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ILUMIN Blog

Helpful tips about college admissions, test preparation and just being a better student, leader and person from ILUMIN Education.

College Essay Brainstorming: Creating a Life Map

Elton Lin

One of my classes for my Masters of Teaching program at BIOLA had us complete a “Life Map.” It was a framework and tool to help us identify significant moments in our life that helped inform our view of the world and ourselves. It was a really moving assignment that helped me to see in one big picture view everything that was important in my life. 

As I started teaching college essay writing, I realized that I needed a tool to help my students first identify the events that made them who they are. So I adapted the Life Map tool as a college essay brainstorming exercise. 

When we think about core memories, I want you to think of Inside Out. Riley, the main character, experiences a life event that gets logged as a memory. If it’s especially tinted with an emotion, that memory (signified by a little ball that records a short video of the event) becomes a Core Memory.

A Core Memory then becomes a part of Riley’s Long Term Memory and eventually fuels one of her “Personality Islands.” 

Here’s a clip of that whole process here.


I love that movie in so many different ways, but my favorite thing is how it’s a really creative (and fairly accurate) way to represent personality and memory to children. So with this life map, what I want you to do is ferret out your Core Memories. 


Use the following exercise to brainstorm out all the your important life moments and your “Core Memories.” 


1. List!
Grab a sticky note pad. For the next 15-20 minutes, as fast as you can go, fill out one life event or core memory per sticky note. Try to get through as many sticky notes as you can. 

What are some clear and important memories you have?
•    Times you moved
•    First day of ____
•    Last day of _____
•    Family vacations
•    Family troubles
•    Important classes
•    Important extracurricular
•    Start or end of a job or program or extracurricular activity
•    Start or end of a hobby
•    Successes and wins
•    Disappointments and hurts
•    Major changes or shifts in mood or relationships
•    Family or cultural traditions
•    A day when everything changed

2. Map!
- On a blank sheet of paper, create 3-4 columns to represent every 3 - 4 years of your life. For example, this student broke it up into these years:  0- 10, 11 - 17, 18 -22, 22+. 

 

- Place the sticky notes in chronological order. If you want to, you can rewrite your negative experiences in a different color, so you can see the frequency of negative events in your life or if one era of your life had more positive or negative experiences. 

- Circle the most important life events that have made some lasting impact today. These events will be the topics for your college essay. 

It’s important to begin first with the important stories you have to share and then figure out which prompt to answer—it’s a more organic and authentic way of writing a heartfelt and honest college essay.

Here’s an example (I know, she has more than 2 colors and her ages aren’t very clear, but you can get an idea of what the final product looks like):

3. Write! 
Now you will have a large sheet of paper with a ton of sticky notes on it—each one containing an important Core Memory. It’s these memories that will become the building blocks of your college essay! Pick one memory and start writing your first draft.

Congratulations - you've completed the most challenging part of the essay process and now you're well on your way to completing your essay! 

- John and Lynn Chen

If you have more questions about brainstorming college essays, or want to chat with an Ilumin Counselor about how to craft the perfect application please contact us here