PDP Reflective Essay
The reflective essay is the primary component of the Personal Development Portfolio. Think of it as your opportunity to describe and document your growth as a person during these four years of your life. Thought of this way, the essay should ultimately reflect the person who wrote it, and it should demonstrate the maturity and development it intends to describe. It should be creative. It should have a clear and authentic voice -- your voice. It should allow its readers a candid view of the person you are becoming during your college experience.
Students sometimes confuse reflection with "reaction" or "response." To document your reaction or response to an experience would be to document how you feel about it or to describe the emotional or practical impact the experience had on you. Reflection, as we're using the term here, is something more than this. To reflect on your experiences is really to engage in an intellectual exercise whereby you review in detail what you know (what you've read, or learned, or observed, or felt, or experienced) and then draw some conclusions about the experience's significance in relation to the context of your life as a whole. The process involves your actions and emotions, certainly, but true reflection occurs as a result of thoroughly considering and understanding the significance of those thoughts, emotions, and experiences rather than merely charting or labeling them.
As you reflect on your experiences during these years, you should try to imagine the person you were when you first arrived here. Think about the many ways your life has changed since then. Ask yourself how much you have learned over the time you've been here, both in and out of the classroom. Ask yourself how much you have matured emotionally. Ask yourself how you have grown spiritually or ethically. Ask yourself how you have come to understand your place in society, your social roles and responsibilities. You are a very different person from the one who first arrived here -- older, more experienced, less naïve and uncertain--and the reflective essay gives you an opportunity to describe the journey, to document the story, of the metamorphosis you have experienced up to this point in your life. And remember that what we are discussing here is not merely a listing of activities or a cataloging of experiences. Growth and maturity are not simply the result of doing activities and checking items off a list. Growth and maturity result from changes in perception. And it is these changes in perception that should guide the writing of your essay.
Your Range of Experience
As you think about what sorts of things to say in your reflective essay, think of the many aspects of your educational experience. There are the courses you took, obviously, as well as the books you read, the lectures you heard, the programs you attended. These are all good places to begin. What are the key ideas, both in your major as well as your general education courses, that have shaped and reshaped your thinking over the past four years? What are the key ideas that you suspect will continue to shape your life and thought in the future? What are some of the fundamental concepts and beliefs that inform the sensibility, or the values, you have developed up to this point in your life?
Also, as you reflect on your past four years, remember there are many experiences beyond academic examples: experiences in extra-curricular organizations and activities; experiences while thinking and planning for life after college; and experiences while engaging in service learning. In fact, some portion of your essay should be devoted exclusively to reflection on your service learning experiences, with the emphasis of course on learning. It isn't just about the benefits you receive from the experience, after all. It's also about the many ways in which service learning opens your eyes to the larger community around you and to the people in that community. Another portion of your essay should focus on your short-term and long-term planning for the future, which might include preparations for attending graduate school, or preparations for a possible career -- or really anything that demonstrates your thinking about the next stages of your life.
Special Emphasis for Freshmen: Reflection
At the end of your freshman year, the personal essay you compose should emphasize and demonstrate your understanding of the importance of reflection, including service learning reflection, and its value to you as a tool for understanding and documenting your development as a person. Having experiences and doing activities are important aspects of your life, but it is the thought you give to those experiences that helps you learn and grow as a person. Putting things into perspective, fitting your experiences, as well as the ideas you encounter, into the larger context of your life, is what your education is all about.
The personal essay you compose at the end of your freshman year should be a discussion of the overall nature of the college experience and the impact that it is having on you. You may discuss the importance of goal setting and planning as a key element in your ongoing development. You may discuss ideas you encountered, in or outside the classroom, and your reaction to those ideas. You may discuss your interaction with people (in either a private or public sphere) and the lessons you learned from the interaction. Whatever you choose to discuss, make sure you spend time thinking about the experience and trying to make sense of it in the larger context of who you are.
In the same way, you should also consider the nature of reflection in terms of its relationship to the four dimensions of the Personal Development Program itself. How would you reflect differently on the issue of your ethical awareness and development versus, say, the issue of your intellectual growth and maturity? How does reflection as a process differ from one dimension of your life to another and what may those differences suggest?
Special Emphasis for Sophomores: Integration
The personal reflective essay you write as a sophomore should build on the essay you wrote as a freshman. Your discussion of the importance of reflection, your assessment of the impact of your college experience, your exploration of the four dimensions -- all of these things still pertain and should be expanded on in your sophomore essay.
