Cheat (Sheet) Your Way to Success!

Disclaimer: The term “cheat sheets” is used colloquially in this resource guide to refer to a page of information that students are allowed to take into their exams with them. Professors may use other terms, such as “page of notes” or “study sheet”. This resource guide is based on the personal experience of the CLC staff. Please check with your professors about requirements regarding cheat sheets!

As a student at the University of British Columbia, I initially thought the most powerful tool to prepare for my midterms and final exams was going to be my computer, an iPad, or even my phone. Little did I know my best friend before exams was going to be a blank sheet of paper, highlighters, and a pen… A sheet of paper, that after filled up, I would protect with my life.

When my first-year professor established that our midterms and final exams would be open-book with a cheat sheet allowed, I was nervous, apprehensive, and doubtful. I never used a cheat sheet during high school, let alone creating one! Hence, my journey with cheat sheets began, filled with mistakes, successes and lessons learned.

There is a great deal of variety when it comes to cheat sheets. There are different font sizes, text-image ratio, colors, and number of columns. And although it is true that a cheat sheet is meant to align with your learning preferences, there are some universal suggestions for everyone, regardless of your major.

Now that classes are online, a great deal of UBC professors have changed the dynamics: from closed book to open book quizzes and exams! In this article, I will reveal some secrets to turn your blank paper into an excellent masterpiece. – Valentina, CLC Assistant

The What

This image is blurred in accordance to academic integrity guidelines. For larger image: stata pg 4 type 2

A cheat sheet is a document that is allowed in the exam. However, to truly take advantage of this tool, we need to go beyond this: its purpose and benefits also live before the exam. In other words, a cheat sheet is not born just to be used DURING the exam and will not certainly die after the exam is over.

Each professor aligns their own policies when it comes to defining what a cheat sheet encompasses. It is common to have different courses with different styles of cheat sheets. Some of the main characteristics are:

  • Size of the paper
  • The number of pages
  • Double-sided vs single-sided
  • Handwritten vs printed


Before starting your cheat sheet for an open book exam, clear any doubts with your professor and make sure you are following all the required and established rules: understand how they define “cheat sheet”. Usually, professors decide if an exam is closed or open book in the syllabus; however, it is a great idea to confirm this information to avoid surprises!
If the cheat sheet violates instructions, there is a high chance you will not be allowed to use it, and hence, you will be at a disadvantage during the exam.

The Why

In one of my closed-book finals, I was reviewing one of my cheat sheets for the course. My best friend hovered over me, exclaiming: “I did not know the final was open-book; you have some weird abbreviations I do not understand!” Immediately, I replied that it was not an open-book exam and that my abbreviation was a technique so that I could save space. I was reviewing an informal cheat sheet that summarized all the concepts.

Some reasons why to create a cheat sheet (even if you are only using it to study and not during the exam):

1) Reduces Stress

A cheat sheet is a great tool to help you feel more confident in your exams. They are physical evidence that you have studied. In open-book exams, it is a great companion in case you have any doubt or need guidance with certain topics. In closed-book exams, they reflect all the information you have studied and the process that it took to make one. Hence, they remind you that you are already prepared to face the questions!

2) Useful for The Future

The cheat sheet will still be useful after the exam is over. For instance, the cheat sheet for Midterm 1 will come in handy when studying for Midterm 2 or the Final Exam. It will save you a great deal of time and add confidence to your preparation. Moreover, future courses are based on content from previous courses. Hence, having the cheat sheet allows you to access important and complex information and recall the course content.

Bonus information: Cheat sheets are useful when you are preparing for a job interview related to the content studied in a previous course. For example, if you have a consulting interview, it’s helpful to recall the concepts you learnt in Financial Accounting… or if you have a data analysis interview, the commands and process learnt in Data Science all summarized in one page would be helpful!

3) Prepares You More

Creating a cheat sheet forces you to review course material thoroughly and learn the concepts so you can express then concisely. Everything you write on the cheat sheet should be rigorously selected and already clear to you. Do not add information to your cheat sheet until you understand it!

The When

You can start your cheat sheet from Week 1! By the first week of classes, you have probably absorbed one book chapter, lecture notes, slides, and exercises. Transforming these 30+ pages into one page (or even better, half a page) will give you a great advantage when preparing for the midterm. In my case, adding a half-page to a cheat sheet every week so that I have one page for every two weeks of course material.

Some people prefer to start their cheat sheet after all information for the midterm has been covered in lectures (usually 3 or 4 days before the exam). There is no specific timeframe related to when to start your cheat sheets. However, cheat sheets require preparation, planning, usually handwritten information, which takes time – try not to leave it for the night before. I recommend starting one week before the exam when you have covered all the content and have enough time to plan, execute and finish!

