The Reflective Essay

The Reflective Essay

The reflective essay has two, equally important purposes:  First, it gives your readers some insight into your development as a writer and the role writing has played in your Carleton education.  Second, it allows you to stop and consider what you have gained from your varied writing experiences at Carleton and how you intend to develop your skills going forward.

These two purposes mean that the reflective essay is perhaps the most important single component of your portfolio.  Since it’s the only item you will write exclusively for the portfolio, it’s the only opportunity you will have to connect directly with your reviewers and draw their attention to the most important qualities of your writing.  It’s also an opportunity for you to take stock of your own writing and draw your own conclusions about its strengths and weaknesses, rather than relying on the assessments of your professors.  Thus, the amount of time and effort you put into your reflective essay will often determine whether you find the portfolio process to be valuable or just another hurdle on the way to graduation.

Since the reflective essay will represent your personal experience and perspective, there’s no single formula or structure that you must follow to write it.  However, here are a few rough guidelines that might help:

Your reflective essay SHOULD:

·      Make an overall argument about how you have developed as a writer since your first term at Carleton.

·      Use details from your personal experience to support your conclusions.

·      Address how each of your essays in some way illustrates your development.

·      Be roughly 500-1000 words long (roughly 2-3 double-spaced pages).

·      Maintain a generally academic tone.  It’s okay to be light or even humorous in your essay, but you should avoid being glib or dismissive of the portfolio process.


Your Reflective essay should NOT:

·      Simply summarize where each essay came from (i.e. the class and term) and what portfolio requirements it fulfills.  Your readers will have all this information on your cover sheet.

·      Simply restate the basic ethos of the college (e.g. “I believe that writing is essential in a liberal arts education…”) without explaining how these ideas apply to your experience.


Your Reflective Essay CAN:

·      Point out areas where your writing has improved over time.  You might, for example, acknowledge that a more recent essay in your portfolio has a better argument or more refined language than an essay from several terms back.

·      Discuss your experiences as a writer before Carleton.

·      Recognize particular challenges you’ve faced in developing your writing skills, such as learning English as a second language or not having significant experience with academic writing before Carleton.

·      Speculate on how you will continue to develop your writing skills in your next two years at Carleton.