Your instructor just told you that your next writing assignment will be a reflective essay.
Reflective essays are about you, so you go home and take a good long look in the mirror.
Before you start writing about what you see on the surface, keep in mind that a reflective essay involves more than just a cursory glance. It requires taking a deeper look at yourself, stepping through the looking glass, so to speak, to discover and show important parts of yourself to your readers.
Image by sammydavisdog via flickr
Below, I’ll show you how to create a killer reflective essay outline, and I’ll even give you a downloadable template you can use to make your own outline.
What Is a Reflective Essay and How Is It Different from Other Essays?
So you may be asking yourself what a reflective essay is exactly. You’ve written many other types of essays for many different classes, so how is this any different?
First things first… a reflective essay is one in which you reflect on your personality, places you’ve been, people you’ve met, or experiences that have influenced you. This type of essay lets you tell the reader who you are and what/who has made you that way.
Unlike most other types of essays you may have written, reflective essays typically don’t deal with researching facts and figures. They are much more personal in nature and can be more fluid in structure and style.
It can be tempting to just jump right into writing, but hold on! A good reflective essay can be a great reflective essay with the proper planning.
Using a Reflective Essay Outline to Organize Your Thoughts
The goal of any essay is to write clearly and concisely about whatever topic you choose or are assigned. Unfortunately, with reflective essays, some people tend to get a little disorganized and start sounding like the Walrus, talking about anything and everything in no particular order.
Don’t be like the Walrus!
Using a reflective essay outline can help your writing in a few ways
- An outline can help lay out exactly what details you want to use before you start writing. This is tremendously helpful because you won’t end up on your last paragraph and suddenly realize that you forgot to include a crucial element or two.
- An outline gives you a clear roadmap instead of curvy paths and dead ends. You don’t have to wonder what’s supposed to come next because it’ll all be in the outline. In other words, you won’t have to spend time “in Wonderland.”
- Because you can look at your reflective essay outline and follow it as you’re writing, ultimately you’ll save some time in your writing. Second-guessing what comes next, in what order the supporting details should go, or going back for big revisions because you forgot something important are all wastes of time.
Are you convinced yet that creating a reflective essay outline is the best option?
Good! Now let’s get to actually making that outline!
How to Craft a Good Reflective Essay Outline
Because the subject of reflective essays is different from that of, say, an argumentative essay, the structure and organization can also be quite different. However, some rules still apply. To start organizing, your reflective essay outline should include sections for the introduction, body and conclusion.
For the purposes of giving examples, let’s say Alice just got back from her adventures in Wonderland and is working on a reflective essay outline to tell about her experience there.
Image by Jessie Wilcox Smith via Wikimedia Commons
As with any essay, your reflective essay should begin with an introduction. The parts of your introduction to include in your outline are:
- The hook: you want to grab your reader’s attention from the very start. If you’re telling about an experience, give a quick preview of the most exciting part of that story.
- The thesis statement: In a reflective essay, the thesis statement will usually include a brief statement of what your essay is about as well as how the specific person, place, or experience has influenced you. You will expand on this later, so don’t give away too much in the beginning.
Alice’s introduction might go something like this:
I don’t know how I had gotten myself into such a mess, but I found myself running down a seemingly endless path with the Red Queen’s entire court shouting, “Off with her head!” I had long yearned for adventure and excitement, but my time in Wonderland made me realize that adventure comes with some serious risks.
The next part of your outline is perhaps the most important. Without your reflective essay outline, the body can get muddled and confusing. I can’t tell you exactly how to organize the body of your essay because every essay is going to be different. However, I do have a couple of tips.
- If you are writing about an experience or an event, use a chronology that makes sense. It doesn’t have to be completely linear, but if you jump around in the timeline too much, it can confuse both you and the reader. Laying out the important parts in the outline will help you figure out in what order to put everything.
- No matter what you’re writing your reflective essay about–an experience, person or place–you should include the impact it has madeand what, if anything, you learned. This should be at least as long of a section as the description of the event, person or place. It’s what shows off who you are and it’s what the reader will be most interested in.
