But since the reflective essay that you have to write for your college applications plays such a big role in your chances of getting in, it’s all the more important to show your true, authentic self in it. That’s what the admissions office is looking for – authenticity and your personality.
Here is a brief step-by-step guide on how to think about and write any reflective essay, including your college application essay. Hopefully, by the end of it, you’ll feel a little less nervous about the cursor blinking on your blank white word processor page.
Think about the topic
You will usually be given a topic to focus your thoughts around. Reflective essays are about a real experience you’ve had, something you’ve imagined or envisioned for the future, a place or an object that is special to you, or something you’ve seen, touched, tasted, etc. that changed you or how it didn’t change you.
The first thing you want to do is to think about the topic. How did the event change you? What were your feelings about the subject? A reflective essay could be about a personal battle with anorexia, or it could be about the pressures of college. Or it could be about a place you went to that left a very strong impression on you.
The reflective essay will be deep. A certain level of self-awareness will make the essay more interesting to read. You’ll be describing a process. So it’s a good idea to spend some time doing other things while you think about the subject.
As and when you think of something during the ideating period, write it down. Ideas come and go, and it’s easy to forget something you’ve thought of earlier in the day if you don’t write it down.
Write down all the thoughts and feelings as they come to you. You can sift through them later. Also write down questions that come up as you think, even the ones without answers. You can explore them in your essay if they are relevant.
Decide who your reader is
The question to ask yourself is: who will be reading your work? Is it your professor? The admissions officer? What are the expectations that they have from you? The tutor who assigned the essay would have given you a set of instructions. That’s what you need to think about. At the same time, don’t sideline other readers like your family, your classmates, your friends.
The answers to these questions will decide the language you use. In this day and age of political correctness, you want to make sure you’re writing a gender-sensitive essay that is interesting not just to your tutor but also to a larger audience.
Plan a strong beginning
Your reflective essay will usually be organized in the classic format of having a beginning, middle and an end. In the initial paragraphs, you will identify what the subject is.
You’ll give readers a general picture of the impression the subject has made on you. You’ll also need to write a statement in these paragraphs, a kind of thesis statement, that you’ll be exploring further in the essay. A good essay will have a strong, clear thesis statement.
For instance, Phillip Lopate writes in the first paragraph of his essay Against Joie De Vivre – “…what rankles me is the stylization of this private condition into a bullying social ritual.” He’s speaking about the joie de vivre, or the joy of living.
Immediately you can tell that the writer is a little hostile, a little anti-social. That’s the clear-cut quality of the impression you want to make on your reader with your first paragraph and thesis statement.
Split the body into manageable parts
In the first paragraph after the introduction – you don’t need a distinct heading to mark the separate sections, the paragraphs should flow naturally into each other – you should talk about the first reason the subject made an impact on you.
Talk about why and how. Of course, there is no right or wrong answer in a reflective essay, it is purely your opinions and personality that should come through.
The second paragraph should be about the second reason, and the third should be about the third reason, etc. In this way, you can split the essay into manageable parts that flow logically.
You could write an essay in another way. You could introduce the event or the scene in the first paragraph and bring the event or process to life for readers. Then in the subsequent paragraphs, you can point out the main issues or questions raised by the event.
In the final section of the body, you can talk about your opinions or thoughts on the event. Talk about any lessons you have learnt, any ideas or insights that came to you, and what the event means to you.
Your conclusion should be a summary or natural completion of your essay. It should follow from the reasoning in the previous paragraphs and convince the reader, drive home the thesis statement.
The conclusion will support the overall thesis argument and reaffirm the points you’ve made in the body. There should be no new information in the conclusion. You could talk about how you have personally changed because of the subject.
In the final paragraph of his essay, Phillip Lopate calls joie de vivre “compensatory.” And he goes on to describe how he would rather express joy and gratitude – like a hunter’s awareness of the scent of the prey. Because he cannot pretend to be joyful when he is still hungry.
Read in order to write better
As a writer – or many writers – have said at various times, you only write as well as you read.
If you’re curious about what a good reflective essay looks like, you may want to read up some classics. George Orwell’s Why I Write is a work you can turn to for inspiration. Also look at Phillip Lopate’s “Against Joie de Vivre”, a witty and reflective essay on the writer’s dislike of ‘the knack of knowing how to live’.
Marcel Proust, the long-winded French author, is a good example of leisurely reflection, so you could read his fictional work for inspiration on how to be lyrically reflective. But his work is also a demonstration of how not to write your college essays – don’t make them rambling or too long.
You don’t have the luxury Proust had in his novels. Be to-the-point and make sure all your ideas revolve around the question you’re trying to answer, the topic you’re exploring. A good essay will wash over the reader like a quick and gentle wave instead of dragging them along for miles before they can see land.