Constructing the Perfect Cheat Sheet: Part 1

Biology Cheat Sheet 2

Yet another biology cheat sheet

Ever since I mentioned that the one page cheat sheet is one of my favourite study tools, I’ve gotten all sorts of questions about how to make a good one. Hopefully this two part tutorial will answer some of those questions. While the “perfect” cheat sheet varies from person to person, there are 4 simple steps to follow for making any cheat sheet: 

Step 1: Decide what information to include
Step 2: Organize the cheat sheet
Step 3: Condense the information so that it fits onto the cheat sheet
Step 4: transfer the information

Just a disclaimer before I start. A “cheat sheet” is a one page summary of a course’s content made as a study tool in preparation for an exam. Some courses allow such a a cheat sheet to be used on exams, but not all. DO NOT USE A CHEAT SHEET ON AN EXAM IF IT IS NOT ALLOWED (duh!). This post does not in any way support actual cheating.

I often make cheat sheets for exams in which they are not allowed (but I don’t bring them to the exams). Why? Because they are a powerful study tool. A cheat sheet forces its maker to evaluate the importance of every piece of information learned in that course. Furthermore, distilling a complicated topic down to its most basic parts really helps with understanding.

So what to put on a cheat sheet? That varies by course content. However, a good place to start is the course learning outcomes (make your own if your course doesn’t have one). Ideally, you’ll want to be able to answer every question based on the learning outcomes with the aid of your cheat sheet. Below are some suggestions for each course. These lists are not exhaustive, so add anything else that is relevant. As you can see, the word “important” shows up a lot. Not everything can (or should) be included, so really drill down to the major concepts. If some level of detail is necessary (e.g. you need to know the structure of each amino acid or the date of each battle), try to keep it to the bare minimum.

To decide whether to include something, I evaluate its “return on space” (ROS). ROS is a semi-objective measure of 1) how much use one can expect to get out of a piece of information and 2) the potential ramification of not knowing it on an exam. For example, in biochemistry, the different levels of protein folding and bonding types involved has a high ROS. This concept is fairly likely to be tested, especially as part of a longer written question, and not knowing it can lead to major loss of marks. The different structures of amino acids however, has a much lower ROS. A question is unlikely to ask about a structure directly, and if there is a question on structure, knowing whether the amino acid is hydrophobic, hydrophilic, or charged is probably sufficient. If you’re short on space, include the concepts with the highest ROS. In our example above, include more information on folding than on amino acid structure.

So what are some good things to include?

Memory-Intensive Courses

Biology/Earth and Ocean Sciences:
* The most important ideas
* Important definitions, terms, experiments, and structures
* Diagram of important processes with necessary annotations
* Comparison charts of different processes/experiments/functions

History and Related Subjects:
* Timeline
* Important people, battles, treatises, and dates
* Cause and effect relationships – e.g. this battle led to this treaty which affected this group of people. Pay extra attention if the effect extends to modern day

* Grammar rules (sentence construction, pronouns, etc.), verb tenses (conjugation) and any exceptions to rules
* Any special characters/letters/accents that don’t exist in English and how they’re used
* List of most important vocabulary words/verbs that are learned
* If in a literature class, also see advice about English courses

Problem-Solving Intensive

* Most important formulas (especially if they won’t be provided) and how to use them (clearly write out what variables mean what in each equation, or questions like “is that velocity or volume” will result in wasted time)
* Important laws, theories, or rules (don’t just copy out of the textbook, be able to explain these rules to your (real or imaginary) sibling in elementary school)
* Any math/derivation crucial to the topic
* Graphs or structures or elements/compounds/physical phenomenon

* Important theorems, proofs, rules, lemmas, derivations, theories, and formulae
* List of steps for solving difficult/troublesome problems
* Tricky concepts and mistake-prone questions and steps

* Important equations and graphs (label them carefully!)
* Prominent theories, who devised them, any assumptions made, and conditions in which they are valid/invalid
* Any particularly tricky concepts


* List of works and authors spelled correctly (make sure you know what kind of titles need to be underlined, italicized, or put in quotations)
* Major theme tying all of these work together
* Other themes or imagery specific to each individual or a few works
* A few potential essay topics as well as well as evidence to back up your position
* Most important quotes (usually quoted often by profs)

Regardless of what you decide to include, make sure that diagrams are annotated and variables clearly defined. A cheat sheet is useless if you can’t decipher what you wrote down!

Remember that you can usually put anything you want on a cheat sheet, not just course content! Do you always forget to do something? Is there anything particularly tricky that should be marked out? Do you need a reminder when you attempt to solve a certain type of question? Write you-specific instructions in! I’ve been known to put “read the f***ing question, “BREATH!” and funny cartoons (stress busters) on my sheet. Sure these things look ridiculous, who cares?

And voila, step 1 is complete. Now let’s move on to steps 2 through 4…


4 thoughts on “Constructing the Perfect Cheat Sheet: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Constructing the Perfect Cheat Sheet: Part 2 « Scratches on the Notepad

  2. Pingback: Exam Prep Toolkit – A Resource for First Year Students

  3. Pingback: Feeling Overwhelmed…? | Scratches on the Notepad

  4. Pingback: 2012 in Review

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