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Writing the Reflection Essay

(Corresponding chapter in The Little Seagull Handbook : W-8 )

What is a Reflection Essay?

This Reflection Essay is a personal essay—you will reflect back on an event that had a significant impact on

you. It is important that you choose a topic that is dear to you, which you can write about in some detail. In this

essay—and only in this essay—you will use the first person; this includes “I,” “my,” “mine,” etc., because this is

an essay that concerns your personal experience.

Your essay should reflect on who you are today, what you think is your place or role in the world today, and how

you came to that understanding. Choose something from your life that has had a bearing on who you are today

and how you see your role in the world, and write about that.

Some of the readings you will do during this unit of the semester are personal, reflection essays of some sort,

such as Zora Neale Hurston’s essay. Notice how Hurston focuses on a particular topic—her identity and how she

perceives it based on her environment. She looks back on various memorable moments in her life reflects on the

impact that they had on her life.

A personal essay is often an open form essay—this means that it does not set out to answer or solve a problem.

Rather, it seeks to explore an idea, often in the form of a narrative. In contrast with an argument essay in which

the writer is clear on what her conclusion is (for example, “Smoking is bad because it puts the smoker at risk of

many health problems”), in an open form essay the writer may not have a specific conclusion in mind when she

starts writing (for example, “I did not know at the time of my eighth birthday party how things would change

irrevocably”). Notice in the second example that even though the reader knows that the writer’s eighth birthday

party was important, the reader will not find out why until the end of the essay, after the writer has told her story.

In an open form essay the writer reaches her conclusion through the process of contemplating the topic,

reflecting on it, and writing about it. Thus, your personal essay should be an investigation of the significance of

your topic and its impact on you—you will have to tell the story before you discuss its significance to you.

Focus and Details

Your focus for this essay should be evident from the details you choose. Even though this is an open form essay,

you will still need a clear focus which should be developed in the first paragraph. In other words, anyone reading

your essay should be able to figure out what the main focus of your essay is from reading your first paragraph.

An important part of the Reflection Essay is providing clear, descriptive details that paint a vivid picture of your

topic for your reader. You must show, not tell. What this means is that your descriptive language should allow the

reader to experience what you are writing about. For example, consider these two descriptions of being cold:

1. As the wind blew, I could tell my nose was turning red; I shivered uncontrollably under my woolen pea

coat, sweater, shirt, jeans, and thermals; and I knew it was bad when the tips of my fingers started going


2. I was cold.

Notice the differences between these examples—the first one allows the reader to really experience the cold,

whereas the second one only tells the reader that you were cold. The first example is more descriptive and

therefore more engaging.

Understand that not every single detail needs to be described extensively; however, the ones that are essential

and important to your story must be conveyed descriptively and in a vivid manner. This is what makes for

interesting and engaging storytelling.


You will also want to pay attention to the pacing of your story—how you tell the story. Think about the

following: what details should go first, how much time you spend discussing some aspects of the story over

others, and how you will move through the events of the experience. You will need to consider the organization

of the essay—more on this in “Organizing the Reflection Essay.”

By the end of the essay you will want to reflect on the effect that your topic has had on you—how it has affected

your life, how it has changed you, etcetera. This should be an insightful discussion that takes into account what

you have learned as a result of the experience you have described. This should be at least a paragraph long, not

just a few sentences.

As with everything you write, you will want to proofread and edit your essay according to the conventions of

standard American English. Feel free to use the Tutoring services available at various campuses. Reading your

essay out loud SLOWLY will also help you to catch grammar errors as your ears are far more sensitive than your

eyes. If, for example, as you are reading your essay out loud and you find yourself pausing naturally at a place in

the essay where there is no punctuation, you might want to look closer at your essay and see whether it requires

some kind of punctuation there.

You will also need to give an original title for your essay. Simply calling it “Reflection Essay,” will not suffice.


The topic you choose should be something of some importance to you, something that affected your life in a

significant way. The topics can be anything, but it has to be something that shaped and influenced your life in a

significant way.

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