The body paragraphs of Alice’s reflective outline may look something like this:
- Following the white rabbit down the rabbit hole
- Description of what happened
- Learning to look before I leap
- Meeting the Caterpillar
- Description of what happened
- I learned how to control my size
- I started to realize just how strange the people were in Wonderland
- Mad Tea Party
- Description of what happened
- Although a lot of fun, the tea party was very stressful
- The people I met were progressively crazier
- Croquet with the Red Queen
- Description of what happened
- It’s very hard to play croquet when the other person is cheating and threatening to behead you
- It was at this point when I realized that Wonderland had no rules, and that a world without rules is insane
As you can see, Alice’s timeline includes different events within the entire experience and with a moment of reflection on each. The final lesson learned is the epiphany–the aha! moment.
Your outline does not have to look just like this. It could be a summary of the entire experience, followed by what you learned from it. Like I said, every essay is different.
The conclusion of your reflective essay should be the finishing touch that brings the whole piece of writing together nicely. Include a brief summary of your main points (as stated in the body paragraphs), as well as the overall takeaway from your reflection.
For example, Alice’s conclusion would be similar to this:
The White Rabbit, Caterpillar, Mad Hatter, and the Red Queen are certainly faces that I’ll never forget. They each contributed to the sheer madness of Wonderland. But those people–that madness–made me thankful for the peace and security of my own home and family and its rules.
More Resources to Help with Your Reflective Essay Outline
I hope you have a better understanding of why and how to draft a good outline. To give you a bit of extra help, here’s a downloadable reflective essay outline template.
Reflective Essay Outline Template.
This outline template follows a 5-paragraph format, but you can add paragraphs and rearrange the body paragraphs to fit your needs. Just fill in the blanks with your own information, and you’ll be one step closer to a stellar essay.
Need more inspiration? Check out these reflective essay examples.
If you’re looking for topic ideas, check out 15 Reflective Essay Topics to Inspire Your Next Paper.
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.
Strong Cover Letter
December 12, 2001
Humboldt State University
Arcata, CA 95521-8299
Dear Portfolio Reader:
In this portfolio I included a variety of pieces in order to display a wide breadth of my abilities and interests. I tried to show the presence of awareness of my audience and rhetorical purpose by providing several different styles of writing. [Comment on paragraph one.]1
I chose to present "Voyeur" first2 because I feel that it provides the reader with an introduction and insight3 into my character and interests in a personable manner. Although I feel this piece stemmed from worthwhile introspection and used vivid descriptionssuch as that of riding through a Mexican border town in a "shiny white rental car smelling of new plastic and a faint tinge of the prior occupant's cigarettes" past ancient grandmothers who "sit listlessly on the dust packed earth with their faces wrinkled by a thousand years of sun, tears, and age,"4 I consider it my weakest piece because I was experimenting with writing a subjective narrative in first person, a style that is new and unfamiliar to me. because I was not writing an objective essay or a research paper, it forced me to abandon writing strategies that I had found adequate and successful for the requirements of previous classes. It forced me to write about emotions as opposed to logic and straight facts. Facts tainted by emotion are harder for me to portray because I often don't trust my writing to convey their meaningfulness. For example, when I wrote, "When I came back, I returned with a sense of confidence,"I did so because I felt I could not even begin to convey the magnitude of my new found sense of self worth and the absence of ostracism from my peers that I felt at that point.5
Because I wasn't comfortable with this paper, I had many people read over it for me as I made my revisions. Some of these people suggested that I name the destinations of my travels. I purposely did not do so because I only sought to convey the incredible impact traveling can have upon me; thus, I felt the locations were irrelevant and possibly distracting.6
Despite my concerns about the strength of "Voyeur" in comparison to the others, I think it enhances my portfolio because it does succeed in telling the reader about me and some of the definitive influences on my character. [Comment on paragraph four.]7
The second piece I chose to include in the portfolio was written in response to the events of September 11th. I wrote a letter to an elected official because I felt its value would be twofold: I could fulfill a class requirement while simultaneously informing an elected official of my opinion on such a serious situation.8 I feel that the latter is highly important because if one believes strongly in something, and she doesn't tell her representatives her opinion, then they cannot be held accountable for their actions or inaction.
