each other. It is unclear whether their hands, which rest on the counter, are touching or not.  Across from them, another diner eats by himself. The clerk hunches over, staring out vacantly. There’s a marked sense of solitude that each person experiences, there, in the middle of the night, away from all else, even among the presence of others. Rather than giving the painting a sense of the oppressive quality of loneliness, the painting finds a way to subvert the tone of loneliness into something beautiful and compelling.

Hopper’s use of color and light in the painting is able to create a sense of warmth and reassurance that mitigates the loneliness of the surrounding night. Outside of the café portrayed, a blue dark night and an empty street await. The enormous metropolis that surrounds the café is not as imposing given the stillness, warmth and light that the café offers. There are places to sit, coffee, and other comforts that give the individual a sense of reassurance. All of these elements help work together to ensure that the darkness of the cruel world that awaits them is not as intimidating and becomes more manageable.

This painting had such a profound impact on me because it suggested that perhaps other forms of discomfort in my life were also beautiful. Hopper’s painting was able to suggest that if there was beauty in loneliness in a big city, then perhaps there are beauty in other difficult experiences—such as in fear, uncertainty, jealousy, disappointment. Hopper is able to suggest through imagery, shade and atmosphere that there is a way to find solace even when things seem impossible and deeply imperfect. As a youth growing up in New York City, this was such an important thing to realize because it suggested to me that no matter how difficult things got, I would always have the city to go to. If I was mad at my parents or if I didn’t have my friends or had a bad day, I could still go to the city and take refuge there. The noise, the sounds, the traffic, the skyscrapers, the public places, the cafes—they were all there for me. This was something that I realized in communing with Edward Hopper’s painting.

Thus, Hopper’s world-famous painting Nighthawks explores the subversion of loneliness through color and content. This painting had such a tremendous impact on me by teaching me about the power and beauty in subversion. Nighthawks taught me a crucial lesson about how negative experiences don’t have to be all-dark. There is beauty to be found in the unpleasant, the difficult and the mysterious and that one should not shirk from such lessons. Finally, Hopper’s painting gave me a tremendous reminder that no matter how I felt or what growing pains I was going through, there was always the entire city of New York to take me into its embrace.

In Closing

A reflective essay gives you a nice break from so much of the researching and fact finding that is such a big part of traditional essays.

With reflective essays, the research you do is inward, and you must explore through your own thoughts, experiences and feelings to gain clarity.

This can be a valuable experience as in writing this type of essay, you can learn a lot about yourself.

The most important thing to remember when writing such an assignment is to give yourself time to self-explore, and be always certain to answer honestly, even if you think your perspective is odd or unpopular.

Honest introspection will deliver more clarity about yourself and your place in the world than anything else.

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