How to Write a Reflective Essay

Reflective Essay
Writing Guide

What Is a Reflective Essay?

A reflective essay is an essay in which you contemplate a specific topic and share your thoughts with the reader. It usually has a personal tone and is written in the first person. Some examples of reflective essay topics are:

  • How My Summer Abroad Changed Me
  • What I Learned From Volunteering at a Soup Kitchen
  • Why The Catcher In the Rye is Still Relevant Today

The first two ask the student to write about an experience they had and how it affected them while the last topic is an academic topic that asks students to reflect on how a piece of literature relates to their life. Both are common reflective essay types that students may be asked to write.

Practicing writing reflective essays early will set you up for having to write them on college and graduate school applications, job applications, scholarship applications and other applications that ask for similar types of essays. So pay attention because this is a skill you’ll definitely use later in life.

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Step 1 - Choosing a Topic

Okay, so now that you understand what a reflective essay is, it’s time for you to decide what you want to write about. Unless you’ve been given specific guidelines by your teacher, you can choose just about anything. So, how do you choose?

The best way to start is to make a list of topics you could write about:

  • Being elected captain of the cross-country team
  • My dog dying
  • Not getting the lead in the school play
  • Adapting to having a new younger brother
  • My first job
  • My favorite spot to go when I’m alone
  • My favorite movie

Top tip: For some students, making a list is an ideal way to help them decide. Other students might need to mind-map or brainstorm, writing out a few sentences about each topic or making an illustration to help them decide. You can use whatever method works best for you, as long as it helps you decide on a topic.

Step 2 - Writing an Outline

Though a reflective essay is a personal account, it still has to have some structure to it. It’s not a journal entry or a free-writing exercise and should follow a well-organized and logical order. Writing an outline can help you organize your thoughts so you know what topics you want to cover when you sit down to write your first draft.


Your introduction should have a great hook that makes the reader want to read more. Let’s say you’re writing about a trip to Mexico. Your introduction can begin with:

  • An anecdote: I confess that as I walked off the plane and into Mexico City’s enormous and chaotic airport, I already sensed that this experience would change me. Everything was different: the language, the currency, the way people looked, the food they ate. And we hadn’t even left the airport yet!
  • A quote: Mark Twain said that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”
  • A shocking statistic: “Did you know that in 2015, 139,000 people immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and that there were 4.6 million ELL students in American public schools for the same year?”

Your introduction should also include your thesis statement, which will tell the reader what your essay is about.

Ex: It turns out that Mr. Twain was right: visiting another country took me out of my comfort zone and made it easier for me to relate to the Mexican-American and other ELL students who attend my high school.

Body Paragraphs

The body paragraphs of your reflective essay should follow a logical order and always connect to your thesis statement. For example, you might have gotten a really bad sunburn in Mexico, but that’s not something you should include in your essay since it doesn’t relate to your thesis statement. Using the thesis statement from above, your body paragraphs could be:

  • Struggling with the language
  • Culture shock
  • People curious about my language and culture


Your essay’s conclusion should revisit the main themes and tie into the thesis statement. For the essay example of traveling to Mexico, you could discuss how the experience made you more sensitive to the struggles of ELL students in your school as well as how it caused you to form a cultural exchange club at school.

Top tip: Take notes before you write your outline, jotting down ideas on different topics and experiences you could include in your essay. Then choose the ones that best fit with your thesis statement and write your outline.

Step 3 - Writing Your First Draft

Top tip: Take notes before you write your outline, jotting down ideas on different topics and experiences you could include in your essay. Then choose the ones that best fit with your thesis statement and write your outline.

Here’s a sample essay on the topic of traveling to Mexico.

sample essay on the topic of traveling to Mexico

Top tip: Write your thesis statement out in big letters and look at it periodically as you write your draft.

Step 4 - Editing

Editing is an essential step for any essay. There are lots of tactics you can use to successfully edit your essay:

  • Peer edit - Have a friend read your essay and tell you what they think. They might have some helpful suggestions on how to make your essay even better.
  • Read it out loud - Reading your essay out loud helps you to get a sense if the essay flows or not. If you run out of breath while reading a sentence, chances are it’s a run-on sentence. If you stumble over the words, that sentence could probably be reworked to sound smoother.
  • Give it a rest- Make sure you allow some time between when you stop writing and when you go back to edit. This gives you some perspective that allows you to see mistakes more easily.

Writing a reflective essay doesn’t have to be a scary experience. You can write an awesome essay by following the above examples, steps and tips. Good luck and happy writing!

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