4 Reasons You Keep Dreaming You’re Back in School Taking a Test

It might be because you’re anxious, but there may also be another explanation no one talks about
4 Reasons You Keep Dreaming You’re Back in School Taking a Test

You’re asleep and dreaming. In the dream, you’re a kid in school again, and there’s a surprise test, one you didn’t study for. Surveys say this is one of the most common recurring dreams people have. It’s an example of what’s called an “anxiety dream.” You’re anxious about something in real life, like everyone is, and this comes back to you when you sleep in the form of some stressful scenario. If you want an official explanation for why so many of us dream of tests, that’s the best you’re going to get.

But that’s not such a satisfying explanation. If you’re anxious about real issues you face as an adult, why doesn’t your anxiety manifest as dreams about those, rather than this situation from childhood you’ll never experience again? Why aren’t you dreaming about an axe murderer breaking into your home? Axe murderers killed two people on your street this week; this issue deserves more consideration. 

woman with axe

Florian Olivo/Unsplash

Sure, you dream of Axe Max sometimes, but you dream of tests more. Why?

Plus, you may have this recurring test dream even if, as a child, you were a good student who never showed up for tests unprepared. And if you weren’t a good student, well, there’s a fair chance you didn’t care how you did on tests so you never found them stressful in the first place. Either way, high-stakes tests probably never took you by surprise. A terrifying surprise test is something you’ll never experience again and may have never experienced before, and yet your subconscious seems obsessed with it. 

Let’s throw out some ideas and see if we can figure out what’s going on here. 

You’re Rationally Processing the Dreamworld’s Randomness

Dreams toss you into random settings drawn from your memories and imagination. You’ll dream you’re at work, then this will transition to your hometown followed by being stranded on an island with an uncle who died decades ago. Usually, you’ll accept this absurdness without questioning it. Occasionally, you won’t. You remember Uncle Bob died, and you say, “What are you doing here? This is weird.”

man on beach

Jakob Owens/Unsplash

“I faked my death,” he’ll say, as the dream reasserts itself. 

Suppose you dream you’re at some strange restaurant. You may dream you’re missing your wallet, but you probably won’t, because you carry a wallet with you every day, and this will translate to the dream. But then your dream places you in school, and when you sit down at a desk, your mind doesn’t generate a textbook and a binder because this isn’t stuff you regularly carry. You now try to reconcile this setting with how (though your persona in this dream doesn’t know it) you in the real world aren’t a student and aren’t equipped for anything this class offers. You conclude that you have arrived unprepared for this specific test.

Reconciling nonsense may also explain another common anxiety dream — showing up to work (or school) naked. In this dream, your clothes aren’t suddenly stripped from you. You simply wander around nude or in your underwear, quite comfortable with this until you gradually realize you’re underdressed. Your brain picked the setting at random and picked your wardrobe at random, dressing you in a manner you’re thoroughly familiar with from your private time at home. You aren’t anxious at all in this dream, until rationality creeps in and you question the incongruity of the elements the dream mashed together. 

Your Memories Are Most Defined by Being Around Others

So, anytime you dream you’re at school, you might end up panicking over a surprise test (or might walk around in holey underpants). But why do you keep dreaming you’re at school so much? That stat we mentioned earlier, which said a surprise test is among the four most recurring dreams, put “just being back in school” in the top three. Why do our minds keep going there? Did we peak in high school?

throwing graduation caps

Vasily Koloda/Unsplash

No. Even if you were cool then and boring now, you advanced since then. 

There’s a fairly obvious explanation here regarding how those were your formative years and left the strongest mark on you. You experienced a lot of firsts while in school, and you perceived everything in a heightened fashion. But there may also be something broader at play about the sort of experiences we register as part of ourselves.

What proportion of your day do you spend staring at a phone or computer? A considerable amount, surely — maybe even the majority of it. Now, what proportion of your dreams consist of you looking at a screen? Not a whole lot, and many people report that they never dream of that at all. While awake, they may look at an app so much that they see the afterimage of its interface every time they blink, but their dreams don’t feature themselves looking at a screen of any kind. For many people (though not everyone), it seems like this: Your brain won’t register your time alone staring at a rectangle as a memory to draw upon for your nightly adventures. 

scrolling phone

Marten Bjork/Unsplash

A dreamer will open a maps app when lost but will never just scroll their feed.

Now think back to sometime when you lived alone, in a studio apartment or in a single in a college dorm. How often does your dream place you in that setting? Likely never. You might have lived in an apartment alone for years as an adult and never dream of that place but will dream time and again of a different apartment you shared with someone for six months. 

The more we interact with others, the more deeply those memories sear into our skull. You dream about work, about parties you’ve been to, about airports. And school was probably the time in your life when you interacted with the most people. You maintained scores of relationships and said hi to all those people every single day. Some people grow up to have even wider social circles, but many never do. Because you were around so many people you knew every day, your mind registered that setting as the most real. And now, any time your sleeping brain puts you among a crowd of people, school seems like a logical place to transition that dream into. 

The Test Represents a Real Test You’re Facing

Dream symbolism sounds like quackery. “Dream of a ladder, and that means you’ll soon ascend in life” is nonsense. Dreams don’t have the ability to predict the future. 


Finn Mund/Unsplash

Only the entrails of a chicken can do that.

But dreams may reflect your waking thoughts, in a non-literal manner. Respected authorities say so. So, along with that general idea that you dream of anxiety because you’re anxious, let’s mention the theory that you dream of taking a test because you expect you’re going to be evaluated. 

The dream test, says this theory, may also reflect some real decision or choice you are facing. In an alternate world, maybe our dreams would express that by sticking us all at literal crossroads. Except, we don’t dream that — or dream of driving at all — because your brain goes on autopilot when you drive alone, much like when you scroll. It never registers that as a real setting worth saving in the memory bank. 

You Genuinely Would Fail School Tests Now, and You’re Ashamed of That

There was a time when you thought “Augusta is the capital of Maine” was one of the 50 most important facts to know. In the years since, you’ve never been to Augusta, though you were sure you would have gone there eventually. What’s more, you’ve never once heard of Augusta since you were a kid, or thought of Augusta. 

There was a time, if you studied science, when you knew what Millon’s reagent is. You could draw diagrams of what happens when it reacts with different compounds. Today, you have no memory of this, and you strongly suspect we just made it up to prove a point.

chemistry lab

Diane Serik/Unsplash

Unless it makes meth, it’s of no use to you now.

Like we said earlier, you’re never again going to take a test in school unprepared, and maybe you never had to do it before either. But if you march into your old school right now and take a test on stuff you once knew, you’ll find yourself struggling to fill that paper out. 

You’d do great on some subjects. You put your old self to shame in English — that goes for not just the handful of our readers who became writers, but for anyone who turned into an adult who communicates, which is all of you. You also know about whatever subject you made your career, and you know enough assorted facts that you could correct your teachers on various matters, making them hate you. But you’ve forgotten some stuff. You realized this at some point (maybe the first time you dreamed of taking a test), and it’s haunted you ever since. 

Siege of Yorktown

John Trumbull

Was the Battle of Yorktown in October or November? You knew this. 

You know more than you did about everything that matters, but you may feel sad that you’ve forgotten anything at all. It tells you that, one day, you may even forget everything you know now. This plagues your dreams. 

It’s almost enough to make you want to dig up some old textbooks, or take a trip to Bismarck, South Dakota. Or is it Bismarck, North Dakota? 

Sorry, we can no longer remember what the capital of South Dakota really is, and there is no way for us to find out that answer now. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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