How to Create an English Literature Revision Cheatsheet

There are lots of ways of approaching English Literature GCSE revision. You could think about themes, characters, key moments… there are a hundred different things you could focus on for your chosen text. 

So, how do you know what is going to be the most useful as you’re preparing for your exams? Is there a way to work out what the most efficient use of your time is, and, better yet, a way to streamline all of that information into a handy revision cheat sheet?

“How can I ensure that my English Literature revision is going to support me well in my exam?”

Analyse questions from past papers.

Look at past papers from your exam board. While this isn’t a guarantee that your paper will look exactly the same, it will help you structure your revision in keeping with the way your exam paper will ask you to write about the text.

Is there a trend in how the questions are structured?


(AQA, 2018) Starting with the extract, explore how Stevenson creates mystery and tension in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

(Edexcel, 2018) In the extract from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Utterson and Poole hear a sound of terror. Explain how terror is shown elsewhere in the novel.

Both exam boards use extracts from the text in their exam papers, but while the AQA paper asks for an essay that considers both the extract and the whole text, the Edexcel paper asks for an essay that looks at the rest of the text and does not consider the extract at all.

Do they have a tendency to focus on a specific aspect of the text, such as character or theme?

Example AQA Macbeth questions:

(2022) Explore how Shakespeare presents Macbeth’s fears.

(2021) Explore how Shakespeare presents the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

(2020) ‘Lady Macbeth is a female character who changes during the play’. Explore how far you agree with this view.

(2019) Explore how far Shakespeare presents Macbeth as a violent character.

While the structure of the question changes, a trend emerges that there is a focus on character, so this is worth considering in your revision. 

That doesn’t mean you should only revise character, but perhaps your revision cheat sheet should be focused through the lens of character. 

For example, you might spend more revision time thinking about how the major themes of Macbeth relate to each character, rather than simply considering the themes in isolation.

Analyse the mark scheme.

Look at the mark scheme for your selected text and exam board by searching the internet for "OCR GCSE English Paper 1 Mark Scheme" for example. How do they divide up the marks you can achieve in an essay?

These are usually divided up into categories called ‘Assessment Objectives’ or ‘AOs’. For GCSE, AO1, AO2, and AO3 will be your focus. Look for where these are mentioned in the mark scheme and use them as a reference for what they are looking for when awarding marks.

For the majority of exam boards:

  • AO1 = how well-structured and thoughtful your argument is
  • AO2 = use of quotations and ability to name and talk about the effects of language and literary techniques
  • AO3 = knowledge of context (e.g. historical or cultural) and inclusion of useful contextual factors where relevant


On your revision cheat sheet, you should include a consideration of the three AOs:

  1. Point
  2. Evidence
  3. Context

Make a brief plan for every past paper question available to you.

I know this sounds like a lot of work. However, in the exam you can only afford to take a small amount of time to plan your essay, and plans really do make all the difference.

1. Write the title of the question at the top of your piece of paper.

2. Brainstorm ideas in a mini mind-map.

3. Select the three best points from your mind-map.

4. Write out your three points with a quotation and a piece of context. Example:

  • Point - Masculinity is a damaging ideal that allows characters in ‘Macbeth’ to commit violence.
  • Evidence - ‘When you durst do it, then you were a man. / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man.'
  • Context - King James I was misogynistic, as he said that women were the ‘weaker sex’.

5. Decide what ties it all together and write your overall argument or “thesis statement” in a neat sentence. You’ll get faster as you make more plans, and it will help you build that muscle of thinking quickly on your feet.

Once you’ve made a few plans, look back through them and consider:

  • Are there points that come up frequently or lend themselves to lots of different questions?
  • Are there points that are very adaptable?


Example: A point about masculinity using ‘When you durst do it…’ as evidence could be used to support an argument about Lady Macbeth’s strength or Macbeth’s weaknesses.

Bringing it all together!

Make a revision cheat sheet specified for your text and exam board.

Create a table with 5 columns: Points, Questions, Evidence, Techniques and Context like the one below:

The ‘Questions’ column encourages you to consider the malleability of your points and will help you make connections quickly in the exam when you are under time pressure. 

Add in the questions from past papers that each point applies to, but feel free to add in focuses of your own that you think are relevant and might come up in the exam!

Here, I’ve added in ‘Presentation of female characters’ to the ‘Questions’ column. The 2020 AQA Macbeth question asked about Lady Macbeth as ‘a female character who changes during the play’. 

While that question is specifically asking about Lady Macbeth’s characterisation, it is reasonable to extract a focus on the presentation of female characters as a possible question focus.

In this way, you can make sure you’re covering all your bases while practising the exam techniques and skills that will help you act efficiently and effectively in the exam!

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A-Level & GCSE English tutor with a First Class Durham degree.

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