However, the sophomore reflective essay should also emphasize and demonstrate your understanding of the process of integration in your educational experiences. This process includes both integration of your coursework from one course to another and integration of your educational experiences -- including extra-curricular experiences, service learning experiences, etc. -- with your life as a whole. By your sophomore year, you should begin to see that even though information often comes to you in discrete packets (coursework, texts, lectures) and that experiences often seem unrelated (service learning, leadership, extra-curricular, leisure activities), each new activity and each new idea help to make up the overall picture that your college experiences are trying to bring into focus for you. You begin to understand that on some level everything you learn and everything you do have intrinsic connections to everything else in your life.
In the same way, your sophomore essay should also begin to reflect a more integrated approach to the four dimensions themselves, seeing them as interrelating aspects of a person's overall development instead of discrete categories with no relationship to each other.
Special Emphasis for Juniors: Planning
The personal reflective essay you write as a junior should build on the essays you wrote as a freshman and as a sophomore. Your discussion about the importance of reflection, your discussion about integration in your educational experience, your discussion of service learning -- all of this still pertains and should be expanded on in your junior essay.
However, the junior reflective essay should also emphasize and demonstrate your thinking about the future and planning for the future, whether that means career planning, planning for graduate school, or simply exploring the many alternatives that await you as a college graduate with a promising, exciting life ahead. What are some of the many options for your life after college? Have you considered further education? Have you planned at all for a career? By your junior year, you should begin to see that education, broadly considered, is very different from technical training, although it may include technical training. As you think about the future, reflect on more than simply the job you hope to find. What sort of roles will you likely have in the larger community? What sort of responsibilities will you have? How has your education helped prepare you for those roles and responsibilities? What, overall, is the relationship between your education and your future as you conceive of it now?
In the same way, your junior essay should also begin to reflect a more forward-looking approach to the four dimensions themselves, seeing them as pathways to development beyond college and into your adult years instead of static categories that speak to your life now with no relationship to the growth and changes your future might bring in these areas of your life.
Special Emphasis for Seniors: Synthesis
During your freshman year, the personal essay you composed emphasized the importance of reflection. As a sophomore, you emphasized integration, and as a junior, your essay emphasized your thinking about the future and planning for the future.
But for your senior reflective essay, the emphasis should be on synthesis, that is, the pulling together of all these elements and more into a single, coherent vision of the person you have become, are in the process of becoming, and eventually hope to become. Remember as you write that the senior essay will not reflect a finished product. The growth and maturity you discuss in your reflective essay is only an indication of where you are at this point in your life. Recognize that the processes you describe will still be at work as you move beyond college and into your adult years. As you pull together the various aspects of your experiences and thoughts, reflect a bit on the directions of that future growth -- where do you expect this journey to take you and how do you imagine your education will help shape the person you eventually hope to be?
Supporting Materials and Documentation
As you organize your discussion, think about illuminating your text with outside material, outside documentation. If you think of the reflective essay as an "argument" for who you are becoming, then it seems appropriate to have some evidence to support your position, to add dimension to the text you are creating. This might take the form of footnotes describing some event in your life or explaining or highlighting a specific idea you discuss in your essay. It might take the form of photographs, or certificates, or physical items. It might take the form of written documentation such as forms, or letters, or charts and tables. It might take a more creative form and include artwork or poetry or music. Whatever it is you gather as supporting material for your reflective essay, make sure that you discuss this material in your essay itself and that these items have some special meaning to you. If it is something that would likely be thrown away, then you probably shouldn't include it. A ticket stub or a playbill is unlikely to have the significance to you that a photograph of friends and co-workers or a certificate of achievement might. Let your memory be the measure. If the material were something you would ordinarily keep as a memento or keepsake, then it would probably work well as supporting material for your reflective essay.
What the Reflective Essay Isn't
The reflective essay isn't an empty exercise to fulfill a final PDP requirement. The program's goal isn't simply to make extra work for students. No, the reflective essay is your opportunity to actually reflect on your experiences, to try and make some clear, unified sense of the many experiences you have had in college. This reflection on who you are, on who you have become, should be enormously valuable to you as you leave here and go forward into your future.
The reflective essay isn't a cover letter for potential employers. That is not to say that future employers couldn't read it or wouldn't want to read it. It is just to say that the reflective essay is intended as a document for you to explore your own growth and development as you come to the end of your college experience. It is not merely a place to promote your skills or to highlight your resume. Of course, when you do, at some point, write a cover letter for your resume, the reflective essay will likely become an invaluable tool since it documents the most important aspects of your education and experience. It could also be a useful tool as you prepare for professional interviews, helping you remember and articulate various facets of your life.
