How To Write a Reflection Paper (Components and Examples)
Updated October 13, 2023
Students at all academic levels often reflect by writing what they think about a particular event or body of work. Later, when composing cover letters for a job application, you also may reflect on past experiences and share that with your reader. Knowing how to structure this type of essay can help to simplify the writing process and make you feel more confident in your abilities.
In this article, we discuss reflection papers, explain how to start a reflection paper and review its core components, plus share tips for when writing your own.
A reflection paper is an introspective piece of writing that shares your thoughts and/or reactions to an experience or topic.
There are two main types of reflection papers: experiential and reading (or textual).
Starting a reflection paper begins by asking questions and noting your ideas or thoughts on the subject matter. Brainstorming is a key step to ensure your paper remains focused.
What is a reflection paper?
A reflection paper is an analytical academic essay a writer crafts explicitly to record their ideas about a particular topic. A reflection paper is more formal than a journal entry because of its academic tone, but it's less formal than a report because it expresses one's thoughts.
It's not uncommon for colleges and universities, scholarship programs and even sometimes employers to ask candidates to submit a reflection paper to gain insight into their character and life experiences.
Types of reflection papers
A reflection paper typically falls under one of two distinctions:
The reflection results from an experience, transforming the experience into a learning one
The reflection is typically on reading materials, though it could easily reflect on a film, piece of music or a work of art
Experiential learning cycles through four steps: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation
Potentially more room to explore personal experiences and reactions beyond the traditional argumentative literary analysis associated with critical writing
Developed by psychologist and educational theorist David Kolb in the 1980s
How to start a reflection paper
Since a reflection paper is about your thoughts on a topic and/or subject (an experience, an event, a former job, etc.), you’ll want to get your notes written down to better organize your thoughts and, in turn, your reflection paper. You can write a reflection paper in a number of ways, including in the first person. Brainstorming before you begin to write, though, is a common way to start a reflection paper, asking questions about what you feel or what you learned, for example.
Reflection paper outline
The components of a reflection paper include the introduction, the body and a conclusion:
A reflection paper’s introduction specifies the topic, identifies the points it’ll cover, and gives your thesis statement. In a reflection paper, your thesis can state what you came away with but in thought-provoking terms.
Example: I've always associated a day at the zoo with an outing away from home for children. On a field trip or a family expedition, kids line up to watch animals live out their daily lives. But my most recent visit to the zoo went differently. I left my own pets at home for the day, so that I might watch other animals make their home in an exhibit.
Seeing primates interact in their zoo habitat is more than a reminder that this is an animal in captivity who shares some qualities with human beings. More specifically, it's understanding that perhaps the largest commonality all living beings share is that we all make the place we rest in a home despite an overwhelming desire to be free.
The body of your reflection paper is where you can explore the thesis of the paper. Each sentence in the body of the paper can apply new information in support your thesis statement. If using a three-body-paragraph structure, the first paragraph can introduce the topic or experience and how it affected you.
Example: While the orangutans never appeared ill at ease, I couldn't ignore that they dwelled in a contained environment left prey to constant viewership. But what was noteworthy was that they were not only cognizant of being watched, their reactions to this were both individual and subject to mood. Not unlike people, some are more exhibitionistic than others. One orangutan lounged on a rock, indifferent to onlookers, while another banged its chest and yelled.
The second paragraph can further your reflection ideas, perhaps making a comparison to other experiences or materials. The third paragraph can then illustrate what you learned with details and examples.
Example: After pondering this shared connection, it might be easy to attribute our comparable behaviors to the fact that apes and humans are similar creatures. Maybe so, or maybe this fluctuating conflict with our habitats extends beyond that. This resulted in me making even more comparisons between these two worlds.
The conclusion of your reflection paper summarizes what you've learned or concluded from your reflection. Describe the overall feeling or understanding you obtained due to the experience or topic. Your body paragraph supports the conclusion paragraph.
Example: As the day wore on, I soon longed for nothing more than my own home, even though it's the one I often long to leave for outside adventures. I consider that what draws all living things together is this conflict we have with our locations.
Perhaps that's why the map of the zoo is so clarifying with its directions. "You are here," it says. It seems like only when I am lost, am I grateful to be reminded. And that is ultimately what we all share in the animal kingdom.
Tips for writing a reflection paper
Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing your own reflection paper:
Mind the length: Reflection papers aren’t long essays. Rather, like a cover letter, they’re concise and to the point. Keeping reflection papers between 300 and 750 words is a good rule to follow.
Be clear and concise: As noted above, it's important to use your words efficiently in a reflection paper. Convey your thoughts on the experience or topic clearly and keep your writing concise to avoid meandering.
Brainstorm: Before you begin writing, be sure to brainstorm your ideas/thoughts. This will help you to organize your thoughts (and your paper) before you start to write. This will help you stay on topic throughout the paper, from the introduction to the conclusion.
Use proper formatting: While it's true that a reflection paper is less structured than other types of essays, it's still important to make your paper easy to read. If it's a cover letter, it should follow the standard format of a professional cover letter.
Settle on a tone: Since a reflection paper comprises your thoughts, it will read as more personal than other types of academic writing. This said, it’s still important to still strike the right tone when writing and maintain a formal presentation.
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