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Margin Notes

Exams that haunt us still

The anxiety-inducing “exam dream” is the second most common dream scenario.


For many years, I had a recurring dream. The details would vary somewhat, but the gist was always the same: I’m at university, it is the end of semester and I realize there is a course that I have utterly forsaken. I have not attended the class for weeks and can not even remember where it is held. There is also a lengthy term paper due that I have not started, and the final exam is just around the corner! Panic ensues.

With relief, I awake and realize – again – that it is just a dream. While this hasn’t happened recently, it did continue to occur for nearly 20 years after I finished university. How strange.

Well, I have just learned that I am not alone – far from it. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), what I have been experiencing is a variation on the “exam dream,” which is apparently the second-most common dream scenario among Americans (and, presumably, Canadians). The article reports:

Odds are you’ve had some version of it, too. In this nation of tests, few dreams are so familiar, recurring long after we put away our No. 2 pencils and textbooks. For many of us, the exam dream is an albatross gliding evermore over the dark seas of sleep, calling us back to long ago.

The article quotes various academics describing their own exam dreams. The version experienced by William Durden, president of Dickinson College, is quite similar to my own: he “sometimes dreams that he’s an anxious student who’s forgotten to write a paper. He must finish the assignment to graduate, but he cannot …”

Coincidentally, just a few days ago, I mentioned my old recurring dream to one of my nephews, who’s in his second year at university in Ottawa. He has a couple term papers due in the next few weeks, and final exams are just around the corner. I asked him if he’s had a similar dream scenario. No, he said. Perhaps his answer might more correctly have been, not yet.

Tell us, what is your version of the exam dream?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Library Dude / March 22, 2011 at 10:34

    In my recurring exam dream, I show up for the final exam only to realize that I’ve failed to attend a single class all semester. Cold sweats ensue. I still have this dream despite the fact that it’s been nearly 20 years since I wrote my last university exam.

  2. While I haven’t been out of school for that long (only 8 years), I still have recurring dreams where I am in school and suddenly realize I have an assignment due (we didn’t have too many exams in my Journalism program) and I haven’t done anything. Not a single word has been written, no research. Nada. I start to panic at the thought of getting an F.

    When I wake up, I still panic for about 1-2 minutes before realizing I don’t go to school anymore, and I don’t have an assignment due. It almost feels like a cruel joke, and puts me in a frazzled state until I get to the office….

  3. Honourary Nerd / March 22, 2011 at 19:02

    I can relate with a similar theme. In my nightmare of an exam dream, I’m minding my own business, carrying on with my normal, day-to-day tasks. I’m placidly unaware. When suddenly, to my horror, I realize I’m late for that all important exam!

    My boyfriend teases me about this, but he doesn’t suffer from it, so how would he know? Good to know I’m not the only one!

  4. Gary / March 23, 2011 at 18:36

    Perhaps I’m fortunate that my exam dream has been updated. I still awaken, sure I’ve forgotten to show up for the exam, but in my dream I’m aware I’m the prof.

  5. Melonie / March 24, 2011 at 09:36

    I once had a dream that my adviser was telling me I couldn’t graduate. That one stands out, though I can’t remember ever having one about an exam or assignment specifically. I’ve had the parallel “stress dreams” though, the ones where I’m at the airport and can’t find my flight (travel stresses me out more than exams) or where I need to call/reach someone and I keep dialling the number the wrong way, over and over.

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