The Who: Applying It Across Courses

Anyone can use cheat sheets. The style might vary depending on your course. Make sure your cheat sheets are aligned with your individual needs in your course.
Common characteristics are as follows:

Course CharacteristicCommon Cheat Sheet Characteristic
Quantitative examsIncludes more formulas, graphs, and visual content
Essay-based coursesTree diagrams; dividing novels per topic
Memory-based coursesTerminology, definitions, and examples; might include glossary in alphabetical order
HistoryTimeline and chronological order

Do not feel overwhelmed if your friend from a different faculty, or even your classmate from the same course uses a different style, color, font, or layout than you. A cheat sheet reflects your personal strategy. Perhaps a friend abbreviated everything on their cheat sheet, but you always forget abbreviations. Or you like to use multiple colors, while your classmates feel more comfortable using just black and red.

The Where and How

Planning it…

Summarizing one term (13 weeks) in one page is not as easy as it seems. As my English professor used to say: Failing to plan is planning to fail!

  1. List all the sections and subsections of the subject in chronological order (i.e., divided it based on different topics or on different weeks). See the recommendations in “The Who” section above to personalize it based on the nature of your course.
  2. Study, do some problem sets, and identify which topics need a reference (i.e., formulas, bullet points with important dates, graphs), and which do not. Sometimes, even though some topics need a reference, you already memorized it. In those cases, treat the topic as if you did not need a reference (as you already know it by heart).
  3. Reorder the list by
    1. Deleting the topics that you are comfortable and do not need any kind of reference
    2. Highlight in
      1. red: topics that you do not know well and need to reference often
      2. yellow: topics that you need a decent amount of reference
      3. green: topics that you need a small amount of reference
  4. Create a digital or physical document with all the sections, sub-sections, and their respective references, remember to highlight or identify the information based on how urgently you need to refer to it.
  5. Evaluate your draft by doing past exams or exercises with the information. Learn how to use it as an aid, not as your brain: random letters in your paper would not help you too much. Ask yourself: Was it useful? What information will you modify, delete, or add?
  6. Decorate and summarize your draft. Double-check if you are not writing the same information twice (i.e., Sometimes we write the same formula more than once):
    1. Add specific colors to the headlines, key concepts, and other components you consider essential.
    2. Try emerging basic concepts (i.e., demand and supply graph) in complex topics that implicitly includes them (i.e., subsidy graphs).
    3. Use abbreviations, colloquial terms, and symbols; anything that can save you up some space. However, make sure you remember what each one means.
    4. More visual= less text. Draw arrows instead of using connectors. I even use emojis to substitute words. For example, if I am studying the pros and cons of taxes, I will use 😁 for the pros and 😭 for the cons. This would help you find information easier and faster
    5. Consider using “print” handwriting instead of “cursive” as you can write small but still legible words.

Writing It…

  1. Read the professor’s guidelines carefully. Check out The What section above for more information.
  2. Based on your draft, identify how many columns your cheat sheet will have.
  3. Draft the layout, identifying how much space per topic you need. Draw boxes to separate the topics. Leave one extra box in case you need it. Start with the red code topics (the ones that required a great deal of information!).
  4. Start with one box, then continue to the other, etc.… until you have finished all your topics and cover the whole page!

After Finishing It…

  1. Compare your Cheat Sheet to your draft! In the worst-case scenario that you missed some information:
    • Use the extra box space,
    • Try to include the information in the margins or any space in the page
    • Memorize it, or
    • Create a separate paper to glimpse at before the exam.
  2. Highlight and add some color! This will make it easier for you to find information before or during the exam.
  3. Get familiar with the layout and make sure you understand what material you cover (or not) in your cheat sheet.
  4. Copy or scan it for future reference! Use the scanner in IKB, your residence, or at home. Here you can find more information on how to Copy and Scan.
  5. Upper year courses require you to recall knowledge from lower year courses. UBC courses can be sometimes specific, and it is not easy to recall all the material learnt in that specific course and the information might not be easily accessible online so having this backup of information enables you to go back in time smoothly. Consider making a folder in your google drive (virtual) and have a physical folder when you save all the cheat sheets.


University of Tokyo. (2021, March 19). Study shows stronger brain activity after writing on paper than on tablet or smartphone:Unique, complex information in analog methods likely gives brain more details to trigger memory. ScienceDaily Retrieved January 31, 2022, from

Pettit-O’Malley, K. L., Liesz, T. J., & Sisodiya, S. R. (2017). The relative efficacy of handwritten versus electronic student classroom notes. Business Education Innovation Journal, 9(2), 110.

Chiu, C.-H., Wu, C.-Y., & Cheng, H.-W. (2013). Integrating reviewing strategies into shared electronic note-taking: Questioning,summarizing and note reading. Computers & Education, 67, 229–238.

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