What Does It Mean When You Dream You Haven't Studied for a Big Test?

It's one of the most common recurring nightmares we have. Dreaming about being unprepared for—or sometimes missing an exam—is a familiar experience, even for those of us who have not been students for many years.

In a survey of 2,000 Americans, mattress and bedding company Amerisleep found that dreaming about being unprepared for a test or important event was the fourth most common recurring dream in the U.S., experienced by 34 percent of survey participants.

The only dreams that were more common, according to the survey, were ones in which the sleeper was falling, being chased or was back in school.

This dream is often characterized by its painstaking, terror-inducing detail: the sleeper is facing an exam for a course they forgot they were taking and have never attended; the dreamer forgot the location of the classroom or never knew it to begin with; the dreamer is prevented from reaching the test location, sometimes by actual physical boundaries.

In rarer cases, the subject of the dream might be another event for which the dreamer is unprepared, such as a wedding for which they have forgotten to invite any guests.

The dreams often wake sleepers up with pounding hearts, even if there is no obvious tension in their current lives. But what causes this particular dream scenario?

school exam
Stock image of a woman taking an exam. Being unprepared for an exam is one of the most common recurring dreams. Getty Images

Dream expert and author Delphi Ellis told Newsweek that recurring dreams are important because they reflect patterns of emotions.

"The best thing is to keep a dream diary," she says. "You can start to spot patterns in your dreams." Although the idea of being unprepared for an exam is enough to provoke panic in many of those who have this dream repeatedly, Ellis says she views all dreams as potentially positive—even nightmares.

Interpreting a lack of preparedness

Exam dreams are most clearly connected to stress, Ellis said. The dream can be a reflection of the stress that the person was feeling in their past, when they were taking exams, and the stress imprints on the mind so that the next time they are feeling stress, their dream takes them back to that same moment.

The exam dream is a particularly common one for people who work to deadlines or those who are under significant pressure, she added. They may feel that they are not prepared for the level of pressure they are feeling, and this can be a catalyst for a dream in which they are chronically unprepared.

Any major life experience can be a precursor for the dream, from a change in job to a bereavement, and keeping a dream diary can make it easier to determine what pressures might be provoking its recurrence.

"Dreaming about school is often about reflecting on going through a learning experience," Ellis says. "School is a metaphor for learning, so if something happens that you have learned from, you might dream that you were back at school." Exam dreams have been especially common during the pandemic, she said, noting that repeated lockdowns afforded people time to learn more about themselves.

Man awakens from bad dream
"All dreams are trying to tell us something," dream expert and author Delphi Ellis said. Getty

Other interpretations of the exam dream, according to a Psychology Today article reviewing professional literature and personal accounts, include a reflection of responsibility, duty or choice that the dreamer is hesitant to complete; a lack of confidence relating to a change involving the end of something; or a reminder to take a more active role in one's destiny.

"Dreams have the possibility of creating an awareness of what is lying underneath," Ellis said. "All dreams are trying to tell us something. It's just about whether we take notice."