After deciding what to include on a cheat sheet (see part 1 here), it’s time for steps 2 through 4 of the steps to constructing the perfect 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
Even after getting rid of the unimportant topics, cramming an entire semesters’ worth of information on one 8.5 by 11” sheet is no simple task. To ensure everything fits, good organization and planning is key. Unfortunately, students don’t always do this. Instead, they create cheat sheets by starting at the top of a piece of paper, writing something, boxing it off, and then repeating this process until they are out of space (see image A). This scattered approach is ineffective not only because it is easy to run out of space, but also because trying to find anything quickly among the boxes becomes impossible. To make finding information easier, first decide on the page layout.
A simple layout involves dividing the page into equally sized boxes that correspond to the categories of organized information. For example, will you be organizing your cheat sheet by chapter? By units? By the type of information (equations, definitions, examples, etc.)? By verb tense? Use a system that makes sense to you and divide up the sheet according (i.e. if you have 6 chapters, do 6 or 8 boxes, if you have 3 major categories, try 3 or 6 boxes).
Now take a sheet of paper the same size as the cheat sheet and divide it up (as in B). Then map all of the essential information from step 1 on to some space in this draft (as in C). Don’t write the details in, but something like “timeline, first 2 years of WWII” or “3 laws of thermodynamics” or “chapters 2 to 5 definitions” works. Leave enough space for each topic while trying to fit every topic in. This method allows the cheat sheet maker to break a sheet down. Instead of trying to fit one course on one sheet, it is now possible to concentrate on fitting one chapter in one box. It is easier to see if you’re putting on too much information and allows for easier adjustments. Once you’re comfortable with making cheat sheets, try out some other layouts. The pocketmod format is my personal favourite (hole and all).
After creating the draft and ensuring that everything should fit, take a brand-new piece of paper and start transfer the information over (as in D). Write in point form, draw diagrams, make mind maps/concept charts/flow charts, and add tables. Follow the draft to fit all of the information in. If necessary, make some small adjustments. But don’t attempt to re-plan your entire cheat sheet while your’e in the middle of making it. That rarely turns out well. However, despite one’s best efforts, it may still be difficult to squeeze everything in. If that is the case, return to step 1 and see if it is possible to cut some things out or to summarize a topic more concisely. Be brutal and cut anything that is unnecessary. If there still isn’t enough space, write smaller and use acronyms. Of course, don’t write so small you’ll need a magnifying glass (don’t laugh! People have tried this and some profs ban magnifying glasses from exams). Trying to look like Sherlock Holmes is a sure sign that you’re not focusing on the right things (go back to step 1, do not pass go, do not collect $200). Conversely, sometimes you might find you have half a sheet empty. In that case, see if there are some useful details you would like to add. If you’ve done step 1 properly though, there shouldn’t be much, so leave the sheet alone! When using acronyms and abbreviations, define everything! v can be volume or velocity, MPS can be the marginal propensity to spend or save, and BoB can be the Battle of the Bulge or Britain. Things that seem clear when you’re making the sheet becomes confusing under exam conditions. It would be really unfortunate to lose marks over poorly-defined acronyms.
After transferring all of the information over, further annotate the page. Use numbers or letters to indicate order. Circle or highlight the equations and the key words. If you’re a colour person, use plenty of it. Make locating any piece of information on the cheat sheet as easy as possible.
After completing the cheat sheet, do a practice or sample exam with your cheat sheet. While writing the practice exam, you may or may not need the cheat sheet. Why? Because making the cheat sheet is more important than having it. A lot information becomes internalized as you’re making the cheat sheet, so you won’t need the sheet when actually answering exam questions. However, if you bomb the practice final and don’t know a lot of the answers even with your cheat sheet, do another one or two practice exams. This will tell you if that exam you messed on was an outlier or the norm. If it seems to be an outlier, relax. Know that weird stuff can come up, and if you have time, try to cover your bases a little more. However, if the practice exam doesn’t appear to be an outlier, return to step 1 and see if you’re focusing on the right concepts. If you can’t tell if the exam is an outlier because you don’t have anymore practice finals, compare the exam content to the course content or the learning outcomes. Does the exam reflect the learning outcomes? If the practice exam does reflect the learning outcomes, your cheat sheet probably wasn’t focusing on the right content. Thus make another one. If the practice exam seems to be completely different from the learning outcomes (this is very, very, very rare), go see your prof! Explain that you think the practice exam is not a good representation of what you’re expected to learn (i.e. the learning outcomes) and ask them which one better represent the actual exam. If they refuse to tell you, ask them which one (practice exam or learning outcomes) they would focus on.
Sometimes it takes more than one try to make the perfect cheat sheet and that is a pain in the rear end. But some pain now will result in an easier time on the actual exam, and that’s definitely worth it.