Tips on Writing a Winning Reflection Paper in College

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When it comes to college writing, most students quickly adapt to the rhythms of producing a fact-based paper. You visit your school’s online library, research some material, and slot it in to a five-paragraph essay template, or a similar standard format. Bang! You’re done. But what happens when you are assigned a completely different type of paper that doesn’t fit neatly into the standard essay formats you learned in high school or in freshman composition class? When it comes to the personal reflection paper, many students struggle precisely because this type of essay is so different from most that they’ve written in their other classes. Fortunately, there are a few tips that will help you with this type of paper.

Before we get to the tips, it’s important to make sure we are all on the same page when it comes to what exactly a personal reflection paper is. As the name implies, a reflective essay looks back on something, and a personal reflection offers your own feelings and reactions. Typically, a personal reflection paper is intended to allow a student to share with the instructor his or her feelings about a course and how the course has impacted them. Some personal reflections, however, may examine other topics with which you have had personal experience, such as a job or a volunteer opportunity. In most cases, the instructor is looking for you to draw connections between course material and your own experiences in order to discover how course content can be or has been relevant to your lived experience.

In order to write a terrific personal reflection essay, follow a few simple tips:

Start with simple pre-writing activities :

Before you even begin writing, make sure you have read the essay question and understand it completely. For a personal reflection, you won’t likely be doing heavy research, the next step isn’t usually a visit to the library. Instead, you should make notes about your thoughts, feelings, and experiences so you can better understand your reaction to the essay topic. By writing down your thoughts, you can begin to organize them into categories so you can structure your paper around a few key themes. Try asking yourself key questions to guide your note-taking such as:

  1. How has the essay topic affected me personally?
  2. How has the essay topic changed the way I think about an issue or experience?
  3. Has the essay topic sparked any questions I want answers for?
  4. How does the essay topic relate to other course content or content in other courses?

Begin organizing your reflections :

The exact format you use for your paper will vary depending on your instructor’s requirements and the essay question, but in general, you will adapt a standard essay format for a reflective essay. You will still have an introduction with a thesis statement and a conclusion, but the body paragraphs might be organized somewhat differently. Depending on the essay question, you may follow the standard format and offer three reflective points (one per paragraph) which you support with evidence. Or, you might have a different format, such as telling a story about your reflective journey in chronological order, or exploring one particular reaction across multiple paragraphs. Whichever style you choose, try to match it to the essay question so you are sure to answer the instructor’s question.

Remember that the personal essay is, well, personal :

The biggest difference between a personal essay and an expository essay like a term paper is that it involves your own views and opinions. In this genre of writing, it’s OK to refer to yourself and to talk about your thoughts and feelings without having to phrase them in awkward third-person format (“One often feels…”). Don’t be afraid to share your honest views, but keep your instructor in mind. Even if you had a negative reaction, avoid insulting the instructor or viciously attacking course material. Instructors are open to reasoned disagreement, but they don’t want to find out that you want to set your textbook on fire.

 With these tips, writing a professional reflection paper from scratch should be an easy and refreshing change of pace from the standard academic term paper. The hardest part is getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper. Once you’ve mastered the art of sharing your feelings in written form, you’ll quickly find that these essays are quick to produce, and you’ll look forward to having time off from the more detailed research papers that take up a lot more time.

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