First, let me define the term “cheat sheet.” It’s not actually used for cheating. A “cheat sheet” is a consolidated list of the most important things that you want to memorize. You put these things all in one place, and then you can pull out your “cheat sheet” at any time to review or remind yourself of something. (Well, at any time, that is, except during the test itself!)
The best cheat sheets take into account several things:
- what you, yourself, need to know: it’s not as useful to use a cheat sheet that was made by someone else
- what is most commonly tested on the exam: if you struggle with something that’s not very commonly tested, you probably don’t need to put it on your cheat sheet
- it’s a “living” document: it’s never quite done – you will add and remove things over time
Finally, note that you might not have only one. Most people, in fact, will have at least two: one for quant and one for verbal. You might even have more than that – you might have one for geometry and one for algebra to start; as you learn more over time, you will eventually be able to consolidate the two.
I’ll add one more thing: students ask me all the time why we don’t create cheat sheets for you. We could do that but it would be:
- overwhelming, because it would have to be a generic, one-size-fits-all cheat sheet that included everything
- only half as useful as creating one yourself, because half of your learning comes from deciding what to put on there, figuring out how to word it, and revising it over time.
In other words, there are good reasons why we don’t just create these for you; we know what we’re doing!
How do I get started?
First, decide whether you want to keep your cheat sheets on physical pieces of paper or on your computer. If you keep them on your computer, it’s easier to edit and update your sheets. If you keep them on paper, it will be easier to write out math formulas and diagrams. I generally recommend keeping verbal and some math in computer files; geometry, however, is a lot easier to keep on a physical piece of paper (though you’ll have to do more rewriting when it’s time to update the sheet).
From now on, I’m just going to refer to your “sheet,” even though some of you will actually be doing this in a computer file.
When you first start out studying, have one sheet for each of the three verbal types (SC, CR, RC), one sheet each for the two quant types (PS, DS), and one sheet each for the five main quant categories (number properties, algebra, geometry, word translations, and fractions, decimals and percents). You may or may not fill each sheet up; you don’t know yet because you’re just starting. You may even have more than one page for a particular category.
As you go through the material, take “normal” full-length notes in a notebook of some kind. At the end of each study session, review your “long” notes and extract things that make you think “I didn’t know / remember that, but I do understand it; it’s something I need to memorize, and the book is telling me that this is important or frequently tested.” Put those things on your cheat sheet. Don’t write down everything you don’t know – you’ll just be recreating your study materials! Also, there will be things that you don’t really understand right now. Don’t put those on the cheat sheet yet, either. You’ll come back to those things later in your study. (If you want, you can create another tracking list of things that you don’t understand right now. Call this the “Come Back Later” list.)
Note: if your materials don’t tell you whether a particular formula or rule is frequently tested, ask! Your instructor, if you have one, can tell you; you can also ask on the forums.
Okay, I’ve created cheat sheets. Now what?
After you’ve finished a particular set of lessons or a book, go back through your cheat sheet and consolidate. Are there some things that show up on multiple sheets? Remove them from all but one sheet. Are there some related things on different sheets (this may happen in quant)? Group them all together on one sheet. Do you feel like you already know something that you have on a sheet? The act of writing out the information may actually have caused you to memorize some of the things already!
Next, figure out how you’re going to get everything that remains into your brain. You may decide that you need to set up some flash cards to help you memorize particular rules or formulas. You may realize that you need to do some non-GMAT drills to help you cement a certain concept in your brain (e.g., you might decide that you need to do 20 adding-and-subtracting fractions math problems until you feel totally fluid with that computation). For others, you may decide that OG problems are the way to go – maybe you’ll do five Weaken the Conclusion CR questions in a row, studying each one afterwards from the point of view of the full process so that you can then apply your new understanding to each subsequent problem.
As you continue to study that topic or question type, you will discover that you can drop some things from your list and you will probably also add some things from your “Come Back Later” list. Over time, as you get closer to the real test, your cheat sheets will become more and more concise. Remember, these are living documents; expect to update them regularly.
Tips to keep in mind
There are two broad categories of things that you may want to include on cheat sheets: discrete things you need to memorize, and “how do I know that?” information.
Examples of the former: the formula for the area of a circle; modifier rules; the process for working through a Weaken the Conclusion CR question.
Examples of the latter: how to recognize that a problem is asking about the concept of prime when the word prime itself is not used in the problem; how to recognize that a particular CR question is a Weaken question; how to recognize that a particular SC question is testing modifiers.
Note that the former group is more about “what do I need to know?” or “what’s the particular solution method / process for a certain kind of question?” The latter group is about recognizing when to apply what you need to know or do. Both things have a place on your cheat sheet. For instance, you might know all of the facts that you need to know about primes, but you might not recognize that a particular problem is about primes in the first place. In that case, your cheat sheet is going to include information about how to recognize that a quant problem is testing you on the concept of prime. (You can do this with an “if I see this… then I should think this…” format. The “if I see this” part can include actual language you saw in a real problem.)
Alternatively, you might not fully know the rules for how to deal with “-ing” modifiers, but you don’t have any problem spotting that a sentence does have an “-ing” modifier in it. In that case, your cheat sheet is going to include information about how to evaluate “-ing” modifiers when you see them (including information about the different variations you’re likely to see in the answers – e.g., it’s not unusual to see a split between “-ing” and “which” in the answers).
And there you go – that’s how to create and use your own study cheat sheets. Do talk to your fellow students and share tips, but don’t simply use someone else’s cheat sheets. You won’t learn as much as you will if you make and refine them yourself.