In a reflective essay, you recount something that you have experienced, and say what you learned or how the experience changed you. The language used in a reflective essay should be first person, primarily past tense, primarily concrete, with a coherent tone and level of diction.

First Person

You should use the first person -- I, me, my -- in your reflective essay. This is an account of something that actually happened to you, as well as your thoughts on the event. However, it is still possible to overuse the word “I” in a first person account. Avoid distancing language, such as “I saw” or “I heard,” in which the “I” comes between the reader and a direct account of what happens. In most cases, directly stating what you saw or heard, without the “I,” makes for much stronger writing.

Past Tense

Most reflective essays should be written in past tense, about an event that the author has already experienced. The reflection portion of the essay may be in present tense -- “I think,” “I believe” -- if the author is presenting new or current thoughts, or it may be in the past tense -- “I realized,” “I understood” -- if the author is presenting reflections that occurred in the past. In either case, the difference in time between the event and the reflections should be clear.

Concrete and Abstract Language

Use concrete language to describe the experience that forms the heart of your reflective essay. Concrete language refers to anything that you can literally see, hear, smell, taste or touch. Examples of concrete language include “her high voice,” “the basket of oranges,” “a metallic smell,” etc. The point is to bring your reader as close to the experience as possible. In your reflections on this experience, you will most likely need to use abstract language, that is, language that talks about ideas. Examples of abstract language include “honesty,” “goodness,” “emptiness,” etc.

Coherent Tone and Level of Diction

Though you may chose from a variety of tones and levels of diction when writing your reflective essay -- from serious and formal to ironic and informal -- you should be consistent. If you start at a formal level of diction, as in an academic paper, your essay should be formal throughout. Unless you have a good reason to do otherwise, you should avoid slang.