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Dreaming about school exams? A psychologist explains what it really means

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What do our dreams really mean? In Stylist’s Dream Journals, we’re working with psychologist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari to reflect on some of our most puzzling bedtime visions – and figure out how, if at all, we should respond to them in our waking hours. This week’s anonymous journal comes from a woman who wants to know why she keeps dreaming about her school exam.

Almost everyone has dreamt that they’re back at school – and thoroughly unprepared for a big exam – at some point in their lives.

It’s the sort of bedtime vision that causes many adults to wake up in a state of panic and heightened anxiety. Because, in that strange space between sleep and wakefulness, it can be hard to determine what’s real and what’s not. Did you fail? Did you pass? And why oh why didn’t you study while you had the chance? 

The many interpretations of dreaming about a school exam

Google what it means to dream about an ill-fated school test, and you’ll be inundated with interpretations. Some say that it might symbolise an upcoming decision that needs to be made about you rather than by you. 

Others theorise that it represents a new phase in your life (maybe becoming a parent), and your uncertainty over whether you’ll pass or fail. And then there are those who believe that dreaming about exams is representative of low self-esteem/self-confidence.

The psychology of dreams

Psychologist and therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, however, believes that there’s more to it than that.

“Dreams are a symbolic spiritual connection to our soul,” she says. “Therefore they are very personal and can only be understood by conversing with the dreamer.”

She adds: “When a dream repeats it can be viewed as a valuable message, a message from our soul about something that we repress or deny in the waking hours that is causing us stress. The key here is to ask how do we feel during the dream, and how do we feel when we wake up.”

And so, using her skills and unique understanding of the unconscious mind, Dr Ben-Ari has offered her interpretation of our anonymous dreamer’s unique bedtime visions about her final school exams.

The dream

Our anonymous dreamer says: “I’ve had a recurring dream for at least a decade, and it is always some version of one of the following scenarios:

“1) I’m in my old secondary school and see a cluster of my friends walking out of the gym hall chatting excitedly. I approach and a girl tells me that they’ve just come from an exam that counts for 90% of our overall mark for the year. I’m distraught, I have heard nothing about it all, then panic and wake up.

“2) I get a phone call from the secretary at my old university to inform me that there’s been an error and I didn’t actually get my degree after all! Bummer!

“3) The most recent and regular – I dream that I haven’t actually matriculated, as in I haven’t taken my final school exams. I’m MY AGE in this dream, but for some reason I dream that I just never sat the exams so I have to take them now in adult life. As I only have about two weeks to study for all nine subjects, it sets off panic… and sometimes, if I leave it to play out, I find myself in the exam hall desperately unprepared – it stresses me out even thinking about it.”

She continues: “I can’t pinpoint a specific memory that relates to this dream, but it has all bits of reality just mixed together so it feels realistic.

“Like… well, it’s not set on the moon, you know? The people in it are real, the locations are real, or at least seem familiar, and my panic and annoyance at myself is very real.”

Multiple choice exam paper
What does it mean to dream about a school exam?

The dreamer finishes: “Truthfully, I was actually very good at school and college but I had some difficulties, so it may be down to some residual anxiety or self consciousness over that. 

“Whatever causes it, sometimes it’s horrid when I wake up as I can’t shake off the fact it’s just a dream. I feel scared and sick about it, not to mention mortified that I didn’t matriculate or pass my exams – despite the fact that I ACTUALLY DID!

“The main feeling upon waking is worry. 100% worry that I’ve messed up again, and I wind up kicking myself over something that didn’t actually happen! It’s so stupid!”

What does it all mean? A psychologist offers her interpretation

A professional headshot of Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari
Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari says “dreams are the soul’s way of directing and guiding us beyond our conscious stories about ourselves.”

Dr Ben-Ari says: “You say that you feel panic when you wake from this dream; a sense of being desperately unprepared, stressed, scared and worried. 

“I would suggest that you meditate on these feelings, silence the mind and ‘stay’ present with the emotions you’re experiencing. Let them guide you to the underlying and core issue that is trying to unfold.”

Dr Ben-Ari continues: “As you say, the dreams are opposite to your life experiences as in reality you passed your exams and did well at school. So I would suggest to stay with the feeling and wonder where else in your life you might feel unprepared, stressed, desperate or scared.

“It might be about a change and transition you are going through in your life or change and growth in personal relationships. What is it, not related to exams, that you might feel unprepared for? It might be feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt about your next personal life stage. It might be about experiencing a lack of balance in your life and too much pressure, a sense of overwhelming responsibilities or a reflection of an inner conflict.

“It might be related to the transition from a young adult to the adult woman/man that you are becoming. If you let your imagination re-live the dream, allow the deepest feelings to surface and see what happens next. Give it time and patience. What happened after you failed the exam, or missed the exam?

“Stay with the experience and see what is revealed. It sounds as though you feel unprepared or worried about life’s challenge or about the unknown.”

Dr Ben-Ari finishes: “When a dream repeats and causes worry, it is worth exploring further. 

“You might want to do so with a dreamwork therapist so that you can gain the insight and growth that your unconsciousness holds for you.”

Psychologist and author Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari has worked as a therapist for over 20 years, specialising in child development and mental health – which means she’s particularly adept at understanding the unconscious mind. She has a Master’s degree in Social Work, focusing on Clinical Child Development, and a Doctorate in Psychology from the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at the University of London. 

She has written two very successful parenting books and teaches a parenting programme at her clinic in Hampstead, London. Her expert comment and advice on mental health, fear, anxiety, and relationships is regularly featured in the UK press, and she recently launched a brand new online community, Get The Village.

You can follow her on Instagram at @Dr_Kalanit.

Images: Ami O’Callaghan/Belle PR/Getty

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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