The reflective essay serves two key purposes in your portfolio:

  • First, it gives your reviewers some insight into your development as a writer and the role writing has played in your Carleton education.
  • Second, it allows you to tell your readers about each individual essay in the portfolio–where and how you cane to write it, why you included it, what it reveals about you as a writer, etc.
  • Third, and perhaps most importantly, writing the reflective essay allows you, the writer, 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 three 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. Furthermore, the reflective essay provides you an opportunity 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 a valuable experience or just another hurdle on the way to graduation.

The Prompt

The questions below should serve as a guide for your reflective essay. You do not have to address the questions in any particular order, nor do you have to give them all equal time and attention (though you should try to address them all in some way).  Furthermore, if any of the questions simply do not apply to your experience, feel free to skip them or reframe them. In the end, your reflective essay as a whole should read as just that—a single essay with a clear flow of ideas throughout, not a series of short responses to each of the questions below. The primary goal here is to provide your readers with useful context for your writing, not to answer these particular questions in this particular order.


  • What personal skills, experiences, and strengths did you bring to Carleton with you, and how did they benefit you in the writing assignments you completed over the past two years?
    • Note: these need not be specifically writing skills, just skills that helped you as a writer. For instance, you may have found that your time management skills were a significant asset as you began to tackle college-level writing assignments.
  • What challenges (if any) did you face in meeting the expectations for writing in your Carleton classes? How did you meet these challenges?
  • How have you grown or developed as a writer over the past two years?  How has the writing you’ve completed fit into your overall progress as a student, scholar, or thinker at Carleton?
  • How do you expect writing to fit into your academic work in the future? What aspects of your writing do you plan to develop further?

Your reflective essay should also explain how each of the essays you selected from your Carleton classes fits into the overall narrative of your development as a writer. You can address this over the course of the essay, as part of the overall narrative or argument, or you can include a series of paragraphs at the end of the essay that addresses each piece in turn. Either way, some questions you might address here are:

  • How does each essay demonstrate major skills you’ve acquired or improved? (These do not necessarily need to line up with the portfolio requirements — analysis, interpretation, observation, etc. — you can also just state in your own words what you feel you gained from writing each essay.)
  • Do one or more of them represent significant “turning points” or moments in your development as a writer?  
  • Do one or more of them illustrate something about your individual style or approach to writing?

You should write at least a sentence or two about each essay in the portfolio, but you can certainly write more if you have more to say about a given piece. Regardless of how much you write about each essay, though, it is extremely important that you address what each piece brings to the portfolio, because this allows your readers understand what you want them to see when they review your work.

Length and Format

There is no minimum or maximum length for the reflective essay, but as a general guideline, it should be roughly 500-1200 words (~2-3 standard, double-spaced pages). Anything less than 500 words and you are unlikely to address the key ideas in enough depth to engage your readers. Anything more than 1200 words and readers are likely to begin “skimming” fairly heavily as they read.

Regardless of length, your reflective essay should be double-spaced and written in an easily readable 12-point font.

Titles are encouraged, but not required, though you should at the very least clearly label the document “Reflective Essay” at the top.

Additional Guidelines

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.
  • Stay focused on your experience — i.e. it should not read as an evaluation of your individual classes or Carleton as a whole (though you’re free to express positive or negative opinions about the college that are relevant to your experience).

Your Reflective essay should NOT:

  • Simply state where each essay in the portfolio came from (i.e. the class and term) and/or what specific portfolio requirements it fulfills. Your readers will have all this information on your cover sheet. You should only address these details in the reflective essay if they are relevant to your experience
    • For example, you might mention that an essay came from your A&I course in order to explain how it illustrates some of the writing abilities you brought with you from high school, but also illustrates some weaknesses in your writing that you improved upon in later essays–ideally essays that are also included in the portfolio.
  • Simply restate 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 goal is not to prove that you have internalized the “Carleton philosophy” of liberal arts education and the importance of writing. Rather, your readers want to see how you have experienced and grown from your time here.

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, particularly if you transferred to Carleton from another college or university.
  • 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.
  • Express criticisms or disappointments with your experiences at Carleton. While you should keep your audience (Carleton faculty and staff) and the context (an assessment of your academic writing skills) in mind, you do not have to be a “cheerleader” for Carleton. If you feel that there are gaps or shortcomings in the education you’ve received over the past few years that have made it more challenging for you to develop your writing skills in the way you wished to, you are welcome to say so.