So what's the first step of writing a reflective essay, and what format should one use? The first and most critical step is finding a personal experience general enough to capture your audience and make them really interested in your reflections on it. Talking about the time you didn't have enough money at the car wash isn't really going to be as captivating as using the main emotions you felt that day (embarrassment, panic, humiliation) as your main focus. You can always use the car wash story as an example, but the key is to use general themes, like emotions, major life experiences or broad cultural and social elements, like holidays as your fodder.
Once you've identified your main theme, be it Love, Christmas, Going to College, or anything relevant and broad enough to engage the majority of your intended audience, it's time to start sketching out your ideas. Since the ideal theme for a reflective essay is broad, your idea range will be just that as well. It's smart to draft a useful outline to rein these ideas and broad notions in. Unlike outlines you may have used while pre-writing for other essay styles, this outline will not be as standard and sequential. Since you're reflecting on a personal experience, events may not follow any certain order or reasoning, and lines can become blurred. Keep the basic format of an outline with headings and sub-headings, but do not try to fit your ideas and reactions to your theme to the sequence of it. Your outline should be based on an interpretation of the example below.
I. Main Theme (get your reader involved here with some broad emotion, life experience, etc.)
A. Bolster this theme and why you are writing about it with some descriptors and details. For example, if you're writing about love, some mysterious and cryptic statements might really draw the reader in.
II. General Bulk of Text
A. This part of your essay should reveal the main gist of the reflection, and the varied ideas you, the author, have surrounding this reflection. Limit your supporting evidence to one major train of thought though, so as not to confuse the reader or seem wishy washy. For example, a statement like "I always thought I knew what love was, but it wasn't until my best friend saved my life that I truly understood." From there, you can expound upon the varied experiences before the main punch, and how your perceptions changed thereafter.
A. Summarize the main ideas of your essay, and while doing so, ask yourself if your essay encapsulated everything you wished it to. Also put yourself in the shoes of your reader: could they have learned something, taken solace or comfort in the words you wrote, or maybe enjoyed a laugh or two? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, you've written a successful essay that has explored a major theme, shared personal reflections to that theme, and engaged the reader.