The reflective essay isn't merely a listing of activities and growth in four discrete areas. Instead, the reflective essay should be a unified and coherent vision of the person you have become. Yes, you will discuss your development in the four distinctive areas of your life that have been identified in the PDP program -- intellectual growth, emotional maturity and physical health, ethical and spiritual growth, and citizenship and community responsibility. But you shouldn't discuss these areas in some kind of mechanical, checklist fashion. Remember that growth and maturity aren't the result of doing activities in discrete categories and checking items off a list. Growth and maturity result from changes in perception, and it's these changes in perception that you are trying to document.
The reflective essay isn't a personal confessional. While it is true that the document you write is personal, it need not be overly confidential. The expectation is that you will write something that describes your maturity and growth -- and sometimes that may mean saying things that are not intended to be common knowledge. That's fine. It is even expected to some degree. But the essay should also reflect enough maturity to understand basic social boundaries when discussing your own life in a public forum such as this.
Some Ideas and Strategies for Discussion in the Various Dimensions
Below are several suggestions for writing about each of the PDP dimensions to prompt your thinking as you decide the sorts of things to include in your essay. Remember, however, that your essay will be evaluated as a coherent and unified vision of how you've grown and who you've become. Answering these prompts in a rote fashion will not be sufficient in developing your essay:
- Identify the two most meaningful courses you took at Bridgewater and explore how they prompted you to think in new ways, excited you, or "opened your eyes" to unfamiliar aspects of the world around you.
- Examine any two courses you took at Bridgewater and discuss how ideas presented in one course applied to or were useful in the second.
- Discuss what you think it means to be graduating from a "liberal arts" college.
- Discuss how your coursework connected to the co-curricular activities you engaged in, or to your service learning experiences, or to other aspects of your life.
- Discuss how your growth and development has been influenced by your own self-initiated inquiries through such activities as leisure reading, cross-cultural or travel experiences, visits to museums or historical sites, or attendance at concerts and theatrical or operatic performances.
- Respond directly to a specific idea that troubles or intrigues you, or respond directly to a work of art or a novel or a scientific concept which had an influence on your thinking.
- Respond to a specific public figure who troubles or intrigues you, examining the qualities that you admire or qualities that you find abhorrent, and discuss how your judgment relates to your overall education.
- Examine the relationship of your education to your intended or desired career path, looking at such issues as preparation and suitability to the job. Explain in what ways you hope your education will enhance your performance on the job.
- Discuss the methods you used to examine and evaluate your emotional and physical health over the past four years.
- Discuss the various aspects of your education which facilitated growth in terms of emotional or physical maturity and health.
- Identify any areas of your behavior which needed modification and discuss how you achieved or did not achieve the desired behavior.
- Describe your sensibility as a person -- what are your feelings about things and what role do those feelings play in your decision-making and thought?
- Examine and discuss how you've changed over the past four years in terms of handling situations involving other people, either personally or socially.
- Examine and discuss the way you've changed over the past four years in terms of how you relate to the larger community, looking at the adult role you hope to play in that community.
- Examine how your spiritual beliefs and attitudes changed during your college years. Ask yourself whether the changes surprised you, discomforted you, or satisfied you.
- Discuss the most significant ethical challenge or dilemma you confronted during the last four years. Explain what you learned about yourself and others from this experience.
- Discuss which curricular and co-curricular activities most contributed to your ethical and spiritual awareness and development.
- Examine how attending a worship service outside of your own faith or reading the sacred texts of another religion influenced your ethical and spiritual growth.
- Describe your sensibility as a person in terms of your values. Examine how your values have changed in the past four years, looking at the ways your education has facilitated or prompted that change.
- Examine how your values have been shaped in ways other than those we associate with religion. For example, discuss your political values or your thoughts about human rights and examine how your education has helped to shape those values.
- Discuss the courses you took which contributed most to your efforts to become a more aware, involved, and effective citizen. Identify at least two courses that contributed to these efforts and specify how they were meaningful.
- Discuss any co-curricular activities that contributed to your efforts to become a more aware, involved, and effective citizen. Identify at least two activities that contributed to these efforts and specify how they were meaningful.
- Discuss how you spent your 40 hours of service learning. In what ways were those experiences meaningful to you?
- Discuss how your leadership experiences benefited the group or groups in which you developed and exercised leadership abilities. Discuss what you learned about yourself and others from these leadership experiences that will help you become a more responsible citizen and community leader beyond graduation.
- Discuss the ways (beyond service learning) that you participated in community action and the political process, for example, by voting, participating in an election campaign, engaging in organized protest, attending political rallies or information sessions, attending a meeting of a governmental body, or working with relief or civic organizations. Examine how these activities have influenced your understanding of citizenship, leadership, community, and community responsibility.