Although when I wrote it felt passionately about the situation, I tempered my vocabularybecause if I had used over-emotional language my opinion would have been easier to dismiss or discredit. It was also purposely written to be concise. I wanted to make my point and move on, and not overload it with facts, so that it would actually be read and not just skimmed over.9 I know I made unsubstantiated generalizationslike, "For even as unprincipled as terrorism is, the desperation and craziness of those who commit these crimes stem from real situations of injustice in the world," but for the sake of brevity I did not find this unreasonable.10 I also feel that in a letter to an elected official one need not justify her views but merely state them, for it is not the official's job to evaluate his constituents' views, only to represent them.
Finally, the third piece of writing I included was my research paper11 on the philosophical beliefs of North Coast Earth First!ers. I thought it would be a strong piece to end with as it demonstrates my skills to research a topic at length, analyze it, and also compare it with other topics for clarification. For example, I showed the philosophies of the New Age Movement and Animal Rights proponents to contrast with a deep ecological philosophy.12 This helped to support my assertionsabout their beliefs as well as dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding them.13
The tried and true methods I used to write this paper made it one that I felt quite comfortable including in my portfolio. For example, I outlined this piece by using a method for writing research papers suggested to me by a previous instructor. As I concluded my research, I simply wrote down any relevant points and quotes that I wanted to use on index cards. On the back of these cards I wrote the bibliographic information of my sources in MLA format. Then, when I felt I had enough in formation to begin writing, I laid out the cards in the order in which I wanted to present the information they held which instantly provided me with an outline. Writing my works cited page and bibliography were then a cinch because I didn't have to return to any of my sources or even reach for my MLA handbook. [Comment on paragraph eight.]14
Fortunately, I entered this semester with a strong background in English which allowed many of my revisions to focus on style, purpose, and trying to make my voice heard. And although much of this semester's work validated the effectiveness of strategies that I had used in the past, I learned the areas in which my writing is weakest and needs the most work. I now know that to improve my overall writing abilities I need to continue to practice writing subjectively and also vary the sentence structures I use to add depth to my work. I also learned that it is okay—and ultimately necessary—for one to experiment outside her comfort zone in order to achieve a higher level of success.15
The writer opens with her goals for her portfolio; although this is certainly not the only way to open the cover letter, I respond positively to he sense of purpose.
This author remembers to identify each of her submissions by title--not be genre--and she formats the title appropriately. She also remembers to discuss her rationale for ordering her submissions as she does.
Herein lies an example of one minor concern with this cover letter: it is a bit wordy. I wouldn't use both "introduction" and "insight."
Not only does this author support her assertions about "vivid descriptions" with specific examples, she does so by gracefully integrating (and correctly punctuating) her quotations into the cover letter's text.
This writer makes excellent decisions concerning how many quotations to include. She offers brief, specific examples without making the whole portfolio redundant.
Here the author discusses one of her writing decisions--a very smart strategy. Not only does she reveal her control over her writing, she also casts this section of her paper as a strength rather than as an oversight or mistake.
This paragraph feels redundant to me. I would have deleted it.
I like that this writer exposes her writing motivation; in this way, she reveals her appreciation for the role writing plays in the world, for the power of writing.
Again, the writer highlights in this paragraph her decision-making process; again, she casts this element of her paper as a strength rather than as an error.
The author wisely identifies a generalization--providing a specific example--and explains her decision.
The author slips a bit here by identifying this submission by genre rather than by title.
Again, this author makes her decision-making process transparent, effectively revealing her behind-the-scenes work.
I don't find sufficient support for this generalization. I find myself wondering HOW these comparisons "support [her] assertions about their beliefs as well as dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding them."
As an evaluator, I am reassured by these process revelations. They increase my confidence that this author is in control of her writing, that she has mastered skills that will continue to serve her in her college career and beyond.
I like that this author offers herself advice for continuing to improve her writing. This kind of awareness will most likely result in continuing improvement.